A decision had to be made; it had to be fast. The letter that arrived that November morning was succinct.
It read:‘If we do not receive your reply within a week, your name will be struck off the list’
Weeks earlier another letter had arrived - a letter that would have been greeted with much joy by successful applicants. The letter informed the recipient that he had been offered a place at a Teachers’ Training College in England. Like the other successful applicants, his initial reaction too was one of excitement and jubilation. But his joy was short-lived. As memories from the past came flooding back and the reality of the situation dawned on him, his hope and dream collapsed like a house of cards. He sank into a dismal mood.
He remembered that day, long ago, when his father had passed away suddenly. His grieving mother, a homemaker, was left with the daunting task of raising eight school-going children. Untitled to any pension, except for a meagre gratuity, his mother had to eke out a living. The hardship she had to endure was beginning to take its toll on her health.
As soon as he and his brother had completed their secondary education, they quickly sought employment as their father’s gratuity money was fast depleting and they knew the little that they earned would go a long way in alleviating the family’s financial burden.
Now, as he stared at the letter, he realised that if he accepted the offer the family would have to rely mostly on his brother’s income and his brother would have to make a lot of personal sacrifices. Not wanting to add further anguish to his mother’s frail health, he kept the news to himself. The letter was neatly folded, slipped into the official brown envelope and stuck at the bottom of a cabinet drawer.
The unexpected arrival of the final reminder that November morning left him in a dilemma. Should he tell his mother about the offer? After debating the question in his mind he finally decided to inform her.
“Well, it’s up to you to decide,” she answered noncommittally.
She paused for a moment, lost in thought, and then continued, “Maybe, you should accept it.
You know your late father always wanted his children to acquire an overseas education. Perhaps, you’ll be able to fulfill his lifelong wish.”
They were encouraging words, but beneath the calm and brave front he noticed the pain and sadness in her eyes.
On a December morning in 1958, with his mother’s blessing, he joined 119 other students on board a flight to England.
|Boarding a plane|
With so much college work and social activities, there was little time for him to think about home. Occasionally, he would receive a postcard or an aerogram from home assuring him that everything was fine at home. However, on cold and dreary winter days as he sat by the window and gazed forlornly at the the winter birds pecking at the scraps of food on the frozen college ground he would be stricken with nostalgia and his thoughts would stray to his family.He wondered how they were faring in his absence.
|He gazed at the winter birds|
With the advent of spring, the winter blues were quickly wiped away and college life resumed with renewed vigour.
Summer found him vacationing in Europe with his new-found friends.
The years rolled by unnoticed and he found that his two years stay in England had come to an end. On his return to Malaya he was posted to a remote school. Although distance separated him from his family, the thought of being able to contribute something to the family’s coffer provided some consolation.
Forty nine years on.
On a stage, against a backdrop emblazoned with the words‘KIRKBY REUNION 2010' the college golden nightingales, the ‘Dreamgirls’, are belting out their opening number, ‘I have a dream’.
As the sentimental strains drift to the table where I am seated with my wife and old college friends, the song strikes a chord in my heart.
I sit in a quiet reverie and let my mind wanders to a morning in 1958 when I had to make a momentous decision in order to pursue a dream, a dream that was only made possible by the encouragement of a loving and understanding mother and the support and sacrifice of a brother. Although mother is no longer with us , to her and my elder brother I wish to say a big thank you for letting me have that dream.
By Wan Chwee Seng
Writer's notes: My sincere thanks to Lean Aing, Johnny, Ooi Tee and others who have taken the trouble to forward photos for this article.