Monday, 8 April 2013

Serangoon Garden South School with Kassim and Aminah

THE bits and pieces I can remember about Serangoon Garden South School which I attended in the 1960s are rather vivid. The first "bit" that comes to mind is the green "septic tank" next to the school. If you sit near the left hand side of the classroom facing the blackboard, this would be your view from the window. I am not quite sure whether "septic tank" is the right word to describe this structure that was painted pale green and looked like a house with no windows and doors. Probably "sewage plant" may be more appropriate. But those days, we just called them septic tanks. (Such plants were painted a pale green in Serangoon Gardens -- there was another one near the market, at the exit to Chartwell Drive which is now the Police Post.)

The jaga (watchman) probably stayed in a little room near this plant. I remember the charpoy that he slept on, which was under a shady jambu tree near the tank. There was a narrow grass verge and a wire fence separating the school from the septic tank. We didn't usually go there except to look for our pencil stubs that were thrown out by the teacher (because they got too short for a good grip to produce legible handwriting). Sometimes, we also found coloured chalks. These were the "missiles" aimed at students for staring out of the window or talking or nodding off -- but missed their targets and went flying out of the windows instead. There were a few frangipani and banana trees growing near the septic tank too -- we heard tales of these trees being haunted, which was the reason why we didn't venture there too often.

Text books

The English text books we were using then were a series on Kassim and Aminah (the local version of Janet and John). They were about the adventures of a group of friends who picnic by the beach, or have fun on swings at the park etc.  Each year, a booklist was given and we had to shop for the books at a book store along Upper Serangoon Road. Then we would wrap the book covers up to protect them. We had nice translucent coloured papers for this purpose. But I remember using an old tattered and torn First Aid in English that was passed down from my two brothers. I would use old calendar paper to wrap the cover so that it didn't look so old.


Here is the plan which I have sketched from memory. My lunch invariably was a bowl of "ta mee" -- fat yellow noodles with tomato ketchup and a bit of chilli sauce and a small bowl of soup with fishballs. It wouldn't have cost more than 20 cts, as my entire pocket money for the day was 30 cents. Five cents could get you some sweets and kacang putih.

There was a white box fridge behind the noodle stall. Mostly, it stored Magnolia milk (the traditional cone-shaped packet) and ice-creams. I don't remember any soft drinks. My mum usually made diluted Ribena and put it in a flask for me to bring to school. I didn't like milk then. Mum always quoted one Angelina Lee (my classmate and the niece of a teacher) as a good example who drank a packet of milk after school each day. She had a milky complexion to die for. She had a thick, straight fringe and her hair was tied up partly behind, always decorated with a big blue bow. (Blue was the official colour and we were not supposed to have ribbons of any other colour.) I love seeing that bow on her hair, but how I wished that sometimes she would break the rule and wear a bright yellow ribbon... or a purple one. But I guess being the niece of a school teacher, she had to set good examples.
Angelina Lee as I remember her.

Along the left side of the tuckshop (as one entered the canteen) was the mee-siam man. Till this day, I think he still sold the best mee siam. He was really skinny and someone said he had actually seen him lifted a few inches from the ground by a strong wind.

The "sweet woman" (the lady who sold sweets, keropoks and stuff) was not sweet at all. She was a grouchy woman who would sweep the coins into a tin box and then said you haven't paid her!

The kacang putih man was near the entrance to the tuckshop. My favourite was the sugar coated peanuts. But my mum said I should get the boiled chickpeas (the bright yellow ones) as they were healthier.
This was a hair clip my mum bought for me. My hair wasn't
long enough to tie up like Angelina's. But at least I could clip it in front as I
had a long fringe. Purple is my favourite colour so although it wasn't
 the school colour,  I begged mum to buy it for me.  My hair being
very fine, it kept slipping off but it remained my favourite
hair clip throughout primary school.

