Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Year I Was School Captain

Three days ago, I uploaded this photo of my BBGS prefect badges on Facebook and watched in amazement as it triggered almost 300 "Likes" and many comments expressing sentiments of fear, terror and even hate! Some kinder souls used the word "legend".  This was all in response to the year 1989, when I served as School Captain, otherwise known as Head Prefect in other schools.

I am well aware that my reputation as a garang (fierce), no-nonsense School Captain became my identity in BBGS and lasted for decades beyond that.

But not many people know that I did not want to be School Captain.  In fact, I didn't even want to return to BBGS for Form Six.  I had no other choice.

This is the first time I'm sharing the story of what really happened in 1989 - The Year I Was School Captain.

Family Finances

My dad lost his job in 1986, when I was in Form Four.  That spelt the end of my dreams of attending private college after SPM.  I watched in envy as my friends registered for Year 12 at Taylor's and A Levels at Prime College, with plans for further education abroad.  That was no longer an option for me.  If I wanted a degree, it would have to be from a local university in Malaysia.  That meant facing the dreaded STPM exams and competing for entry on the race-based quota system.

In order to make ends meet, my dad started a business supplying barbecued seafood to supermarkets and every family member chipped in to help.  It was very hard work.  My dad drove to Selayang wholesale market at 3am every morning to buy seafood supplies, with only a few hours' sleep after closing our outlets at midnight.  There was always the fear of near-miss accidents on the road if he was too tired and fell asleep at the wheel.  

My mother was a super-hero who held down three jobs.  She taught in school during the day, came home to help my dad prepare supplies for the next day, and continued giving private tuition at night to supplement our family income. 

My sister Julie and I also did our share of physical labour.  At the end of the school day, we would drop our bags, change out of our uniforms, eat lunch quickly before starting to clean and prepare hundreds of kilograms of seafood for the business.  Once all the supplies were packed in the late evening, we would start our homework and get ready for school the next day.

That was our routine day in, day out.  Seven days a week.  Even on public holidays.

Some of my classmates knew about our changed circumstances and reacted in different ways.  One kind friend lent me her SPM revision notes and books so I didn't have to buy any. Another less-sensitive soul asked me if I bothered showering after cleaning all that sotong (squid)!

Academic Excellence

I had always been a good student up till that point.  However with the family pressures and making the unfortunate choice of entering the Science Stream, which was not my forte, my grades suffered. I failed miserably at Add Maths and Physics, which dealt a huge blow to my self-confidence.  My SPM results did not live up to many people's expectations.  I remember sitting dejectedly in Miss Yeap's office the day the results were released.  She shut her office door, pulled out a box of tissues and gave me a big hug.  That simple gesture opened a floodgate of tears.  I have never wept so hard in my life.  Miss Yeap cried too.

After the tears subsided, she advised me to switch to the Arts Stream for STPM, and offered to petition the Ministry of Education for my transfer to BBGS.  This meant I had a lot of catching up to do especially in subjects like History, English Literature and Accounting, which I had not covered in the Science Stream.  I was determined to focus on my studies, without the distraction of extra-curriulur activities.  

Upon my return to BBGS in Form Six, I did not even want to be a prefect, let alone School Captain.  When I was elected for the leadership role at the end of 1988, it was Miss Yeap who persuaded me to take it up.  But, I had to get my father's permission first.  

After a long discussion, he agreed to put me on a 3-month probation as School Captain on two conditions:
1) That I top the class in Upper Six for term exams.  Second place was not an option.
2) That I continue to help him with the family business operations, as well as taking on the added responsibility of book-keeping.

My father made me draw up and sign a contract, which was pinned up on the wall in front of my study desk throughout 1989.

Personal Insecurities

I was an overweight, pimple-faced teenage girl surrounded by pretty girls half my size.  That did nothing for my self-image and added tremendously to the insecurities of adolescence.

The only thing that made me feel good about myself during those years was the power and authority that came from being a school prefect.  And so when the opportunity to become School Captain came along, I responded the only way I knew how.  With an iron fist.  I got the job done by putting on a stern demeanour and ensuring that everyone followed the rules strictly.  That did not make me the most popular girl in school.  

While I was protected from negative sentiments by my position, my poor sister Julie was not so fortunate.  She often became the target of insults and brickbats from resentful girls who could not "touch" me.  Fortunately, she formed a close bond with a handful of friends who shielded her from much unkindness.

The year 1989 went by very quickly.  I studied hard while serving my term as School Captain, and continued to help my father run the family business.  I emerged top STPM student in BBGS that year, went on to study Economics at University of Malaya and graduated with first class honours.  That led to a British Council scholarship for an MBA in England, and an international career in HR strategy and consulting.

I am forever grateful to my parents for working so hard to ensure that I received a good education, and for loving and supporting me in difficult times.  To my sister Julie for the courage to live as "Joanna Yeoh's sister" and going on to become a success in her own right.  To my teachers, especially Miss Yeap, for her compassion, encouragement and love.

And so dear friends, 1989 was indeed a watershed year in my life.  

It was not only the year I was School Captain.  

It was the year I grew up and became an adult.


kiku said...

I am so proud of you..Joanna. I used to hate you a lot for writing me up since first grade.
Please accept my apologies. Many love and peace from me Lai Sau Kook.
P/s ...if you can still remember me.

Gaik Chin said...

Great inspiring story.My husband also has similar challenges like you switching from science to art stream.He is also an economics graduate from Universiti Malaya.Both my husband and I also took STPM since our parents cannot afford to send us abroad for tertiary education.