A story of a little girl’s fight to become a teacher during and after the Dutch occupation in Indonesia.
Note: Today would have been Ati’s 101st Birthday. Ati is how I called my grandmama, the first woman in my family who went to school, got higher education and became a teacher. She was the one who taught me the value of persistence. She taught me to dream big. She was also the teacher who helped me overcoming my learning disability.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
My name is Suparmi. I was born in Indonesia in 1919, during the Dutch occupation in East Indie (Indonesia). Since I was little, I have always wanted to be a teacher. I was sure where my passion came from. Maybe it’s from the moment when I saw my elementary school teachers’ eyes sparkled when they were teaching us; maybe from knowing that they can afford to live in a real brick house; or maybe from my funny great grandmother, who always teased me and called me “Jeng Guru” (Indonesian for “Mrs. Teacher”) since I was only 3 years old (she died when I was 15), which was an impossible occupation for a girl with my status at that time. But indeed, I knew one thing for sure. I would do anything to be a teacher.
No women in my family could read. Women simply didn’t go to school. There’s no such thing as it. Schooling was only for the Dutch and “priyayi” (the Indonesian aristocrats/upper class). And most of it, in general, school (especially the higher level) was only for the men. There was no place for women.
My mother was a “mlijo” (a low-level fruit and vegetable merchant woman in farmer markets). She woke up at 4 am every morning and got ready for work. The market opened at 6 am and she would sit on her little booth, selling spices and some local fruit and vegetables that she picked from our backyard earlier that day. She worked hard but didn’t make a lot. She often said that she’s happy with it because it was her destiny.
Women were only responsible to raise the family and kept their husbands happy. And that’s what I should do too when I grow up. Whether she’s really happy with her life or she’s happy because she didn’t know any other way of living, I don’t know. If there was anybody in our family who thought that education for women was a good thing, it was my father; a quiet, warm-hearted man who loved his family with his whole heart. He was a police officer in our small town. He was not a high-ranked officer, but he made enough for our family to survive.
We were not rich. We lived in a small 5x5m house, made of weaved bamboo and cheap wood, which was divided into 2 rooms; a living room where we did all of our activities during the day, and a one-bedroom where the three of us slept together on a weaved-bamboo bed with no mattress.
Houses made from weaved bamboo were cheap, but surely not the best. I remember having to put our pots and pans under every leak in our house every time there was heavy rain, trying to keep our floor and our possessions dry, even though there were not so many of them. The kitchen, called ‘pawon’ was located outside of the house.
There was only one well in the village that everybody used to get clean water for cooking and washing. We did not have much furniture. All we had were two benches made from cheap wood, a table, and a “balai-balai” (a bamboo sleep platform) which the three of us slept on. It’s hard and uncomfortable, but you just got used to it. The most expensive piece of furniture in our house was the multi function table, made from solid teak wood. It was a gift from a relative. We kept our clothes (there’s not so many of them anyway, each of us only had 2 pairs of clothes) in a “besek”, a box made of cheaply woven bamboo.
Despite all the difficulties, we were a happy family. After dinner, we would sit around the table; I’d be doing my homework, Dad would tell us stories about things that happened at the town that day, and Mom would do some sewing. Once in a while, Dad would ask me questions about my school. He always showed interest in my schooling and things that I learned. I still treasure those moments.
We lived in a small village. In the 1930s there was no school for children there. To go to Sekolah Rakyat (similar to elementary school) and Sekolah Kop (similar to high school) we have to walk to the closest city about 1.5 hours away from a walking distance with no shoes. Shoes or any other footwear were luxuries. Only Dad had a pair to go to work. Mom and I never had any.
I did not mind all that.
I loved school so much that those things never bothered me. During the rainy season, I would cut a big banana leaf and use it as an umbrella when it’s raining. During the dry season, the roads were hot so I would run as fast as possible on the hot dirt road to get to the nearest creek so I could dip my burning feet into the cold water.
