I teach in a school where all, except two, of the students are Malays. As a result, they are hardly aware of the existence of other races. It doesn’t help that I have a name like Cheryl Ann Fernando. “Adik Fernando Torres ke? Cikgu orang apa?” were the most common questions when I first started teaching.
My students find it hard to comprehend how I can be Indian and Christian at the same time. When I mentioned once how I was going to the church, they stared at me in silence. “Gereja tahu tak?” I asked. “Tak tahu la teacher!”
So, for the next ten minutes, I did a mini lesson on places of worship. The next week, I showed them pictures of the different races, their traditional costumes, places of worship and celebrations. I explained to my students how race is different from religion.
A few weeks later, when I asked them who won a competition, they said, “Sekolah yang banyak orang Hindu tu cikgu”. Hindu? I then realised that my students referred to Indians as ‘orang Hindu’. Again, I explained clearly the difference. My religion is Christian, my race is Indian and I’m a Malaysian, I told them repeatedly. They looked at me skeptically, “Okay, kalau macam tu, cakap sikit bahasa orang Kristian dan esok pakai baju orang Kristian,” said my 13 year olds. It took great strength not to laugh. Again, we went through another round of explanation.
I had a mini lesson with my students on the derogatory terms they often use to refer to Indians and Chinese. I made it clear that we do not hurt others with words, be it people of your own race or anyone else. I echoed the words of another fellow teacher and reminded my students that people are really divided into two types, the good and the bad. It is up to them to decide what they want to be. I also told them how we all share something very special – citizenship in this country. That is why, although I am an Indian, I still teach in this school because I know I am teaching the children of Malaysia. They listened quietly.
We went on a school trip recently with students from other schools. Before the trip, I warned my students to be respectful of other races. I gave them the simple logic of how if they liked me, then they would like any other Indian person out there. The same goes with a Chinese person, I said, referring to the other teacher who was the only Chinese person in school. Towards the end of the trip, I was shocked to see my Abdullah walk side by side with Sharvin. “Abdullah ada kawan baru?” I asked. “Ye teacher. Nama dia..Kevin..eh, tidak..Sharvin,” he answered and walked away happily.
After the trip, I did a little reflection with my students and they all said how surprised they were at how friendly the Indian and Chinese students were. They were excited with their new friendships and told the rest of the school what a wonderful trip it was. “Walaupun mereka main lagu Hindu..oh sorry, lagu India dalam bas..kita masih gembira”, said Nabil.
I am not going to end this article with a ‘could have, would have, should have’ lecture on our education system. But, I will tell you that nation building starts in our classrooms. It starts in our schools. We need to educate our students and help them understand the different races in our country and then move forward to see beyond it. We need to stop talking about the problems and start teaching. Only then will we see the difference.
* Cheryl Ann Fernando is a teacher.