Growth and Reflection
On Monday morning, September 26, 2016, Sr. Anny, a St. Joseph Religious nun, asked me if I wanted to study in Mandalay. “I will be studying in the second biggest city of our country, Hooray!” I said to myself. She repeated, “I am asking you. Do you want to study in Mandalay?” “Of course, Sister,” I replied. She continued to tell me to start preparing for the entrance examination of the Mandalay Archdiocesan Higher Education Center (H.E.C.). I had a bit more than two months for preparation. I started looking for my old English grammar notebooks. I studied. I was ready. Full of excitement, I left my native village in December and headed to Mandalay.
The way to Mandalay was full of wonders. The first thing that amazed me was the endless flat plain of the Sagaing Region where Kalay town lies. In Chin state the only flat area we normally have in villages is the football (soccer) field. What struck me next were the two big rivers – the Chindwin and the Ayeyarwaddy since what I have seen in my place was just mountain streams. Before entering Mandalay City, the economic and religious hub of upper Myanmar, I crossed the never ending, as I thought, Sagaing Bridge. Then, in an hour, I arrived at the H.E.C. which has become my second home.
Now, I had seen what I had never seen before. On the following day I would hear what I had never heard – that there would be an English Listening Test. Never in my life had I listened to English audio recordings.
To make my story short, we were told the results would be out in about three weeks. I felt that I had no hope to be chosen out of 150 applicants from twelve different dioceses. The day came, and I was accepted. Sr. Anny informed me. I could not believe my ears because the listening test had killed my chances, I thought. Fortunately, it was not an admission error, but it might be because I was the only male applicant among six from Hakha Diocese that year!
I went back to the H.E.C in the first week of January 2017 to begin the new academic year. To add to my excitement, there was a special mission for which I was included to carry out. The mission was hunting rats! Truth be told, rats were running wild at the H.E.C. during the absence of the students. The students were on holiday for three months – from October to December – for their University of Distant Education examination. Rat hunting was one of my favorite hobbies. I even called myself “the rat hunter” when I was in my village. This rat-hunting mission immediately made me feel at home at the H.E.C. I believed I was a hero to Fr. Neil Magill as I heard he was terribly afraid of rats.
Classes started. The teachers were amazing. The ways they taught us were totally different from the ways I got used to when I was in public schools. There was no more rote learning or parrot learning. I did not need to memorize written texts. However, this was when I got stuck because I was not able to write even a short simple sentence of my own.
The second day of the first week of the academic year included computer time. Of course, I have seen computers but this was the first time I touched and used a computer with my very hands. Though I was good at rat hunting, I found myself terrible at holding a computer mouse. As months passed, because of the clear instruction of my lovely teacher, Tr Swezin, my computer skill improved. I also dared hold the mouse from its long tail.
Ethics was one of the subjects I liked most. Wow! I learnt so much from it. I was really grateful to our charity sister, Sr. Vincenza who taught us that subject. Because of this subject, my wild mentality was turned into a tame one. On the other hand, I had also become a critic. I became fond of criticizing others, even my subject teachers. I criticized Sr. Vincenza because I thought she did not practice what she taught us. The more I know about ethics, the more I tended to criticize others. How immature I was!
Grammar was another interesting subject. I had no problem at the beginning, but later on the grammar rules became more and more complicated. It turned out to be the cause of my headache. I did not want to hear even the footsteps of our teacher, Fr. Marcus. When it came to grammar learning I was known as the lazybones among my classmates, but I was not one who easily gave up. As a result, I can write grammatically correct sentences after help from my grammar teacher. I could not help admiring him for his patience and kindness.
We also had music class. In fact, it was the most boring class for me because I had no ear for music. Music was, truth be told, a dirty word for me. I was the only student who got scolded on a regular basis by our music teacher, Sr. Maddalena, another charity sister. However, because of her, I can now sing confidently doh, re, mi, fa,…even in my sleep. I can read music notes. I have a feeling now for songs. Thank you, Sr. Maddalena.
What is next? We also had a Buddhist teacher who taught us listening. She was so graceful in her Myanmar dress. I was indeed impressed by the way she dressed herself up. By seeing her, I could feel the importance of a dress code. Although our school is a Catholic school, there were three qualified Buddhist teachers. Our listening teacher was one of them. As it was the scariest subject, I found it super hard. I could not understand what I listened to. They spoke too fast, I thought. In fact, our teacher, Tr Hnin Yu Naing told us that in the audio lessons we had listened to, the speakers spoke slower than their normal speed. Oh my gosh! Then, I realized that my problem was lack of vocabulary not my ears.
