The air was thick with humidity and the single ceiling fan in the longhouse-esque classroom rotated in solidarity.
"Lapan tolak tujuh berapa? (What is eight minus seven?)", I asked the young boy who sat across me. After staring into the distance, his eyes lit up as he confidently yelled out, hands in the air, "Lima! (Five!)". With a shake of the head and a smile, I showed him how to subtract seven fingers from eight. He mirrored my actions and nodded in understanding. In the following days, the tousled-hair boy would come running to me with a huge grin on his face and yesterday's homework in hand, excited to check his answers. His name is Riddick and he is already twelve years old. He was one of the three students I tutored for Math, all of whom were placed at the lowest of the grading scale. I sat across them, teaching Maths; seeing their exponential growth in the short span of just two weeks, I was struck with the question, “How is it that they can catch on this fast but still struggle with basic maths operations after having been in primary school for the past 6 years?”
Living in the school, I had a small glimpse of what it's like to live as one of the students. To live without running water, little to no cellular service and on bumpy roads that get dangerously muddy when it rains. Although I say this with the full realization that I could never fully experience the other aspects of their lives, a sense of frustration bubbled up at the apparent unfairness of it all. I just so happened to be born to parents who had tertiary education, who gave me a middle-class upbringing, enrolled me in a private school and sent me to tuition and music classes - all in all, I was privileged to be in an environment where I would succeed academically. The students in Kota Marudu did not have all these luxuries, and unfortunately, it shows in the majority of their academic abilities.
It is true that you cannot judge a person’s future based on their primary school results, but imagine how much more difficult it would be for someone who is already 12 but cannot count nor read basic
English. One’s random lottery in life should not limit a person’s access to quality education. Every child deserves the opportunity for their potential to be fully realized and the chance to improve their livelihood. Malaysia is a richly diverse developing country, and it’s high time we, as a nation, pay closer attention to the needs of the many students in our country who deserve more. Equality shouldn’t be the goal. Equity is what we should strive for.
I recognize that a long-term erasure of inequities requires deeply rooted structural changes. However, as I saw my students’ increasing motivation as they successfully answer a long division question or correctly craft a sentence in English, I see the significant impact that I, as a volunteer can have. Recognizing our privilege, we have the ability to lessen the inequities of our society. In fact, it should be our responsibility to do so.
Having said all this, the children I met in SK Temuno Teringai were some of the kindest, self-sufficient and confident children I have ever met. I could only imagine the things they can achieve in their lives with the proper educational pathways to potentially get them there. As volunteers, we have the unique outsider ability to empower them and remind them of their amazing abilities. These words did not feel truer than when I boarded the van on my last day in the school. Riddick pulled my sleeve and handed me a note. It read, in broken English, “tank you beliv in me :)”.