We did not have books. For school, Dad bought me a sabak and gripp (some kind of blackboard of the size of a notebook and special chalk that pupils used before paper and pencil were introduced).
I would write the lesson of the day and my homework on it and bring it home to study and memorize them, and then erase everything in the morning, ready for the new lesson. We had to have a good memory to go to school those days.
It was 1935, I was 16. In 6 months I will graduate from Sekolah Kop (high school). I felt a lot of things, anxious, happy, and sad. I was happy because it was a big accomplishment for me, despite all the hardship; I managed to finish school with high marks. I got a lot of compliments from my teachers. But I was also sad because I knew that I would miss going to school and learning tremendously.
My heart ached every time I thought about it. I feel anxious because I know what was waiting for me when I graduate: a marriage.
My mom said that Bin, the eldest son of our neighbor has been asking a lot about me. Indistinctly, he showed interest to have me as his wife. He was a nice guy. I grew very fond of him. He has always been nice and gentle to me. He promised to build a house for both of us when we get married, and we would build a happy family together.
My parents were happy too. My mom said that she has already reserved one spot next to her booth in the farmer market so I can open my booth there. I wanted to make my parents happy, so I agreed to the arranged marriage. But beneath it all, I felt unsettled.
There was an itch in my heart saying there should be more than this in life for me. But there was no other option at that time. There was neither more schooling nor career for girls.
Until one day my teacher mentioned Meisjes Normal School, a four-year teaching school for girls established and subsidized by the Dutch government.
(Note: The Dutch occupied Indonesia for 350 years. They first came in the 1600s, in search of rich areas of spices and other natural resources to be colonized. In early 1900 a group of Dutch concerned people pushed their government and said that the Dutch had been taking so much from its colonized land and that the government should do more to improve the life quality of the indigenous people there. A few schools were built for locals in Indonesia, and Meisjes Normal School was one of them.
Still, not many Indonesians could afford to attend it. Only “priyayi” (Indonesian aristocrats) and a few other rich can afford to send their kids to the Dutch schools). My heart leaped. After class, I came to see my teacher and asked him for more information about it.
He told me that it was a girls-only Dutch boarding school, located in Blitar, a city about 3 hours by bus from Madiun, my city, and there they will educate and train young girls like me to be school teachers. He told me that the school is very strict in keeping its high standard: the entrance test is super hard and the life there will not be easy, but I did not hear any of that.
All I knew was that there WAS a chance for me to make my dream come true. There WAS something more for me in this life.
I knew I wanted it.
I ran almost all the way home; I could not wait to tell my parents and Bin about it.
But things did not turn out as I expected. My mom said that schools are only for men. Girls were supposed to be married and take care of their family; that’s my role, and she went on and on about it.
My Dad was quiet. For the first time, I could not read his expression. The only thing he said was, “It must be very expensive”.
Bin didn’t understand why I was so excited about it. He did not understand why I wanted to spend another 4 years in school while I already had everything that a girl could want (or that was what he thought).
I cried quietly that night, feeling frustrated knowing that I could be something that I have always wanted, but the obstacles seemed like unscalable mountains in my way. Seemed like there was no way for me to have it. I cried myself to sleep.
The next day I made a decision. I came to school earlier to see my teacher and told him that I want to take the entrance test for the school. My teacher told me that the test is only 3 months away; it was extremely difficult and even though I was his best student, there was no way I could prepare myself for it in less than 3 months.
I did not care. I told him that one way or another I would do it. He finally gave in.
He registered me for the test. Three months later, I was sitting in a classroom, doing the test with other girls from my province who wanted the same thing I do. It felt like forever. My teacher was right. The test was very difficult. The same test was being held in every province all over the country, and the school usually will only take a maximum of four girls from every province/area.
When I finished the test I felt drained. I was excited and worried at the same time. I didn’t tell my parents that I took the test.
