Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter IX. School Routine

BUT I must return to Rangoon. We soon found our new house, "Woodlands," to be almost as unsuitable for our purposes as had been "The Cottage." It was the residence of three or four European Mission Agents, of twenty-five Burmese boarders, and of 250 day scholars, whose schoolroom was very low and inconvenient. The house was costing us Rs. 1,200 a year and repairs. With the aid of our committee I had made several selections for a site for our Mission. The chief objection to all was their expensiveness--Rs. 1,000 per acre being asked for town lots.

I had at last bought provisionally six-acres, when one day the Chief Commissioner told me that a most eligible site in a line with Government House was with that estate to be thrown out of Cantonment or military boundaries, and to be sold as suburban allotments at Rs. 200 per acre, and he advised me to apply for some of this in exchange for my other purchase. This I very gladly did, and after some unnecessary delay, secured our present most valuable estate at the upset price. I purchased it in the name of the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which by its charters is a body corporate, capable of holding property, etc. One acre was freely granted by Government to the Society whereon to build a Mission church or chapel (a condition which has been too long delayed, but the obstacles to the fulfilment of which have, I trust, now disappeared). The land thus acquired as the property of the Society has continually increased in value, and is now worth not less than Rs. 10,000 per acre.

Meantime the name of the institution had been changed. We began it as simply the "S.P.G. Mission School." Then we called it "St. John's School," a title which some amusing adventures soon informed us was already appropriated by the Roman Catholic Girls' School. So by the advice of Sir Arthur Phayre, and in accordance with Bishop Cotton's scheme, we called it "St. John's College, S.P.G.," a name by which it is known and loved by thousands of pupils and their friends.

Having secured the land, we now set to work to erect the building. We had offered a premium of Rs. 250 for the best design, and we chose that submitted by Mr. J. J. Jones, a young employe of the Public Works Department. It was by no means perfect, in fact it had curious and serious defects. But it proved to be a good plan to start with; and though we have continually enlarged and added to our buildings, we have always preserved the main features of the original design.

The foundation-stone of the new building was laid by General Fytche, the Chief Commissioner, in 1869. The Rev. H. W. Crofton, the Government Chaplain, the Rev. C. Warren and I took part in the services, and all Rangoon, military and civil, European, Burmese and members of all nationalities were present on the occasion, which was one of great happiness to us all. I had very earnestly longed for this achievement, and yet just as it was accomplished I was called away, and it seemed as though I should never be able to enjoy that for which I had so anxiously worked and waited.

But before I go on to tell about that, I will make a digression to speak about the fundamental principles upon which our schools were founded and developed. They were essentially Mission schools of the Church of England, and from this we never swerved, either for fear of offending or from the hope of succeeding. On a boy's admission, his parents or guardians were distinctly informed: "This is a Christian school. If you put your boy here, he will be taught the Christian religion. No underhand method of fear or favour will be brought to bear upon him to make him change his religion, but he will be instructed openly and plainly in the doctrines of Christianity."

I can truly say that though I made this announcement to thousands of parents, never once did anyone object to placing his son in our school, and this was true not only of the indigenous races of Burma, Burmese, Talaings, Shans, Karens, but also of Hindoos, Bengalees, Madrassis, and the other immigrants from India and the Far East.

Our religious teaching was the amalgam which held us together. Each day commenced with prayer and other religious exercises. The Christian boys, inclusive of Roman Catholics, Baptists, etc., stood out in front while we sang a short morning hymn, and I read a small portion of the Gospel in Burmese and English. We all said the Lord's Prayer, asking, of course, not for our daily bread--for that is not the food of the country--but for our daily rice! In our school we had but two meals a day, rice and curry in the morning, and curry and rice in the evening!

Very frequently I have heard the non-christians joining earnestly in our Lord's Prayer, and it gladdened my heart. After prayers the boys went away to their classes, and were there instructed by myself and my colleagues bilingually on the portion of Scripture which had been read, first questioning it into the pupils, and then questioning it out of them, until we were thoroughly assured that the pupils entirely appreciated the meaning of the passage. From this practice we never varied. Even when the stress of secular examinations or Government inspections came along, we never lowered our flag. Some of our inspectors professed anti-christian opinions, and sneered at our religious teaching with these non-christian assistants, but all professed respect at our steadfast adherence to the principle of religious education.

After the religious exercises the secular work began, conducted on the lines of an English Public School. I need hardly say that no difference whatever was made in the forms or classes with regard to the various nationalities, creeds and languages of the pupils. The same rules and discipline applied to all. None ever claimed or received exemption.

The English and Eurasian boys received instruction in the vernacular, the Burmese learned English, and the interchange was mutually advantageous. We had to take the greatest care that the native teachers in giving secular instruction did not contradict our Christian or nineteenth-century teaching. Once I overheard one of our best assistant teachers telling his pupils: "The Burmese believe that the world is flat, but in this school you must always say that the world is round . . . etc." But though this English teaching was often very evidently against the grain, the teachers were most thoroughly loyal, and very honestly carried out the instructions that they had been given. And no pupils could have been more earnest, more keen, more diligent or anxious to improve, than were our pupils. It was the happiest school that one could wish for. The various nationalities vied with one another in their keen desire for excellence. They put in hard continuous work. I will not say that there were no exceptions. We had some slackers and not a few disappointments.

