A Writer Writes
by Jim Wolter (Malaysia 1962-66)
Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School had no biology or senior math teacher, no library and a floundering boy scout troop before I arrived. Within weeks my biology and math students were making significant progress, I started a library using my own books and revived the scout troop. So I couldn’t understand why I was being replaced by a new PCV and transferred to Tengku Bariah Secondary School (TBSS). I suggested that the Peace Corps assign the new PCV to TBSS, but was told the Ministry of Education’s decision was final and not open for discussion.
Worse, upon reporting to TBSS, I was assigned to teach Islamic Studies to students preparing to sit for the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE). I told the Headmaster I knew nothing about Islam and couldn’t possibly teach it. He said that if the Muslim teachers taught the class and the students failed the teachers would loose standing in the community and it was politically unfeasible for the other non-Muslim teachers to teach Islamic Studies so I was the only option. He added that all he expected me to do was provide the students with a supervised study period until the Ministry sent an Ustaz (Muslim scholar).
I resented being used as an expedient placeholder by the Ministry and felt abandoned like an expendable pawn by the Peace Corps. After a few days of feeling sorry for myself and brimming with guilt for only providing my students a supervised study period, I confessed to them that I knew nothing about Islam, but if they agreed and with their help I would do my best to prepare them for the LCE.
I had them interview older siblings and cousins to collect questions from prior LCE exams. I arranged the questions in what I hoped was a logical topical sequence. I constructed quizzes, but my students had to correct each others answers because of my lack of knowledge. My students did their best to teach me the answers as if preparing me for the LCE, and they seemed to enjoy our role reversals teasingly calling me “American Ustaz” as I stumbled along hoping but not knowing whether we were on the right track.
Ustaz finally arrived just in time to get the students through the LCE. He was a man of quiet reserve so I was astonished at the end-of-year faculty meeting, and found it particularly heart warming, when he publicly thanked me for standing in for him and referring to me as his “Brother Ustaz”, graciously credited me with our students’ success on the LCE.
*Photo on my motorbike in Kuala Trengganu back in 1962 when my hair was thick and waist thin!
Jim Wolter (Malaysia 1962-66) took a leave of absence from medical school to enter the Peace Corps in October 1962 and served in Malaysia until he was ordered by his draft board to report back to Chicago for a physical in May 1966. His primary Peace Corps assignment was to teach biology but depending on the need he also taught chemistry, physics, mathematics, English and Islamic Studies. Fong Moke Chee, a Malaysian art teacher, and Jim were married in 1963 and there two children were born in 1965. They currently reside in Winnetka, Illinois. After the Peace Corps he was a special education teacher, public school administrator, university professor and administrative law judge.