Weeks passed by as I grew anxious about the result. My mom has started talking about my wedding. She told me that even though we did not have a lot, she wanted me, her only child, to have a proper wedding, even only just a modest one. I have not told anyone about the test.
Then the day came when my teacher hurriedly found me to tell me the news: I got accepted, me and two other girls from our province. He was so excited because never before has one of his students made it to that school. He thought it was a great opportunity for me.
I was ecstatic about the news but also felt uneasy about having to bring the news to my parents. Mom was upset when I told her the news. Dad looked proud but also sad at the same time.
“Nduk ( a call for a young girl), how can we pay for that? As much as I want you to go, we can’t afford it.”
It took me a while to digest his words, and then when they seeped in, I broke down. I never cried in front of my parents before. No matter how hard our life was, we are one happy family.
That was the first time in my life that I felt angry about being poor. I had done everything I could and I actually made it, but then I had to say goodbye to my dreams.
Never had I felt so helpless.
I never brought up the subject again in front of my family.
A couple of weeks went by when my teacher asked me how my preparation for Blitar was going; and told him that I was not going because I could not afford it.
He looked confused and said,
“What do you mean? Your father just came to see me the other day and he gave me the money for the school. You’re going!”
I found out later that my father had sold our teak table and borrowed money from his brother, something that he never did in the past so that I could go to that school.
Bin told me that he would wait for me and that we would get married after my graduation.
Blitar is a small quiet city located in the southeast of Jawa Island. It was my first time away from my family, so I felt a little nervous. Then I saw my new school for the first time. It was amazing. A “U-shaped” brick building with a high ceiling, clean and carefully organized. The classrooms were located in the middle (in the bottom of the “U”), and the dormitory for the girls was located on the wings side.
The school was also equipped with a big swimming pool and an equipped gymnastic hall. The school looked like a fortress. With 24 hour guards, nobody was allowed to enter the school without permission and nobody is allowed to leave the school without special permission either.
The girls were only allowed to leave school once a year to visit their families. There were a total of 160 girls from all over Indonesia, divided into 4 classes; 40 girls in each class. Most of our teachers were Dutch women, only a few were Indonesians.
My daily schedule was as follow:
05.00: a bell for gymnastics or swimming
06.00: a bell for shower
06.30: a bell for breakfast (rice, egg, and sambal)
07.00: a bell to enter morning class
09.00: a bell for morning break ( a bowl of green bean porridge)
09.30: a bell for the noon class
13.00: a bell for lunch (rice, meat, tempe, tofu, vegetable, fruit, and milk)
13.30 a bell for noon break
14.30: a bell for shower
15.00: a bell for the afternoon class
17.30: a bell for dinner
18.30: a bell for a supervised study time;
21.00: a bell to go to bed.
For four years, our life was organized by the bell.
Discipline was really important. It was a tough life, but I enjoyed it so much that I never felt it as hard. I enjoyed every minute that I spent there.
There was so much to learn, there were so many interesting books that I could read; history, literature, mathematics, and many others that I felt like I just did not have enough time. We had to do gymnastics every morning. Swimming was scheduled twice a week.
We have free time during the weekends while the girls can use the recreational room to relax, play games, play music, or just chat. It was equipped with a ping-pong table, a gramophone, and games like chess and many others.
I was so driven to be number one in my class, that I often ‘stole time’ to study during those supervised recreation times. My parents had to work so they can send me here. I did not want to disappoint them.
I wanted to be the best teacher so I can help other Indonesian students and pay my due to my parents.
I did very well at school. Even after three years, I still can keep my marks high. I was the best student in Math. I got 9 (out of 10) in every subject but fitness (I got 7), since I did very poorly in swimming. Just another year to go, I was very excited. I will graduate, get married, and be a teacher. Life seemed so perfect for me. But life threw another curveball.
