ELINA KAMARUZZAMAN takes a trip down memory lane as her alma mater, one of PJ’s most prominent landmarks, celebrates its Golden Jubilee.
DATIN Paduka Sister Enda Ryan still calls Assunta Secondary School in Petaling Jaya her baby.
This year, my alma mater celebrates its 50th Golden Anniversary and she looks as young, hip and youthful as Sister Enda, the founder.
We used to spend recess under the trees called the Woodlands on those old-fashioned granite tables and stools.
Now, the Puan Seri Datin Kai Yong Yeoh Building has been erected to house a state-of-the-art IT, AV, Maths, Science and Resource centres.
The dark canteen now looks like Starbucks with flat screen TVs propped up, tuned to Discovery Channel.
Mrs Lim Sew Kwe, who took the helm as headmistress from 1999-2003, was instrumental in making these changes.
She took Sister Enda’s vision to make Assunta a school with facilities to groom our future women.
A former teacher of the school, she was aghast that upon her return as head, there were still “floating” classes.
For years, Assunta Secondary, a missionary school, lacked funds to build more classes.
“Recently, there have been calls by certain quarters to award missionary schools the same financial assistance given to government schools for improvement and development of infrastructure. We welcome that. All Malaysians training for their country should have equal merits. After all, missionary schools are very much like any public school in Malaysia, catering for students irrespective or race, religion or background. I strongly believe that we are a model school of racial integration,” said Sister Enda in an interview recently.
Efforts of improvement were made in the past.
In 1987, as my batch sat for SPM, they broke down our much-loved GBK (Gelanggang Bola Keranjang) to put up the Mutiara Block of classes, in celebration of our delayed Pearl Anniversary.
But this was not enough. Students and teachers, usually in the non-major examination year, would still seek empty classes (vacated during PE or lab subjects) for lessons.
Although we had fun “floating” — it meant losing a couple minutes of class (yay!) — it was disruptive, disorganised and really, a waste of time.
This nomadic practice just had to end. Yes, there were temporary makeshift classes built without complete walls, nicknamed the cowshed — because they actually resembled one — which were hot and all we could hear were the fans’ burring and teachers’ voices competing with each other to get the attention of noisy students.
Mrs Lim found help in PIBG chairperson Datin Kathleen Yeoh, (Class of 1976). They struck a marriage of convenience, hope and perseverance.
The latter brought in her infrastructure expertise from her altruistic family, who partially sponsored the new buildings and canteen completed between 2002-3.
The students, teachers and Alumni gave their heart and soul with various fund-raising activities to contribute to the building fund.
And they didn’t stop here.
“The girls had to have more balance in this place we call our second home,” said Yeoh. Mrs Hong Yin Wah, the present head, agreed.
The school team of past and present students, again, organised Aerobicthons, Ceriathons and all the “thons” you could think of to raise funds.
Last Saturday, the Datin Kathleen Art Centre was officiated. You must come and see this girls, we have our own (famous Art College in London) St Martins!
Sister Enda, now retired, was elated when she saw the progress in Assunta. There was no sign of a mid-life crisis, she said.
We girls just cried during her ever inspirational speech when she officiated the centre and sang the school song. We have come so far to build Assunta. And we gave our all. And it was Sister Enda who instilled in us the spirit of giving through our annual Charity Day.
We sold cakes, cookies, ais kacang, anything to satisfy our sweet tooth.
We sold tickets for our famous fashion shows, that honed the talents of models like Christine Danker, Mary Lourdes, Marini Kamil, Kavita Kaur and Bernie Chan.
There were horror houses and games — a whole fiesta in the month of Lent.
The proceeds would go to a central fund that was given to the needy, irrespective of race or religion.
“During the tsunami disaster in 2004, when MERCY Malaysia, founded by Datuk Jemilah Mahmood (Class of 76), was soliciting funds for Acheh, I found that even without me asking, the Charity Fund Committee had already channelled the money to Jemilah’s team,” said Sister Enda proudly.
