Schools play an important part in shaping our character and building our little circle of friends.

THOUSANDS more Malaysian children entered the formal education system last week, and as I went through the usual press reports — both in print and on television — of their first day in school, my thoughts flew back to mine, some 51 years ago, at Standard One White, an afternoon session at the then Government English Primary School in Port Dickson.

It was a wonderful school, with casuarina trees lining the perimeter of its field and the sea just outside its fencing. On windy afternoons, the sea breeze blowing against the needle-like casuarina leaves made a soft soothing sound.

The first lesson from our Mrs Goh was to learn what to say to her when we wanted to excuse ourselves to visit the washroom and our first day at school ended with singing an English nursery rhyme which goes, “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream”. Soon after, the bell rang and I made a quick dash for an “ice ball” stall just outside the gate, my elder brother hurrying close behind.

That was the first day of the moulding of our future, and probably that of the nation as well. Being the first time with total strangers, many cried quietly and others wailed with tears streaming down their cheeks.

We went through the system thereafter, learnt how to read, write, count, write in cursive with a pencil, later on with a pen, learnt Bahasa Melayu, English, religious knowledge, mathematics, science, geography, history and the arts.

Along the way, I met and became friends with people with what were then common Malay names including Zulkifli, Razif, Malek and others with very different ones like Choi, Wong, Mary, Simurthy, Pakrisamy, Jude, Sukhdev and one English girl by the name of Michelle, daughter of one of the last serving British soldiers at the garrison where I grew up in. From our friendship, I learned what Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Thaipusam, Vaisakhi and Christmas were all about, and they, in turn, learned a thing or two about Hari Raya from me.

Most, later, went for tertiary education, became engineers, teachers, business people, accountants, bankers, preachers and doctors while a close friend made it to the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy and served King and country. I ended up in the newsroom.

While memories of the likes of Mrs Goh may be fading in what is now our afternoon years, and while not many of us are still endowed with the sharp capability to solve those dreaded differentiation dy/dx equation required of us during our additional mathematics class in the upper secondary school days, much of the lessons that were not too obvious then did creep in as we ventured along through the years.

That we were required to be in class when the bell rang, taught us to be punctual. That we were required to be in school uniforms meant that everybody was equal and that we ourselves were sometimes asked to pick up rubbish and pull out weeds in the school field and keep our classrooms tidy taught us collective responsibility in keeping our surroundings clean.

The annual school sports day, usually attended to by almost the entire Port Dickson town, brought out the competitive spirit in all of us, taught us the importance of training, the required winning attitude and to be gracious in accepting defeats.

The friendships remain to this day and while a few have left on their journey of no return, we still find plenty of joy communicating with those who are still around. How could we not, when we shared much of our formative years together.

Looking back, it is hard not to say that the school played a significant role in shaping our characters and building our little circles of friendship, which by extension could well shape our society and nation itself.

Our schools cannot abandon this important role, especially in a multiracial society like ours. While our education system seeks to produced a knowledgeable society through academic lessons, it must also build one that is disciplined and with values while also being one that erects bridges between the various races, ultimately to also forge a united Malaysia.

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The writer is Media Prima Bhd’s news and editorial operations executive director