Next to the kacang putih man was a middle-aged lady who sold Chinese cakes -- like the sweet multi-layered otak kueh and savoury soon kueh. I loved the multi-layered cake which was made of glutinous rice and coconut milk. The purple layer was my favourite.

Once I was giddy after playing police and thief and had to sit on one of the benches at the tuckshop. I was rescued by the "kueh lady" who rubbed Tiger oil on my forehead and pinching my cheeks furiously. I ended up smelling of kueh and Tiger oil. My teacher would call my mum to come and take me home. This was a rather complicated affair as we had no telephone then and they had to call my neighbour who happened to be a Chinese teacher at the school (so they had the number). Nobody would be in at my neighbour's place of course, except their maid, who would then have to shout for my mum from across the fence. I am not sure why, but I had quite a bit of giddy spells if I ran too hard. So this would take place rather often -- with me taken into the common room and given a hot Milo while waiting for mum to come.

The Common Room

We students held the Common Room with awe. You were either summoned there to "see teacher" (remember the words "See Me" at the bottom of the page of your exercise book) -- or to carry books that have been marked back to the classroom -- or to buy lunch for a teacher. I think the serious cases were those when one got whacked by the discipline master in the Common Room. There was no public canning but I believe some really mischievous boys got caned in the room (for stealing or fighting for example). The less serious cases received one or two strokes on the palm.

Talking about exercise books, teachers made quite an occasion of giving out marked books. One teacher would call the name of the students one by one, from the books neatly piled on her table. Those who did not do well would have their books flung onto the floor. Once or twice, I had mine flung onto the floor (usually for Maths exercises). After a while, there was quite a big heap on the floor and one had to look for a while before finding one's book.

Mental Sums

 I was terrible at Maths and still is. Those days we had "mental sums" tests. They were horrible -- you need  to quickly work out answers to questions like:

1) What's the area of the box measuring 4 inches by 2.5 inches (complications came in when there were decimals...)
2) If one car is travelling at the speed of 40 miles per hour, how long will it take to reach destination which is 5 miles from home?
3) How many legs would five dogs have....

No papers were given for your calculations as they were supposed to be done mentally. I used to quickly scribble the numbers on my ruler before I forget and then worked out the answers... Still I could get marks like zero upon 10 for mental sums. It had to do with my state of anxiety and jitters which made my memory go completely blank... did the teacher asked for the number of legs for five or nine dogs? Before I could work out anything, the teacher had gone on to the next question. How did anyone manage to get 10 upon 10?

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around

Skipping -- there were a few chants to accompany the fun. One of them went like this (with two swinging the ropes and one skipping):

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground
Teddy bear, teddy bear, off you go...

Another one (good for cross-hand skipping):

Mother, father, I am sick,
Call for the doctor, quick, quick, quick

PE (Physical Exercise)

The field that separated our school from Serangoon Garden North School became a muddy wading pool when it rained too hard -- with waters from the nearby canal overflowing rapidly into the field. There were stories of an unfortunate old woman slipping into the canal during floods and carried by the swirling waters along the length of Kensington Park Road to goodness knows where. We were warned not to go near the canals when it rained.

It took some time for the waters to subside and when it did, we continued our PE lessons in the field. But it was terrible as our white canvas shoes became muddy and soaked. If you slipped and fell on the grass, it could be a really yucky experience.

We wore blue PE shorts or bloomers -- roomy shorts which were gathered at the legs like what Shakespearean characters wore on the stage with tights.

Besides jumping over hurdles which I hated, there were all sorts of race invented by the PE teachers -- for example, forming into teams and racing by skipping on a rattan hula hoop. Or, having two or three rubber hoops balanced on your head.

We were formed into various teams. Those days, teams were named simply according to colours. I have belonged to the Green team since primary two (I think). When I was in Primary 3, the team won at a sports competition and we each received a pencil box. I could still remember this unique pencil box. It had a translucent white lid and a pale blue bottom. The lid had alphabets cut out on it so that you could use it to trace alphabets onto your drawings. The box was filled with a dozen of pencils with nibs sharpened so perfectly that no sharpeners could ever match the standard.