For instance, a pupil would study most diligently and pass our private test examinations and give us every hope that he would be a credit to his teachers. But at the supreme moment--apparently without rhyme or reason--he would absent himself, to our great disappointment.

One particular case I remember. A student had done remarkably well in all preliminaries, and we believed that in the forthcoming Calcutta University examination he would take a high position; but on the very day when he had to sign the roll for his identification he was absent and could not be found. When the examination was over, he returned to his place in school, smiling and happy, but he met with a very unfavourable reception, as may be imagined.

I demanded a private interview for an explanation of his conduct, and when he gave what I regarded as prevaricating replies, I thereupon administered exemplary chastisement. He turned to me, quite forgiving me, and said: "Please, Sayagyi, I got married. May I bring my wife to see you?" My wrath was gone. A day or two afterwards the bride was introduced to me, a bright, happy girl, evidently a help-meet for him. I told her what had happened and that her husband had received the reward of merit. She smiled sweetly and said: "I am so glad, it will make him a good husband. And if he is not, I will bring him to you again." He came up at the next examination and passed triumphantly.

The Burmese, the Irish of the East, are like our friends of the Emerald Isle, a mass of contradictions. At one time, earnest, diligent and energetic; at another, lazy, careless and casual. There are, of course, exceptions, but, as a rule, they are affectionate, unselfish and kind, but unreliable. I do trust and believe that English Christian education will give them that stability of character which nothing else can impart, and I speak from experience.

A favourite method for a naughty boy to show his wrath used to be to run his head against the wall and then lie on the floor and scream. I recollect one Burmo-Chinese boy performing that operation. For a moment, as he lay on the floor almost senseless, I was frightened, but I hastened his return to consciousness and activity by the application of a small bit of bamboo. It quickened his mental and physical activity so effectively that he never repeated the operation, but entered upon a very honourable scholastic career, and he is now a most learned savant and a member of various learned societies.

The unreliability which I have shown to be characteristic of the students with regard to their studies was shown also in their games. Lads could be keen, sometimes dangerously so, and then all of a sudden, apparently for no reason whatever, they would drop out of the lists and give way to lassitude.

I remember on one occasion an instance of this in connection with our Cadet Corps, of which we were very proud and with good reason. A company had been out to the rifle range at Insein, a few miles from Rangoon, for class firing. They returned in the early gloaming, travel-stained and weary, and the head boy came to me and said: "Sir, we are very tired; may we have a game of football instead of evening study?" I need not say that they were very lovable fellows. Everybody who had anything to do with them loved them.

Private study was the rule in the evenings, but no lamps--except the regulation hurricane lamp--were allowed in the dormitories. We had to take the utmost precautions against fire in our wooden buildings. It was a high crime and misdemeanour to infringe our regulations in this respect, and we were marvellously immune, though we had one or two narrow escapes.

When the industrious fit was on them, the boys would take their lesson books to bed and study as long as they could see, and resume in the early daylight. On one occasion a boy seemed to be unhappy and restless in bed, so I went and woke him, and inquired what was the matter. He looked wildly round him and then blurted out: "Pronouns have three cases, etc."

All the schools founded by me throughout the whole country were conducted upon the same plan, so that boys migrating from one to the other with proper certificates found themselves at home in their new school as much as in the one which they had left. These pupils not only in Rangoon, but in all the other schools, soon began a practice, which is continued to the present day, of calling themselves, Saya Mat Kyoung tha ("Dr. Marks' pupils").

Naturally the education of Burmese girls was a consideration which weighed heavily on my mind, as it had on the cares and thoughts of many other educationalists in the country. We found the parents, though very keen for the education of the boys, careless about, if not actually opposed to, their girls being taught, especially by foreigners. The reply to all one's endeavours to interest fathers and mothers in the education of their girls was the blocking suggestion that it was not Burmese tonzan (custom).

We had to proceed warily. I was, and am, a celibate. None of the gentler sex were in any way connected with my work. Not one female was engaged in any capacity in St. John's College. I began, therefore, by utilizing the services of a Eurasian teacher in a hired room. It was a dismal failure. I then tried the experiment of getting a lady teacher from Calcutta. She was highly educated, and had a high idea of her own dignity and acquirements, and looked with scorn and contempt upon our primitive arrangements. Two or three girls were brought to her, but she seemed to think them young savages and to consider that it was beneath her dignity to instruct them.

About the fourth or fifth morning, when I visited the empty schoolroom, she suggested that she should take my photograph, to which I demurred, but she willingly concurred in my suggestion that she should return to Calcutta by the next steamer! So ended our first attempt, and we decided to postpone until my return from England any further experiment.

I felt keenly on the subject, and during my furlough I constantly pointed out how useless it was to continue the education of Burmese boys, if, on arriving at manhood, they only had ignorant, uninstructed girls to marry.

I have already pointed out how I succeeded in securing the aid of Miss Cooke. I shall ever be thankful for her connection with our work and its results. She had that magnetic influence, that sweet, winning way, that smiling countenance, which could not fail to influence the girls around her, and so St. Mary's School was started propitiously. It has thrived ever since, and is now one of the leading educational institutions in the country.

Miss Cooke continued in charge of the school until she married one of my colleagues, the Rev. C. H. Chard, who afterwards became Archdeacon of Rangoon.

Thus our educational work, both for boys and girls, increased and developed. Our greatest difficulty soon became the provision of assistant masters and teachers, but, as time went on, the schools themselves provided us with these and I have always found that my own pupils became my best assistants.

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