School life for me began on a cool early morning in January 1971. After a light breakfast of bread lightly toasted over the stove by my grandmother, spread with the SCS butter that my mother was fond of then, I dressed in the crisp white starched shirt and khaki shorts of my school uniform, sat on the sofa by the doorway to put the white socks and white shoes that seem to glow in the half light of dawn, and waited for my grandmother, who was to take me to the school bus pick up point. As I sat, a sense of anticipation, as well as a growing sense of trepidation came over me … it was for me, a journey into the unknown…
As I waited for the school bus at the foot of the block of flats, a light blue cardigan draped over me by my protective grandmother, I silently observed the many school children, dressed in different coloured uniforms, as they waited and then made their way down the staircase as their buses pulled up one by one. I was constantly on the look-out for a light blue minibus with the number 388 on the license plate. I suppose my grandmother would have brought me to the pick up point with a lot of time to spare, as I remember waiting for what seemed like an eternity before the minibus finally arrived.
The minibus delivered the small load of noisy schoolboys, four wide-eyed first years amongst them, to the drop-off point at school, greeted by the statue of the Archangel Michael killing the Serpent over a circular pond that served as a roundabout. I don’t seem to remember how we got to our classes, but when we did get to our classrooms, I do remember our teacher trying to introduce herself and organise our seating arrangements over the dissonance of cries and voices that punctured the air. In the midst of all that, one of my classmates proceeded to throw up right in the middle of the classroom, adding to the discord that prevailed over the chaotic start to my school life.
In the few weeks that followed, as the number of parents and grandparents that stood outside the classrooms which were on the ground floor started to thin, we got about our daily routine of assemblies, classes, recess time, and more classes before the morning session which I was attending, ended. The morning session would start with assembly, during which we would stand in our class groups lined up in twos, at the designated assembly points facing the school building in front of which a flag pole stood beyond a row of trees. The Pledge would be recited and the National Anthem sung as the Flag was raised, as we stood at attention. The row of trees, as I recall, had lots of green caterpillars dangling down from the low branches and very often, as we walked below them, we would find green caterpillars on the back of our shirts and sometimes in our hair. The last period of the day was what some of us look forward to as our class teacher, Mrs May Chua, would hold a mental maths quiz with pencils as prizes to those who were the first with the answers.
Early in the school year, I had to have my schoolbag replaced several times – something my parents remind me of from time to time. Schoolbags then were these boxy shaped cases constructed of cardboard, measuring about 35 cm wide, 25 cm high and 12 cm deep, with a tartan like patterned exterior. They were fitted with plastic handles, which some school children had sponges tied on (to make it less painful to carry the full heavy load of books), plastic corner protectors, and had a catch in the middle where the handle was. I had to have my bag replaced as there was this particularly mischievous boy, on the same school bus, who besides using my schoolbag as a seat, had on one occasion put the bag on the road right within sight of St. Michael, for a school bus to run over!