Miss Seetoh in the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2011 Catherine Lim

 

Cover art by Opal Works Co. Limited

 

Published by Marshall Cavendish Editions

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One

 

In April 1993, barely a month after her
husband’s death, Miss Maria Seetoh reverted to her maiden name. It was surely a
slight to the sanctity of the married state, endorsed both by her church in a
major sacrament, and by her society in a major economic policy by which only
married women qualified for government-subsidised housing. Moreover, it spoilt
the good name of the quietly, properly mourning widow.

Miss Seetoh made her students use the
desired name when they stood up to greet her as she entered the classroom each
morning. It had to be a carefully considered, systematic re-training of forty
young voices to make the switch from the old address, after such long
habituation, but she succeeded in a week. If a few forgot, the rest would
giggle and watch for her reaction, a full-blown ritual of pure entertainment.
She would instantly, in frowning protest, step out of the classroom, wait
outside for a few seconds, and then re-enter to face, with calm severity, the
forty boys and girls still standing at their desks. Magisterially erect, she
would wait for the little ripples of giggling whispers to subside into one
hushed enveloping silence, and then, as the last act of the elaborate ritual,
cup a listening hand to her right ear, now fully turned towards them, for the
corrected greeting. It always came in a perfectly synchronised roar of ‘GOOD
MORNING, MISS SEETOH!’, upon which the sternness vanished, and with a broad
smile and theatrical bow she acknowledged their success, and the students – oh,
how she loved them! – broke out in loud applause and laughter.

Many years later, long after Miss Seetoh had
left St Peter’s Secondary School, one of her students who became a well-known
Singapore artist held an exhibition which included a portrait of a young woman
leaning against the wall, her arms folded across her chest, her face lit up by
a smile that was the total glowing configuration of skin, mouth, teeth, eyes,
eyebrows. Miss Seetoh’s smile was ever unique. The nostalgia of memory had
perfectly reproduced her trademark turned-up shirt collar and slightly
rolled-up shirt sleeves which together with her ponytail gave an impression of
perky confidence that some of her female students tried to copy. Less imitable
was that dazzling smile, also the tiny bird-like waist discernible in the
portrait.

The principal of St Peter’s Secondary School
liked to speak of its portals of learning and tolerated their occasional
battering by the seismic eruptions from Class 4C on the third floor. The effect
on school morale, though, had to be carefully monitored and assessed, for the
walls separating the classrooms were thin, and already some students were
asking their teachers why only Miss Seetoh’s students were having all the fun.
In the staff common room one floor below where the teachers went between
lessons to mark students’ homework or sip coffee, some would ignore the ruckus,
and a few silently roll their eyes upwards at the antics of St Peter’s maverick
English language and English literature teacher. Collectively, they were dull,
dowdy and dour, beside the effervescent Miss Seetoh.

‘Come and look,’ said Mrs Neo one morning.
She was the longest serving teacher in the school, with thirty-four years’
service, just one short of earning the Golden Merit Medal from the Ministry of
Education, and she courageously defended her traditional teaching methods
against the newfangled methodologies that the younger inspectors at the
Ministry were sometimes emboldened to pass on to teachers in their training
workshops. It was said that after each workshop, she made a show of throwing
away the folders of teaching guides and notes, being completely secure, as the
rest of her colleagues were not, in her white-haired seniority and status as
the widow of one of Singapore’s most revered wartime heroes during the Japanese
Occupation. His heroic underground activities and eventual execution by the
Japanese merited some paragraphs in the history textbooks used in the schools.

Mrs Neo was just now standing at a window in
the staffroom that looked out on the school grounds. Two colleagues joined her,
and all smiled to see the strange scene in the distance. Under a large shady
tree, earnestly watched by Miss Seetoh and a group of students, two boys,
dressed in oddments of clothing meant to pass off as ancient Roman garb, were
engaged in a fearful struggle that ended with one falling to the ground with a
roar of ‘Et tu Brute!’ and the other triumphantly standing over him with a
dagger realistically smeared with red ink. A third student, in a borrowed
sarong worn toga-style, stepped out for a full oration over the corpse of the
murdered Caesar before it suddenly sprang up from the grass, in an unscripted
frenzy of crotch-pulling, screaming ‘Red ants!’, and then all was pandemonium.

The creative eccentricity of Miss Seetoh’s
teaching methods could be copied, but not of her married life which had ended
as sensationally as it had begun, creating little private stirrings of gossip
that were not allowed to disturb the smooth surface of life at St Peter’s.

Once the principal came to investigate, probably
sent by the surly discipline master who did not want to confront Miss Seetoh
himself – Miss Seetoh of the refined manners and classy way of speaking that
exposed the fumbling inadequacies of the adversary.

‘What was that noise?’ the principal asked,
and Miss Seetoh said, her eyes sparkling, ‘The noise of being happy, sir.’

Her new bright world would exclude the
judgemental and censorious, the dull and the lackluster, and would be confined
to her students, fresh-faced, eager-eyed, pure-minded, in their ridiculous
uniforms matched precisely to the pristine sky blue and white colours of the
Virgin Mary as she stood in her shrine in the school grounds.

For the few laggards who forgot the new
address for their teacher, there was a penalty: each had to pay a fine of fifty
cents, which Miss Seetoh promised to double or triple, for the amount to
snowball into a grand prize that would go to the student who had made the
greatest improvement in English grammar by the end of the year, just before the
exams.

‘There you are,’ whispered Miss Teresa Pang
to the colleague sitting beside her at the staff common room table.

She was the other English language teacher,
secretly seething from the invidious comparisons, even if implied only, with
Maria Seetoh. A school day was too long to sustain the appearance of cool,
unconcerned professionalism, which consequently broke into little sharp
comments to whoever was around to listen: ‘Breaking another school regulation
with all those money transactions going on in class! Doing it with impunity, in
her high class English.’

The famous carrots and sticks used
everywhere in the society, from the government downwards, to get people to
behave – Miss Seetoh used both with equal ferocity, the school being society’s
microcosm. She was in a witch-hunt, she told her students, to drag out and
destroy every one of their grammatical mistakes. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘it’s
important for you to secure good grades in the O Level exams. But it’s
important for me to do something when I see you mangle and murder the language
of Shakespeare and Milton and Jane Austen!’ Miss Seetoh knew all the plays of
Shakespeare.

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