An open letter to my ex-primary school

I wrote a longer, more detailed version of this letter on my personal journal mainly as a form of catharsis – letting go of my anger and sorrow. Many of my friends were personally touched by the letter and asked me to publish it publicly to make Malaysians aware of the very real effects of racism and bullying in schools, especially from teachers.

The following is an edited version of the original letter. I’ve removed names and some other details. It’s currently under moderation at The Star’s Citizen Blog, and I’m considering posting it to MalaysiaKini and The Sun. I wanted to post it on The Star’s R.AGE Blog but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to post there.

Recently I read the case of Alex Barton, a 5-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was voted out by his classmates when urged on by their teacher. This case shocked me, not only because it happened at all, but because he is not the only one to have suffered such injustice and humiliation from people in authority – people who should have protected him, who should have known better.

When I was in your school, from December 1991 till late in 1997, I could have been that boy.

My first three years there were all right. My mother used to tell me stories of how I bawled when she tried to take me out to lunch on my first day of school because I thought I was never going to return. I made friends with people of all sorts of names, backgrounds, interests. I did quite well at school, enjoyed learning, and bonded with my English teachers. For those first three years, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my constant answer was “Teacher”.

In Std 4, we were all shifted to the morning session, and placed in classes according to our academic ability. I was placed in the “best class”. While the first year was challenging, with a whole new set of classmates, I managed fine. The next year, however, was trouble.

In 1995, the year I was in Std 5 and turned 11, there were quite a number of Bangladeshi migrants coming to Malaysia to work. It was mainly factory and construction work – hard labour that no one else wanted to do. Around this time, all the major papers would have front page stories of Bangladeshis stealing, raping, kidnapping.

It didn’t matter if they were true; it didn’t matter if they were from another race (because only Bangladeshi and Indonesian criminals would have their races mentioned in the press), it didn’t matter that the criminals were an extremely small percentage of the general Bangladeshi population in Malaysia. Because according to you, teachers of the school, all Bangladeshis were the same – including me.

Every other day, one of you teachers would come up to me and quiz me on some new front page article.

“Hey Tiara, I heard a Bangla robbed a bank this morning. What do you think about that?”
“Hey Tiara, all these Banglas are stealing our women.”
“Hey Tiara, why are you Banglas so disgusting and dirty? Get out of here!”

The students, all 12 or under, never learnt that this was wrong; they saw you do it, so they did it too. If I protested, you would tell me to “get a thicker skin” because you were “only talking”. You even bragged to my elder sister, an alumnus of your school, about what a great joke it was telling me to “go back to your country” (despite me being born & raised in Johor).

There were lots more: the bullies that physically attacked me (in a girls’ school!), the harsh comments on my art skills, the jokes about my character.

You did nothing to make things better. Instead, you encouraged the trouble. You showed the students that it was OK to make fun of someone who was different – especially someone who was different but was doing better than you. Whenever I won a school competition or scored well in exams, instead of being proud, you would ask the others “how can an outsider do better than you?”.

All the hassle and trouble affected my ability to concentrate in school. I couldn’t find the motivation to do schoolwork, and always came home angry. You demoted me two classes down – a class whose head teacher was the biggest racist of the school. I did not know how to treat my new classmates, whom I wasn’t sure I could trust, and ended up being quite messed-up and strange.

At one point I tried to kill myself in the prayer room with a blunt scissor blade on my throat. No one tried to help; all that was said was “you’d go to Hell”. I’m only alive because I chickened out.

Suicide should never be an option for a child!

I couldn’t tell anyone, not my parents, not my foreign-based sister, not my (now) nonexistent friends – who would listen? It would only make things worse.

The last straw was in my final year, when you decided to hold an award for Best English Skills. Everyone in the school knew that I was the best in English hands down. I aced every exam, every spelling test, every English competition. But I didn’t even make the Top 10 of your list, because I was not in the right class – or was that because I was not of the right race?

I am still working past the issues I faced in your hell. I am still dealing with my dysfunctional attitudes towards trust, relationships, friendships. It was not until very recently that I began to accept the idea of having friends, and now I have at least three that I would call my best friends. I am still accepting my artistic interests, trying not to be like the demonic critic you were when you coldly told me (more than once) that my art was worthless. I am trying to reconcile my childhood dreams of educating with the harsh realities, concentrating on supporting student welfare.

But I am healing. And I refuse to let a terrible situation stop me from growing.

Because I was mocked, disrespected, and harassed for my race, I now make it a point to be accepting of people from all backgrounds – standing up against racism and discrimination, advocating for diversity and multiculturalism, bringing people together.

Because I saw first-hand how student welfare went out of the window in your school in your quest to remain the “premier” primary school in the state, I work endlessly to ensure that students are respected and cared for in schools nowadays, and give them support when no one else will.

Because I saw how terrible educators can be, I am working on being a better educator, even if not directly as a teacher.

I only wish that I had learnt all of those positive things directly from your actions, instead of in spite of them.

I have long forgiven my friends, and myself, for the mistakes we made in the past. They did not have many positive role models and did not know better. For you though? I’m not sure I can ever forgive you.

I shudder to think of how your current students must be faring. My supportive teachers are no longer in your faculty list, and neither is my biggest tormentor. But many other teachers that allowed this to happen, joined in the prejudice, joined in the neglect, are still there – including the headmistress.

Have you learnt anything at all from this debacle? Do you care about your students at all? Are you more tolerant?

Have things changed? Or have they just stayed the same?

Sincerely,
Tiara Shafiq
1991/1992-1997

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