PETALING JAYA: Going to school is an 80km journey by scambler motorcycle for teacher Zulhairy Abdul Rahman. He must be up at 5am so he can be at Sekolah Kebangsaan Lenang at 7am.
“You have to see it to believe it,” he says.
But after two years with Orang Asli children at the school, deep in the forests of Pahang, he has overcome his fears and reluctance, and the rough and tumble of his daily journeys.
When he first received the offer to teach at the school two years ago, it was far from what he had imagined it to be.
“I was reluctant to come here at first,” said Zulhairy, who is from Kuala Lipis. He was expecting to be transferred to an urban school and was hesitant about the offer but he decided to have a look at the school first before deciding.
There was no way to go in except through the logging road, a muddy and uneven track along the river.
Now he travels back and forth from SK Lenjang to Felda Sungai Koyan every day, where his pregnant wife and family live, although some teachers stay at the school and go home once in two days.
It’s tiring on the road, he has to cope with falling off the bike, getting covered in mud, suffering punctured tyres and breakdowns. Rain makes the journey even more treacherous.
“I would be lying if I said that I haven’t thought twice about going there,” he said.
However, he changed his mind after creating a bond with the Orang Asli children. They are no different from children in urban areas, except for their limited access to technology and the outside world.
He teaches a remedial class, as many are slow to catch up, and are left behind. “Some of them are in Standard 2 and 3, but they still do not know how to read and speak, in Malay especially,” he said.
He speaks to them in their native Semai language to help them cope with lessons. “It is challenging but I keep trying until they can speak.” It is rewarding when his hard work paid off and his pupils are able to speak fluently.
Zulhairy said the children suffered from a low awareness of the importance of education, leading to problems with attendance, let alone hygiene.
“It has always been their culture. They are playful, they are more keen to play around, while the culture to study is lacking.”
After two years, Zulhairy, 30, said he has adapted after stepping out of his comfort zone and is now at home with the Orang Asli children.
For the moment, he has no plans to seek a transfer to a different school.
His colleague, Ahmad Saidin Mohd Idris, has been teaching at SK Lenjang for five years. He, too, was a bit shocked when he received the offer to teach there, and having to face the fact of travelling back and forth, often splattered in mud, and going through thick forest every day.
He, Zulhairy and two other teachers usually travel in convoy using offroad motorcycles.
He is not sure of his future plan but intends to stay, as long as his service is needed. He teaches a moral education class and says he has fun in getting to know the Orang Asli children and learning from their perspective.
“I can handle it,” he said.
Headmaster Hamzah Mat Jusoh said he is aware of the hardship faced by teachers living outside the school. He, too, found it challenging when he received the offer to be the head of the school. He said it took nearly five hours to travel to the school because of the uneven road.
But the government carried out road repairs and the journey became less arduous, with travelling time cut to one-and-a-half hours.
SK Lejang is categorised as a rural school. It has an enrolment of about 400 pupils from Standard One to Standard Six.