To all my colleagues from SMSNS/STJ,
A long time ago it was, I thought as I cruised through the last few bends that late afternoon before reaching Kuala Pilah, a lot of what happened then now tucked in parts of my memory already blurred by age. Still, I tried to recall.
Kuala Pilah hadn’t changed, save for a few buildings not there then and later built mostly for commerce. It is still very much a town seemingly contented with staying on the fringes of mainstream development, choosing instead to remain the rustic sleepy hollow that it was when I once called it ‘my town’ all those years ago. And it still took just one left turn into main street and a mere three gear-shifts to get from one end to the other.
I had mixed feelings about coming back at first, afraid maybe of not being able to remember as much as I might have wished to and facing the reality that age has caught up with me.
When I did decide to come back I was empty of any expectations apart from meeting old friends, all of whom as the years unfolded have journeyed onwards, chasing myriads of dreams. It was simply fate that brought our paths to cross once upon a time in that school to share that common part of our history.
Since I left at the end of 1978, the school had drifted further into memory and much details of the times I spent there have escaped my thoughts, leaving only some vague and blurry images of those early parts of my journey in life.
All I know now is that I must have acquired many of life’s lessons there, some of which later influenced the course of my own destiny.
But as I turned the car left into the road leading to the school, bursts of memories came back. With the soothing tune of Don Henley’s ‘Talking To The Moon’ filling the car, I recalled quite clearly that junction as on days I had to run the cross country as a small boy then, I’d be on my last ounce of strength by the time I’d get there.
A couple of minutes from the junction, and there it was. It seemed surreal in that fading lights and for a while I entertained the thoughts the school had been waiting all these years for a day like that Saturday when many of its sons and daughters would return for a visit.
I parked the car and stood there for a good while, trying to take in as much of the view as possible. Somehow it looked less imposing than it was then, even smaller to a certain extent. Or perhaps my own perspective of things have grown wider over the years.
My thoughts flew back to that time 39 years ago when I first set foot on the then spanking new school’s barren compound. From afar, it seemed gloriously white under the scorching afternoon sun.
At the time, America was in a leadership turmoil after the shock resignation in August 1974 of President Richard Nixon following damning revelations against his presidency in the Watergate scandal.
Closer to home, one of history’s longest wars ever fought was drawing to a close in Indochina. The then North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, had his Communist troops ringed a stranglehold around the then capital of the democratic South, Saigon. Left months earlier by the Americans to fend for itself, Saigon eventually fell on April 30 1975 and the two Vietnams were finally unified.
In football, the then West Germany had just won the World Cup in the summer of 1974 to become the first champions awarded the present FIFA World Cup trophy after Brazil got the keep the previous Jules Rimet Trophy upon winning the tournament for the third time in 1970.
In the music scene, songs protesting the war in Vietnam filled the airwaves and tunes I could still recall includes those of Bad Company, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies and a few of the nature-loving round-shaped bespectacled John Denver.
At home, Malaysia was making significant strides along its nation-building agenda under the able stewardship of second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. But Razak, who himself was instrumental in the setting up of full-boarding science secondary schools like the one I attended, lost a battle against Leukaemia in London in 1976.
And me, I had with me that afternoon a suitcase, a pail and what little hopes and dreams a 14-year old boy from an insignificant corner of Negeri Sembilan could conjure to face his still uncertain future. It wasn’t all that difficult, for I did not have that many.
After ‘squatting’ for a year in Seremban while the school in Kuala Pilah was being built, I thought the hostel at the then Sekolah Menengah Sains Negeri Sembilan was heaven compared with the hardship I had to endure at the Sekolah Kebangsaan Sri Kelana at Jalan Channer (Now Jalan Dato Siamang Gagap) in Seremban where we lived like refugees of war in a row of classrooms converted into dormitories.
The first thing I did once I got settled in at the new school was to tour the place. The hostel had four levels and the ground and third levels had single beds while the second and fourth had double-decker bunks. For that year, my dormitory was on the ground floor.
And thus starts my four-year life in a school then known simply as Sekolah Menengah Sains Negeri Sembilan. The four years flew by quickly and along the way I gained some knowledge, let some opportunities slip away, made friends, hated the system but after all said and done, still loved the school.
It was a good homecoming and when it was time for me to leave after the dinner, I felt a sense of relief. The four years I spent there wasn’t wasted time after all as time and again, in the profession that I’m in now, I could still say that I learned some of the required traits in that school.
As I turned my car to leave that night, I took in one final view of the school through the rearview mirror. I’ve left it a long time ago, I thought, but consoled myself thinking that no matter how far I’d go, it would still be there, perhaps waiting for me to come and visit again.
Mustapha Kamil (1974-1978)
The New Straits Times Press
April 21, 2014