Tr John was also a Buddhist teacher we had. He spoke English so fast and fluently that I could not catch a word when he spoke. He taught us reading. I improved both my listening and reading skill a lot because of him. Thank you teacher John. Three other Buddhist teachers were Tr Khin Mya Kywe who taught accountancy to second and third year students, and Tr Tar Tar Zan who taught third year students photoshop. Tr Nicole taught English literature. I always felt small in her presence. She is very tall. I heard they were excellent teachers. I could not wait to be one of their students in second and third year.
Another subject we had was writing. On the first day of our writing class, our teacher, Tr Ambrose, who spoke Burmese and English with a strong Chin accent, told us to write a short paragraph on “My Father.” I wrote twelve sentences altogether. I handed it in. He returned it the next day. I opened my book and found his comment, “This is not a paragraph.” This confused me. I wrote my best, but it turned out to be the worst in my teacher’s eyes. Therefore, I made a resolution, to write in a journal every day to improve my writing skill. As an outcome of journal writing and my teacher’s advice, my writing skill is not so bad as you can guess by reading this story.
A month had passed, but there was still on thing I dared not do – to have a conversation with Columban Fr. Neil, the founder, fundraiser, and the director of the school. He was the only foreigner from European countries I had ever seen in the flesh. Many a time I decided to speak with him. I memorized several phrases and sentences to use, but every time I approached him they vanished like summer clouds. Once, I came across Fr. Neil at one corner of the school building; he greeted me, “Good morning, Paul.” My response was no more than repeating his words, “Good morning.” How I wished I could have longer conversation with him. I had more English than “Good morning.” By the way, Fr. Neil was our spoken English teacher.
On another occasion, when I asked permission to go to the bank to draw some money for school contribution, Fr. Neil said to me, “Are you bringing a gun with you?” My prompt answer was “Yes.” I was naïve. What he asked me, I thought, was if I had my NRC with me (National Registration Card, only with which we are allowed to draw money from banks in Myanmar). He laughed and said, “Go, go. You may go.” How shy I was when I found out what a gun is. I later realized that Fr. Neil liked pulling our legs to make us happy.
How time flew! It was September, the month I hated the most. I hated it for two reasons: Final examinations are held in this month every year. As usual, I had to cram for the examination. I knew cramming was not good but I could not get rid of that bad habit. My laziness had a big influence on my conscious mind. Luckily though, I had a good shortterm memory which usually saved me in my monthly tests.
The second reason I hated the month, September, was because our senior third year students were graduating and leaving the HEC for good. To admit, that was not my genuine reason to hate that month. It was because I fell head over heels in love with one of the older students. I tried many times to tell her that I loved her, but in reality, I did not have the guts. Whenever I was near her, I controlled myself so that she could not hear my heartbeats. To my amazement, for some reason I usually found myself near to her whenever we had school activities. Maybe this is what they call “the power of love.”
One-sided love is painful. Despite my conscious mind that repeatedly told me not to fall in love with anyone, I proclaimed Margarete was my first love (without her knowledge). I hoped our planet earth is just a small world for us. Therefore, on graduation night that year it was full of joy and sorrow.
Oh, I almost forget to tell about my perspective on religions. I am a born Catholic, and my parents are strong Catholics. They are not just Sunday Church goers. At home we never went to bed without saying our night prayers together. Being raised in a pious family, I thought other religions and denominations were just nothing until we had a seminar on “Interreligious Dialogue.” Speakers at the seminar were a Muslim, a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest and a Columban Sister. We also visited our Cathedral, a Buddhist temple and a mosque. It was an invaluable experience. I became more broad-minded on religions. Thank you, Fr. Neil for the seminar. Most importantly, I had cultivated the habit of reading. How fortunate we were to have a library with many Burmese and English books. The types of books ranged from books for kids to books for professionals; from selfhelp books to reference books. The library was the place where I relieved my stress and where I could feed my mind with nutritious food to become a mature, educated and learned person. It is great to have such a good library built up over the past ten years.
Looking in the rearview mirror, my first year life at the H.E.C. in 2017 was truly nostalgic, especially for me because I was able to stay with different ethnic groups under the same roof as brothers and sisters of a family. And these were just a few blessings among many. I am sure we all became more mature after we came to the H.E.C. Personally, I became better in socialization, better in group work, better in my personality and character, better in everything. I was so excited to become a second year H.E,C, student. From the depth of my heart, I thank those who sent me to the H.E.C, who accepted me, who opened my eyes and shaped me, and lastly but not the least I would like to say that I am indebted to our donors and benefactors of the H.E.C, our second home. God bless!”
A student who wishes to remain anonymous shared his story with Columban Fr. Neil Magill.