Written sometime between September and October of 2016, this out of boredom short story is one of my string of essays chronicling my life as a part-time worker in a school's canteen during my sabbatical.
It was a very enriching three months experience, the one that I would never forget. The rest of the remaining essays would be published periodically, if time permits - Pancasara
It was nearing 10.30 a.m., and I was waiting for the school’s bell to ring. My task was done...I had prepared almost 50 plates of rice for the school’s secondary student. It was surely tiring but I had come to like this work.
The recess hour was preceded by lower secondary (form 1-3) before their seniors (upper secondary, form 4-5) were given permission to eat. A ten minutes cooling period gap was squeezed between the two, acting as a buffer.
Each day, a teacher was tasked to monitor all the students. Usually he/she will carry around a medium-length cane with them, for punishing purpose. Any student who dared to flout the law (e.g. still eating outside recess hour) had the possibility to be canned, although that possibility was slim. A high-pitch yelling from the teacher in charge would usually do the job.
The recess hour was like a refugee’s camp. Students went out all starving as if they had never eaten for years. They cramped the canteen’s selling area, out-muscling each other to get to the food first. Early buyer had the chance to choose the biggest fried chicken, that’s why they fought their way to get to the front.
Usually there were four people staffing the canteen arena...Ciktie, Kak Ani, Fahmi and me. I kept watch of the rice and drink section. I served them whenever they wanted more rice, or when they wanted to buy can/bottle drink.
In this particular case, a group of students came to us midway through the recess hour. They came in a group, not a rare phenomenon as students always walked together in groups. There were three to five of them. Not a single one of them said anything other than asking for rice.
What struck me as weird was the scent that emanated the area as soon as they approached. It smelled very nice...as if every one of them was wearing a perfume.
Fahmi also noticed this odd occurrence.
“Pasaipa semua wangi? Hangpa nak mengorat Ms Lau ka?” he quipped with his usual wit (Ms Lau, the discipline teacher, was usually the subject of ridicule among students, mostly because she was a strict teacher, partly because she was still unmarried at forty).
They didn’t respond to Fahmi’s question. They gave a smile and paid the price of the food in complete silence. This further invoked my curiosity.
It was actually a good practice to put on perfume while studying. Imam Malik, one of the four main imams in Islam, was said to put on perfume when he was preaching to his students.
I was thinking, they might be following imam Malik’s lead to better capture what was being taught by their teachers.
This group of students was our hope for a better future.
It was not after an hour later that I found out the real answer.
Taking a short break after I finished cleaning up the dishes, I headed towards the toilet. In a turn of event, that same group of students was being reprimanded by a teacher after they were caught red-handed smoking in the toilet.
That perfume functioned only as a red herring to cover their act. They were smiling and had finally broken their complete silence earlier after being repeatedly pinched by the male teacher.
My high hope on them earlier was fast becoming a comedy. But who knows what they might achieve in the future?