During my initial schooling years, I would only see my teachers in school, but eventually, there was a period in my schooling where I moved into a school and my teachers played a parental role for me.
In my early teenage years, many would describe me as the quiet and shy person and the underdog. At 16, I moved 200 km away from Muar to Mersing, from the west to the east coast of Johor, to complete my SPM at Maktab Rendah Sains MARA (MRSM) Mersing.
The move came as a shock to many around me at the time, as this was a decision that they would least expect from me, even my parents.
I was yearning for more in my learning journey, as it was contained only to the narrow confines of examinations and class lessons. My parents had been supportive in my learning journey, and often gave my siblings and I the space, to the best of their ability, and the resources to explore different interests.
I discussed the decision with my parents after receiving the offer letter from MRSM. They knew in their hearts that God had opened this door for me to walk through, and we took the leap of faith.
Being away from home in a boarding school, the teachers were my parents and my classmates were my siblings. I adopted myself into this new school family quickly, from learning the salaams to keeping up with military-like regimented schedules.
Although we were of different ethnicities and cultures, some of my close buddies and I would call each other “abang, kakak or adik angkat” (adoptive brothers/sisters), and we would take care of each other like we would our own, and offer comfort to those who were homesick.
The school was a fertile ground of opportunities, with different departments and resources for students to take advantage of. I knew that I had to leave my comfort zone and challenge myself to go beyond.
Serendipitously, I participated in the renowned language week. Being the “newbie”, I was put on the English debate team.
“This house would ban smoking in public areas” was the motion of the house, and I was the Leader of the Opposition, in an Asian Parliamentary Debate format. My English teacher, Ms Hajar Said, explained that each speaker had 7 minutes to build the case.
My heart was racing as if I had run a 100 metre sprint. My hands were sweating, and the trembles were visible as I held my notes. Debating was challenging the quiet and shy nature that I had been carrying around.
Within 2 minutes, I rebutted the government side, put forward the opposition’s case and sat down in relief. Immediately after, I started blaming myself that I could have done better and that I was simply terrible. Clearly, we lost, as the case was not substantiated.
Ms Hajar pulled me aside right after the round, and she told me “Calvin, you have the potential and I know that you can do it!” and asked me to see her in her office after.
She asked me if I would be keen to train for the school’s debate team and to prepare for an upcoming National Inter-MRSM Debating Championship.
“Me?” I was baffled.
That moment became an inflection point for me. My teacher saw what I could be, and she went above and beyond her responsibility as a teacher. Like a mother, she nurtured the talent that she saw in me that I could not see in myself.
Ms Hajar was then transferred to another MRSM. But her legacy was continued by Ms Wan Zahirah, a new teacher who eventually became a “big sister” figure to us at school. Upon her return from New Zealand, she met our team and saw the potential in us.
My afternoons and evenings and weekends in school would be spent with my teacher and teammates, reading and discussing current issues, from politics, education inequality, racism, economic disparity, human rights issues and sometimes our teacher would help us circumvent the curfew when our conversations went beyond!
Ms Wan taught us to ask look at things from different directions and ask good questions. This sparked my interest in issues plaguing our society and helped me to develop my confidence in public speaking and analytical skills.
Beyond debating, she would share with us her experiences and life lessons; have deep and meaningful conversations; buy us KFC (for boarding school students, this is a luxury!). And she would be someone whom we could confide in.
Even though we were no champion team for Inter-MRSM Debating Competitions, we broke several records for MRSM Mersing, and we went on to represent Malaysia at an ASEAN level inter school debating tournament.
It was was not about winning tournaments. It was about learning to be advocates for issues we care about, and when we are thrust to the deep end, to shift the tide to work in our favour. Ms Wan helped me to see that and coached me to see a different side of myself.
A teacher is someone who sees who the student could be instead of who the student is not now. I’m grateful that God put teachers around me throughout my life who invested their time in me and gave me opportunities to challenge myself to go beyond.