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CRAYON by Ammar

One of the kids I had the pleasure of directly being involved with during the project was this (hyper)active little boy named Crayon. He was one of the two students assigned to me as part of my English tutoring group. After he missed the first two sessions, I sort of wished that he would just go ahead and miss the rest of the two weeks. That way, I would be able to focus my time on my other student, Ervinlee, who knew basically no English and needed plenty of attention.

Suffice to say, I was happy that those two sessions were the only ones Crayon ended up missing.


Like Ervinlee, he knew basically no English when we started. I had brought out the first book in the Peter and Jane series, a useful little tool which my own mother had used to teach me to read back in the days. I had gone through it with Ervinlee during the previous session with satisfactory results, so I asked him to guide Crayon through it, and I would help out as and if needed.

I was surprised by the speed at which Crayon picked up the material. He was incredibly bright and was able to absorb new words very quickly. It was like watching a fresh sponge being dipped into a bowl of water, emerging completely soaked while retaining every single drop.

​As Ervinlee went on to miss a lot of our other sessions (he had transport issues), I was not able to go too fast with the Peter and Jane series, as I had decided that it was going to be my main source of teaching content. I tried doing the teach-your-friend thing once, asking Crayon to guide Ervinlee through the text like his buddy had done for him before, but he was not able to slow down enough for Ervinlee. Often, young, intelligent people are this way – they have little patience for others who cannot keep up with them.


Therefore, I decided to teach Crayon other things on top of the Peter and Jane books when Ervinlee was not around, like extra vocabulary, and more memorably, common conversational phrases. I taught him a few basics like “How are you?” and “Excuse me,” but also, just for the fun of it, “You are handsome/pretty!”

One night, I was having a one-on-one session with Crayon in one of the classrooms near the hostel, with one of the other volunteers also having a separate one-on-one with his kid in the same room. “Go talk to Abang Hilmi,” I told Crayon (in Malay). He was extremely shy about it, but I somehow managed to persuade him.

“Excuse me,” he finally said, nervously. “How are you?”
Abang Hilmi, being a good sport, replied, “I am good. How are you?”
“I am… fine, thank you.”
It was adorable. “Now tell him he’s handsome,” I muttered.
He got shy again, but eventually did it. “You are handsome!”
“Good job,” I said. “Now, wasn’t that easy?”

It was now time to up the ante. I took him to the Year 6 classroom, where most of the other students and volunteers were. His new mission? Tell a female volunteer she was pretty. I even let him pick which one he preferred.
He was, again, extremely shy. I had already let him warm up by using his newly-learned phrases on another male volunteer and, before that, one of the other male students. Saying it to a girl, of course, was a completely different level altogether. To his credit, though, he stayed with me and did not run off into the night.

“Go talk to Kak Emy,” I said. She was sitting almost right in the middle of the room and seemed to have fewer students than the other female volunteers, so I decided: she would be the one. Crayon was, of course, very reluctant, and if the lighting had been better, I’d probably have been able to clearly see how red his face had gotten.

Sometimes words aren’t enough to convince people to do things, and especially not a shy twelve-year-old. He weighed about as much as my youngest sister - I know this because I decided to just pick him up and carry him towards Kak Emy’s table. He barely struggled – deep down, in spite of his shyness, I was sure that he actually wanted to do it.

It took him some time to get to it, and he of course started off with “How are you?” and all that, but eventually: “You are pretty!”
You could practically see the hearts appearing in Kak Emy’s eyes. I was proud of my boy. It would not be the last time.

Time went on and I got to know Crayon a bit better. He drinks coffee for breakfast, enjoys noodles as his favorite food, and in his spare time, he reads manga (sometimes), climbs trees (often, I presume) and runs around (a lot). His parents grow fruits and vegetables in their ladang and go to the town market every Thursday to sell them. He’s also the oldest of six siblings, and considering his diminutive size, I can only imagine how they must look. Crayon’s house is a short walk away from the school, and some of the other volunteers and I got a brief look at it as we walked with him and a few other kids through their kampung.

I also got to know that he wasn’t too bad at teaching himself. One afternoon, the other volunteers decided to take a walk along the road in front of the school and I went with them. Crayon and a few of the other kids were there, too. As it had turned out, he and I share a similar walking speed (despite my legs being about twice the length of his), so we ended up walking together. Among the other things we talked about, he taught me to count to twenty in his native language, Rungus.

“One is isop,” he said, and let me repeat after him, making sure I was saying it right before moving on to the next number. “Duvo,” he said, “that means two.” On it went until five (limo), and he stopped so I could do a recap. “Isop, duvo, tordu, apat, limo!” We proceeded to six only after he was satisfied that I had gotten the first five numbers right, and when we reached ten, he stopped again so I could do another recap, again starting at one. And on we went until we reached twenty. I was impressed by the patience and understanding he showed towards my struggle with learning this new language; maybe it was his way of thanking me for helping him with his English.

One thing I didn’t know about Crayon was that he would find it within himself to volunteer to say an individual line as part of his class’s choral speaking performance for the closing ceremony. I’m not sure if he fully understood what he was getting himself into, and maybe he was just volunteering because his other friends were, but I was certain that it was something he would never have done at the beginning of the project. Who would have thought, that this little boy who, at the age of twelve, didn’t know what the word ‘yes’ meant, would so quickly have the confidence to say out loud an entire six-word line in English in front of the entire school?

After a few (difficult) practice sessions, the day of the performance came, and so did Crayon’s time to shine. He had his script with him (as did everyone else), and he stood right at the leftmost end of the front row. From where I was sitting, I didn’t see how much of the script he read out, but I clearly heard him when it was his turn to speak: “On the floor… [panicked pause] … of our classroom!”

My boy had done it. And this time I didn’t even have to make him. Again, I was proud.

My final memory of Crayon is of waving to him from inside the van that would take me back to Kota Kinabalu, away from Teringai, away from this school, and, of course, away from him. “Bye, Abang,” were the final words he said to me, though I still have a few letters he wrote to me (short and sweet, like the boy himself) that I can always dig up from time to time.

Maybe I will see him again, or maybe I will not. I suppose I will be fine either way, and so will he. I only hope that the two short weeks I spent teaching him English were enough to have some sort of impact on him, as they certainly had an impact on me. I hope he will go on to do great things in the future. I hope he makes his parents proud someday. I know I already am.

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