Thus, raising funds for all these buildings was second nature to all Assuntarians.
Every class competed, in the name of charity to raise the most ringgit. It also instilled leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Sister Enda believed in making Assuntarians all-rounders, not merely academic achievers.
Prize-Giving Day never existed during Sister’s time.
“The reason we never had a Speech Day was because I felt that this was a day we glorified bright students who usually came from good backgrounds, had three square meals, could afford tuition and had well-educated parents to guide them.
“Many students came to school hungry and their parents were working shifts to make ends meet. I felt the students never competed on the same level. What was crucial was that they studied, had fun in sports, developed creative skills through art or music and always lent a hand for those in need.
“The charity drives we had helped those outside the school; the Assunta Welfare Organisation (named Sister Enda’s Welfare Organisation after she left) gave financial and tutoring assistance to those in the school. We were like a fund and talent raising foundation,” quipped Sister Enda.
Yes, the blessed Irish nun did everything differently. Sister Enda would write annual letters to parents that was void of “Saya ingin maklumkan...” but started with, “I’m still in a semi-comatose state as I write this to you...”
Our assemblies were not held in a hall. We stood at the corridors facing the soothing green lawn and rows of trees called Aaron’s Rod.
Beethoven, Rhinestone Cowboy, Top of the World blared out the speakers as we walked into class after assembly and when the final bell rang.
“I thought that the music would get them going,” said Sister Enda. When Elvis Presley died and Indira Gandhi was assassinated (during my time), she announced it over the PA system.
“The girls must know what is happening in the world,” she added.
But the zaniest thing she did, when heads of school had more control, was on Oct 10, 1966.
“I went on the PA system and happily declared in perfect Bahasa Malaysia, “Hari ini saya diisytiharkan sebagai warganegara Malaysia! Murid-murid boleh balik! Half-day!’”
There were hard times, too. Mrs. A. George and Mrs. S.T. Devaraj, two earlier teachers in Assunta Secondary, remembered how they transferred everything from the now Assunta Primary, where they started, to their new premises in Jalan Changgai in 1958, car load by car load.
More recently, Sister Enda, as the Chairperson of The Board of Governess, and her team went to court to keep their sports field when the residents on Jalan 9/5 suggested that the new Resource Centre be built there, instead of near the school entrance, closer to their houses.
“’Over my dead body’, I said to them. You will not take away the field. The girls need it for sports and cheerleading.”
The latter was a trend that has become big in many schools. The court proceedings were daunting but the school won in the end.
Assunta Secondary that has been part of the Petaling Jaya landscape has produced many illustrious women, from politicians to bankers and entertainers including Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the Prime Minister’s wife Datin Seri Jeanne Abdullah and Datuk Jemilah.
Others include Datuk Maznah Abdul Jalil, Datuk Yeoh Su Ming, Rita Sim, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Dr Patricia Gomez, Soefira Jaafar, Sofea Jane Hisham, Sunetra Fernando and Bettina Chua Abdullah.
But Yeoh was quick to remind us in her speech at the Art Centre launch, of the mothers of Assunta and Assuntarians, each and every student, teacher and PIBG member who made and are making a difference to the development and success of the Assunta story.
I couldn’t agree more.
Sister Enda reminded me of the daily prayer she wrote, recited every day at assembly that encapsulates her legacy:
“God Bless our school, its teachers past present and to come. Its pupils, past present and to come. May all that we learn in our alma mater help us to know, learn and serve you faithfully, now and throughout our lives.”
Let’s go home Asuntarians and salute Sister Enda, the teachers, students, contributors, past, present and to come, this year, as we turn 50. Ad Veritatem Per Caritatem (To Truth Through Charity).
* Assunta’s Golden Jubilee Dinner will be held on Aug 9. Log on to assuntaalumi.com for details.