I had my first uniform made by a tailor who owned a shop along Kensington Park Road. She swore to my mum that she knew how a Serangoon Garden South School uniform should look. But it turned out terribly wrong. First, the pinafore colour was a cobalt blue. Wrong! It had a gored skirt instead of box pleats. Wrong!

And, it was way too big and long. I was a pint size Primary 1 kid and was totally lost inside the uniform. The collars of the white shirt was wrong too. It had rounded corners when they should be sharp. And for Serangoon Garden South School, the collar was unique because it didn't have a "back" at the neck. There were just two triangular flaps in front. I also had to sew the emblem of the school onto the pinafore myself. There were some colour coding in the emblem to signify either "afternoon" or "morning" school and I think my mum got the wrong cloth emblem for me to sew on. Later on, the cloth emblem became a metal badge which we could pin onto our pinafore.

I had to live in the wrong uniform till I outgrew it some time in Primary Two. And still, the tailor hadn't got it fully right. I think I finally had the right colour, size, pleats and all in Primary 5. I was so happy with it as I got the box pleats that I liked so much. I got to wear the uniform for a little longer when I got into secondary school waiting for my new uniform to be completed.

My sad experience with uniforms started all over again when I hopped into my new secondary school uniform which was a green skirt with inverted pleats and a white shirt (and a compulsory necktie even for those who were not prefects) -- but that's another story.

Goodbye Cannas... and school bags

The good old school bag that is good for sitting
and rocking on while waiting.
Yellow cannas filled the garden at the gateway to the school. There were other plants there too such as fruit trees and lilies. But cannas were what we remember most because of their brilliant colours of yellow, red, and hybrid ones with bright splashes of orange on the yellow petals.

We only entered the garden sometimes during Nature Study. Other times, I would be staring at the flowers at a little distance, from the school porch, waiting for my mum to take me home in the afternoon. While waiting, I would see the deputy principal of Serangoon Garden North School whizzing by on her bicycle (she taught in the afternoon session while I attended the morning session). She always had a bright scarf tied on her head to keep her hair tidy. She happened to be the mother of one of my classmates too -- a very studious tall girl with very short jet black hair. Her lunch was just a box of plain biscuits (those long ones shaped like cigars) packed by her principal mother -- and a vacuum flask of plain water. Apparently, frugality was actively practised in her family.

I would also see one of my teachers' dad coming in his little pale blue Fiat to pick up his son, our Primary 5 teacher. This was a favourite teacher of mine because he always had compliments for my compositions -- except for once when I wrote about caves at Changi and he commented on my exercise book that there were no caves at Changi Point. My brother was very vexed over this comment and questioned his imagination.

I loved sitting on my school bag and rocking on it while waiting. Many of my friends also did that. Mum said she would not buy me another bag if I kept sitting on it and breaking it before its time was due. Buying a new bag at the Thursday Pasar Malam (Malay for night market, usually held along Lorong Chuan for residents of Serangoon Gardens) was one of my biggest childhood pleasures. In the 60s, school kids used a bag that was like a mini trunk that could be open by clicking two buckles.

The smell of a new bag when you open it... the feel of the cloth lining inside... and the new elasticity of the pocket on the inner side of the lid (where you can keep your time table)... The bright silver buckles as compared to the rusted ones of your old bag... The excitement of choosing a new design can be too much -- they are invariably in checked design, but the combination of colours could drive you to seventh heaven.

The excitement of buying a new school bag can only be seconded by buying a new Oxford box of set squares, wooden 6-inch ruler, compass, dividers etc. Ranking 3rd for me, a new box of Staedtler Luna colour pencils -- with that inimitable half moon and a sailing boat on a dark blue box. Nothing like using a new box of colour pencils with killer tips.

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