Citizen Nades - To Sir, with love

THEY were from the backwaters of Kelantan – Hulu Kelantan or Kuala Krai, to be exact. They were enrolled in Sekolah Kebangsaan Yahya Petra II. By their own admission, they were not exactly smart kids. They went to school because their parents forced them.

Lessons were a bore and carrying books soon became a chore. But all that changed when a new headmaster came to the school. Last Saturday, some of them turned up in their flannels to play the ultimate orang putih game – cricket.

After the game, speaking in not so perfect English (and after getting a mini-lecture on pronunciation) one of the students paid the ultimate tribute to the headmaster, who has since retired.

The motley crowd of cricketers – past and present – listened in awe as the captain spoke in a tribute match to the headmaster against the Royal Selangor Club. The players had also brought their wives and children to meet the man who made them what they are today.

"I am Saiful Hawari Hussein. I am standing here because of cricket. And cricket came to Kelantan because of Mr Jerome Fernandez, our headmaster.

"We were in Year Five and Six in 1995 when he came and introduced cricket. It was called Kriket Kancil. We had never watched a game before and when he said he wanted to start a cricket club in our school, we all said: 'OK, Sir' not knowing what the OK was about.

"Many of us wanted to play cricket because we were not good in our studies. Being the headmaster, he too knew that we preferred to hold a bat than carry books. So, when lessons were boring, especially Maths and English, he would come to class and say; 'Boys, you can go and play cricket now.' We liked this headmaster."

There were strict rules when it came to the game. At practice and pre-game discussions, the boys could only speak to each other in English. Their incomprehensible Kelantanese dialect had to be disregarded and discarded. Therefore, it was only a matter of time when their language skills improved. That was not all.

Hawari continued: "Mr Fernandez never highlighted our weaknesses in our studies. He always encouraged us. After every match, he would do a post-mortem and at the end, it would be time for our maghrib prayers. He will ask one of us to be the imam and lead the prayers. He would stay there until we finish the prayers.

"Those who did not play the role of the imam well would get a tongue lashing from him. So we not only had to practise cricket but also practise to be a good imam!"

The school represented Kelantan and played in their inter-state schools competition where they caught the eye of the crowd because of their off-the-field conversations in "lagat Kelante!"

Three of them were selected to do their secondary studies at the Bukit Jalil Sports School and two of them went on to play cricket for the country.

Jerome told the crowd that he wanted to do "something for the boys" who had been deemed as "no hopers". And when the state education authorities asked him to start a cricket team, it was time to give the boys an opportunity to excel.

It was a strict regime that made the boys play the game, but to make them even better, he made the boys study the complicated rules of the game.

"They are well-versed. They can stand-in and umpire a game if needed," he says proudly of his charges.

With 44 teachers and 750 students under his charge, Fernandez, who trained as a teacher in Kota Baru and taught all his life in Kelantan understood the social and economic milieu and the need to change mind-sets.

"If you are not good in studies, you must be good at something. Cricket gave them an avenue to be good at that something," he said.

Fernandez left a legacy of sorts at the school by starting a nursery-cum-crèche in the school with funds from a state assemblyman whom he had previously taught.

Instead of teachers worrying about their children at home, they could walk to the crèche, and if needed, even breast-feed them. All that is history now, and having retired in 2001, all he can do is to wonder why it has been discontinued.

Former Malaysian cricketer Murali Nair, who played in the game, said: "It was nice to see the boys organising a game for their headmaster after almost 17 years. The fact that the captain and players made an effort to speak in English made it all the more meaningful for a teacher who spent his entire working life in the field of education."

Someone remarked at the post-match dinner: "They don't make teachers like Jerome anymore. These days, it is like a mass factory producing teachers with little passion of the profession and little time for the students."

Many couldn't agree more. We will never see the likes of V. Murugasu, K. Anandarajan, Lee Mun Yui, Gian Singh and many others who dedicated their working lives in wanting to "educate" rather than "teach".

They imparted skills with zeal and enthusiasm; instilled good values while maintaining discipline with no less than an iron fist. When can we get back to the good old days?

R. Nadeswaran is editor (special and investigative reporting) at theSun. Comments: citizen-nades@thesundaily.com