I still remember that day. It was a long weekend, and many of the girls took the opportunity to go home, visiting their family. I was planning to just stay at school and read. But Mrs. Jan, the headmaster of the school, a warm hearted woman, advised me to go home for this week, visiting my family, because it’s been a while since the last time I see them. So I packed some books to study while I’m there and some gifts for my mom and dad. I took the next train to Madiun and arrived there around the afternoon. Nobody picked me up at the station because I didn’t even have the chance to send news. I took a “becak” (some kind of a rickshaw in Indonesia, but instead of pulling the cart, the driver is pedaling from behind) to my house, and I was excited to see my family.
When the becak approached my house, I was surprised to see a lot of activities and people around my area. It seems like they’re preparing for a celebration, but how come I did not know anything about it?
My father was standing in front of the house when I arrived. He saw the becak approaching the house with me in it, and at once he walked towards me. He helped me get off the becak, kissed my cheeks, and said that he was surprised to see me.
I told him that we have a long break and I decided to visit them. I was very happy to see him again. He looked older, but still my hero, a big-hearted strong man that I always adore. I showed him the gift that I brought for him and mom, and I kept ciphering away about how happy I was to see him, about how much I like my school. I was content, but something was wrong. Somewhat Dad looked uneasy.
I asked him what was going on in our neighborhood and why it was unusually busy.
Dad held my hands and asked me if I read his last letter. I have not; apparently, the mail was late.
Dad looked very sad, as he was brushing my hair with his hand, he said,
“My pretty daughter, my little girl, you’ve been through so much…”.
Then he told me the news. That day was Bin’s wedding. Yes, Bin, my beloved fiancé, who promised to marry me after I graduate. He had a change of heart.
I was heartbroken. So I decided to go back to school.
My dad went with me to the station, he sat next to me in the becak.
We did not talk, he just put his arm around me just like he used to do when I was little, all the way to the station. I cried quietly. I was devastated, but I made a vow that I would not let myself down over it.
I vowed that I would make my life and my family’s life better, no matter what. I studied like crazy. I used all my disappointments as fuel to propel me towards my goal.
I graduated in 1939 and went back to my village in Madiun. Just within 3 days, I got a job offer to teach in a school in Madiun. My first salary was 40 Gulden (Dutch currency) Back then, you could buy a cow for 10 Gulden.
I bought new clothes for my parents and me with that money. I also took them to a restaurant for the first time.
Within less than 2 years, using my savings, I managed to build a house for my parents; a real brick house with a tile roof that wouldn’t leak even during the heaviest rain. The house was big enough for me and my parents to live in. They lived with me until the end of their lives.
I made it. I became a respectable teacher, and then a headmaster, and was able to send my daughters to the best school. One of them became a law lecturer and an activist for women’s rights.
My granddaughter won a scholarship that sent her to study in Canada. Not too bad for a girl who did not even have shoes to walk to school.
About my love life, It was a happy ending too. I met my future husband when I went to the government office to take my first pay cheque. He was a very handsome man who worked there. He was responsible for all teachers’ salaries.
At first, I didn’t even pay attention to him because I knew many good looking guys were never serious about relationships. But it was weird, he asked me a lot of questions, he said it’s for administrative purposes before he approved the cheque.
The next day, he showed up at my work with a bunch of flowers, asking me out.
We got married in less than 6 months, and we lived very happily until he died of an unfortunate accident when my youngest girl was 10. We have 2 wonderful daughters and seven grandkids.
On some nights, I still remember how we used to walk holding hands under the moonlight. Indeed, he would always be in my heart.
During my career, I taught hundreds of students. The highlight of my career was when the Indonesian government finally built a school to train teachers, they chose me to lead the program. I became the teacher of future teachers.
I was proud of my work, as I see it making a “domino effect”.
More girls in my country now have access to education. One thing I always reminded my teacher to be students was:
“Appreciate each student, every single one of them. Encourage them to dream big, because every child is special, and any one of them has the potential to change the future.”