On 28 July, a rural school in Kedah went against the odds and surprised everyone, including themselves, by doing exceptionally well in a district level choral speaking competition. The tiny Kampong school was placed 5th, beating 20 elite schools.
The school's teacher, Cheryl Ann Fernando, writing in a piece published on The Malaysian Insider, says that in almost any district level competition, the odds are never in their favour. She writes:
"We are a sekolah kampung with a reputation of sitting comfortable in the bottom of the ranks. We cannot afford fancy sports attires or have the luxury of hiring trainers, we have to do make do with what we have."
"Many times, we are discouraged from entering any competitions because it seems a little inane to compete for something where defeat is almost guaranteed."
So how did a "hotspot" school with their low English proficiency, many of whose students could barely string a decent English sentence together, made it so far in a district level competition?
The school was entering the choral speaking competition for the third time in their school history. The students knew who they were going to go against – the big guns – the convents, cluster schools, maktabs and sekolah berprestasi tinggi.
"We didn’t stand a chance," writes Cheryl, "it was unthinkable to imagine them memorising and then reciting three pages of text in English. But, they wanted to enter."
So they started training from March, all through the fasting month.
"We knew the odds are never in our favour so we only trained harder. My students went through word by word, memorising everything in the paper. We did our best to polish up our pronunciation and focused on enunciation. We put emotions into our speaking and wanted to do the best."
Half way through training, their teacher saw them looking tired
They wanted to give up. It was too hard to carry on for something that seemed quite hopeless. See, my students never won many competitions so it was difficult to articulate the joy and ecstasy that follows after winning. We were no match for the other schools, after all and we’re probably only going to enter for the experience.themalaysianinsider.com
As she watched their spirits dwindle, she reminded them an important thing
We are a sekolah kampung. When they see us walking up on stage with our off-coloured uniforms and old shoes, they are not even going to look up at us. When they hear our school name, many might choose to leave the hall at that time to take a break. They would laugh and jeer at us, wondering what do we have against all the other prestigious schools in the district. It was now all up to my students to prove everyone wrong.themalaysianinsider.com
And when the time came to compete on Tuesday, her students were a nervous wreck. However, she and her fellow teacher reminded the participating students that they are already so proud of them.
Hidayah asked me if she could leave before it all started. Zidane was close to tears because he was sure he was going to mess up his text. Alif was walking around nervously repeating “Teacher… saya takut” every chance he got. My fellow teacher and I reminded our students that we are already so proud of them. Participating in this is an achievement. Memorising the entire text is an achievement. Standing up and speaking in English is an achievement. Win or lose, in our eyes, they were already champions.themalaysianinsider.com
However, when they performed, they did exceptionally well, making both the judges and the audience laugh for all the right reasons
They stood there in their old uniforms but with an unmistakable confidence in their eyes and voice. They stood there, saying line after line as if they had been speaking English all their lives. They stood there and took me by surprise.themalaysianinsider.com
Their teacher, Cheryl, was however still skeptical when the results were announced. She thought to herself that they wouldn't win.
The usual procedure is that they’ll invite all the schools up to receive their certificate of appreciation. All except the top five winning schools. I urged my team leader to stand in front and take the certificates because I was sure, all we’ll be walking home with is a certificate of appreciation.
They announced 20 schools and somehow, our school name never came up. I figured it had to be a mistake. Until I realised that we were announced as one of the top five winners. Our tiny kampong school managed to emerge as the 5th place winner! Our reactions went from disbelief to screams and hugs and high fives all around.
Writing in The Malaysian Insider piece, Cheryl asks, "What are the odds that a sekolah kampung would beat 20 other schools to gain a place in the top 5 amidst the cluster schools and convents?"
My students often walk around with these pre-conceived notions in their head that they’ll never be good enough. But on Tuesday, they proved to themselves that they are capable of so much.
They proved that their economic backgrounds or social standings only mean so little when they can stand with the giants and shine. My students proved to the entire district that they could do it, with a little hard work.
They went home that day with more than just a certificate but with the newfound confidence that maybe, just maybe, everything is possible.