by Cheryl Ann Fernando
There’s a photo on my desk that draws a lot of attention from my students. For me, it was a photo with my best friends Dayana and Pik Kay. For them, it was the strangest picture they have ever seen. What is an Indian and Chinese girl doing in a mosque with a headscarf? I would watch them in amusement before explaining that we were at Dayana’s wedding hence the reason for headscarves. They would bring more friends to look at that picture and eventually, the whole school knew I wore a headscarf to Dayana’s wedding.
It was then that I realised the things I took for granted, like tolerance and respect towards another religion, didn’t come so easily for my students. To them, the concept of unity meant a picture in their textbook of a Malay girl in baju kurung, Chinese girl in cheongsam and an Indian girl in a saree, all smiling and looking happy. They could tell me all the clichés like ‘hidup bersatu padu’ and ‘hormat agama lain’ but I had a nagging suspicion that they never really understood these ideas.
Then one day, as we were in the middle of extra classes, my student looked at me and said, “Teacher, awak ni orang Kristian yang baik.” I didn’t want to probe her further on what she meant but it was then that I realised, that besides just English, I needed to teach them something more.
In small ways, I consciously displayed my understanding towards their religion. I didn’t know much, but I was willing to learn. I made an effort to know their prayer times so that our extra classes would end in time for them to pray. Whenever I wanted to correct a wrong behaviour, I would ask my Muslim friends about the right way to do it. My students wanted to recite their doa before an exam and I gladly told them to do so. My kids were often amazed and amused whenever I asked them if something they were doing ‘membawa berkat atau tidak’?
During the month of Ramadan, my fellow teacher, Constance Yuen and I took some boys out for a buka puasa dinner. At a fast food eatery, we were the centre of attention. Everyone stopped to look and try to make sense of an Indian and Chinese girl, breaking fast with a group of Malay boys. When the boys prayed before their meal, everyone stared at us. It felt like a feel-good Hari Raya advertisement but we knew it was more than that.
Towards the end of the year, my students asked Constance and me to pray for them before their exams. “Tolong teacher, halalkan ilmu kita’, they said to us. I was happy to go from ‘Teacher Kristian yang baik’ to just ‘Teacher yang baik’. I knew, I still had a long way to go before they grasp the idea of unity, but this is a start, a good start.
As my first year of teaching draws to an end, I realised that knowing so much about another religion has not made me lesser in my own faith. But, it has made me a better teacher. Displaying understanding and tolerance has allowed me to eradicate the invisible boundaries they once had because of my race and religion and be more open towards me. I do not blame my students for their lack of understanding or respect towards other religions, but I would blame myself if they left me still not knowing these things. – November 12, 2013.
* The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the columnist and this article first appeared in The Malaysian Insider