When I was in Form Two in High School Batu Pahat, I liked the English class most. It was taught by an American Peace Corps teacher, Duncan Catling. The Chinese students called him ‘ang mo’ meaning ‘red hair’. He was the first white person we saw. He was later given the nickname ‘langgar’ which in Malay means ‘to knock into’ as the Chinese are known to have a problem with the ‘d’ consonant. Mr. Catling was always literally knocking into someone as he walked by for he was always in a hurry.
He once issued my class an essay assignment entitled, ‘An autobiography of an ant’. The students were upset. They didn’t know what to do. “Think like an ant,” he said. And that was that. His comments on their essays were usually half a page long and they were always highly anticipated and appreciated.
He was a stickler for discipline. Once he brought a group of students to the beach. Before we left, he held a briefing to impress upon them the importance of the buddy system, which is simply that you move in pairs and your buddy is constantly with you.
In the sea my buddy and I were separated as I was playing with other friends. Langgar came screaming at me, his face contorted with fury, “Where is your buddy? Where is your buddy?” I was stunned by the outburst. Seeing the fright in my eyes, he calmly said, “Let’s look for Ah Ping”. We spotted him about 15 metres away playing with another pair. With me in hand, he waded toward Ah Ping and signaled him to go to the beach. He sat us down and told us “Did you know what you have done?”. We nodded our heads. “What are you supposed to have done?” he persisted. “To stick together,” Ah Ping and I answered in unison. "Yeah, like a leech," he insisted. Without a word he motioned us back to the sea.
The import of that outburst did not escape me. It was a lesson that I would remember all my life. I offered a silent prayer, “Mr. Duncan, wherever you are, we will always remember you”.
He was assigned as a basketball coach (no teacher in his right mind would touch the post). Langgar, who spotted a slight protruding belly, wasn’t an athletic person and his ball skills were rudimentary: he could only bounce the ball with his left hand (he was a leftie). He knew that the players had caught on to his deficiency. It was his attitude; he took it as a challenge. The school’s crowning achievements had always been in rugby, football, tennis, gymnastics and athletics. Basketball was a game popular among the Chinese and it was hardly a game that would excite the school’s multiracial community.
He put us through the paces, training from 3.00 pm to 6.00pm seven days a week, rain or shine. I suspected that he blew a hole in his pocket for after every session, there were Pepsi and cakes, a rare treat in those days, not a bucket of pipe water mixed with orange syrup. He kept telling the players that they were David and Chinese High School was Goliath which indeed it was and still is. They were going to slay Goliath. He said that his plan was simple; they had superior skills, but “we will grind them down and make them work for every basket”. The key, he said, was stamina and endurance.
The day before the game, he brought a set of new jerseys for the school’s jerseys were faded and hardly inspiring. Where he got them from was anybody’s guess, but they suspected that he had paid for them out of his own pocket. The jersey was black with bright yellow stripes running down vertically at the sides from the shirt to the shorts. The High School logo was emblazoned proudly across. It was, I enthused, "awesome".
Of course I never made it to the team; I was too short for the game. But I was allowed to tag along with the team as a supporter and a helper to the coach.
Insignificant events in one’s life can leave an indelible imprint that is to shape the future of one’s life, I philophized. Responsibility, that was what Langgar taught us; to take responsibility for one’s action. It was a lesson that has become the guiding principle in my life.
Photo : the imposing frontage of High School Batu Pahat from: http://www.batupahat.org/