A tribute to my form teacher, Mr Tan Gim Hoe

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The Class of 1976 MCKK was bestowed the title First Thoroughbred (FT) by the then HM, Dato’ Nordin Nasir. The Thoroughbred is a horse breed best known for its use in horse racing. Although the word thoroughbred is sometimes used to refer to any breed of pure-bred horse, it technically refers only to the Thoroughbred breed. Good breeding is the result of good sense, some good nature, and a little self-denial for the sake of others. One of the man responsible for ‘breeding’ the FT would be my teacher, Mr Tan Gim Hoe.

For one thing similar and special, he came straight to MCKK from Teacher’s Training College about the time the FT entered Prep School in early January 1972. He came to teach the FT came to learn. The FT left MCKK 4, 5 or 6 years later but Mr Tan remained in MCKK until October 2005. He has been a familiar feature of MCKK whenever there are events like Old Boys Weekends, Speech Days, Sports day and even during the Centenary Celebration in 2005. He even taught sons of Old Boys who went to MCKK for their secondary education. And not many teachers have the distinction of teaching fathers and sons at the same school.

Mr Tan was the Maths teacher, to be exact the Modern Maths teacher in lower secondary. He also taught Additional Maths for the Upper secondary in his later years (mind you, in Bahasa Malaysia due to the ever changing policy of medium of instruction) in the Malay College. In fact, he was one of my first form teacher in MCKK, Form 1C, when MCKK retook first formers after a hiatus of 4 years. To many Old Boys, Mr Tan is a legend. There are many anecdotes one can remember about legends. Many have theirs and I have mine.

One day, observing my confusion at some mysterious symbols of some especially incomprehensible mathematical concept, he shook his head in a pity so genuine it was almost tender. “What happened to you? You don’t even know what you don’t know.” he said. “Now that is a problem.” Not often in my life, (perhaps,maybe during the akad nikah (wedding solemnisation ceremony) do such transformative lines float by.

Suddenly, you had an intuitive grasp of reality when you hear one, though. And good teachers are good at that. They have a way of breaking the cement box containing your head, without breaking your head in the process. They can show you how to be smart – or what’s stopping you.

He was as I remembered him during my time that he was also a master in charge of the Table Tennis Team, the Red Crescent and in later years as a Swimming instructor for the swimming and water polo team. And of course, as I remembered he was also master for Mohd Shah House. Apart from being a subject matter expert, Mr. Tan also writes book on his subject.

At the Malay College in the ’70s, we had teachers Mr Goh Cheng Leong, Mr D. J. Tate and Mr Tan Gim Hoe – who literally wrote the books on the subjects they taught. (Geography, History and Mathematics, respectively). Cikgu Tan holds the record of serving 33 years 10 months in the Malay College – a all-time record, beating the previous record held by Mr Amirthalingam, the PE teacher. But even that wasn’t the whole of it.

They also kept learning more themselves, about all sorts of things, and passing it on. Knowledge, they showed, was not an end but a means; not a product but a process. And to them, the mind was a muscle, and needed to be exercised.

So when Mr Tan taught, we tried to study and let it be known that studying in MCKK is like rowing against the current of the Perak River; if you are not moving forward fast enough, you would probably be moving backward and you might end up in Tasik Raban or Temenggor.

Me, Mr Tan and Helmy Had, 2005 – his final year of service.

It’s more about being instructive than inspirational. Great teachers like Mr Tan don’t just tell; they show. They have to have a talent for it, I think, which is why there aren’t that many great, or even good, teachers. What made a teacher good; I see now, began with knowing their subject. You didn’t get the feeling they’d had to learn what they were teaching, but that they simply knew it.

To them, to teach is to learn. He didn’t just taught Maths but inculcate the interest of Maths. I remember when I was in Form One or maybe Form Two, there was this school exhibition on Speech Day when every subject had to exhibit things connected to the subject. Mr Tan didn’t just put up maths formula on manila cards but instructed us to build 3-D models with 2-D surfaces with exotic names like dodecahedron, hexahedron, icosahedron, octahedron tetrahedron (and all other “hedron yang sebentuk dengannya”) and of course the hyperboloid which is not the distant cousin of Mongoloid. That made mathematics more fun.

One time, Mr Tan conducted a IQ test during Saturday Prep on his own initiative. The results confirmed that most of us had a brain and IQ higher than Chimpanzees.

Mr Tan would fret and do counselling to those weaker than best student’s performance and would readily do extra tuition class on his own time and initiative.

During exam day, especially for Maths Paper, Mr Tan would go to the dorms and personally wake those still sleeping exhausted from their last minute study the night before. He would also be the only teacher waiting outside the Hargreaves Hall wishing and encouraging his students to do well on the Maths papers. It was noted that after all his 33 years of tenure in the school, the school rewarded him with a farewell tea party for him. I supposed that the standard operating reward for dedicated years of service this days.

Such dedication has not gone unnoticed by First Thoroughbreds and all other Thoroughbreds that followed and for this we honour you. I hope that the pewter statue of a Thoroughbred horse and its foal that we presented to you in 2005, would you remind you of us always. That momento is a gift of appreciation from the FT after your 33 years 10 months of unselfish service under 11 headmasters of MCKK. To us, you are a Thoroughbred Teacher. Or a Thoroughbreeder!!

Good teachers like Mr Tan knew the score, and the drill. They could show us how things worked, what was what, and why things were. The best of them taught us nothing so much as how to learn. (“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know, as long as you know how to find out.”) They treated education as exploration. (“Go from the unknown to the known and maybe for some from the known to the unknown.”) They knew that teachers are meant to empower, not wield power; to open doors and windows, not be the view.

A famous Chinese proverbs says, “Teachers open the door but you must walk through it yourself..”. The Great Chinese scholar, Confucius also once said “…3 people walking abreast, my teacher must be amongst them..”. But maybe Confucius was confused when saying that but I’ll say, “..3 people walking abreast, Mr Tan Gim Hoe must be amongst them..”.

So with that, to you and all our dedicated teachers, there’s no way we can repay you. Look at what you’ve made us become – older, wiser, intolerant, sensitive (though not necessary in that order), balding and pot-bellied. But underneath all that, you made us believe in ourselves to achieve our dreams and ambitions, which started with a simple mathematical formula in Modern Maths that says one plus one must always be equal to two.

You deserved the best because you gave your best. And there’s a great difference for being the best given by school and country and being the best because your former students say so and we appreciate you for that. So, for your dedicated teachings all these years I say (in my limited Chinese dialect), Tho che, gam sia, xie-xie, mgoi, Sifu Tan. In Indian, Womenandre, Guru Tan, Terima Kasih Gik Gu Tan and finally, thank you very much, sir! You taught us well and we are proud to be your student.

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