Malaysia's longest-serving teacher decries lack of mixing between the races in school

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Lack of racial mixing among students has always irked Malaysia's longest-serving teacher, Mr Francis Santa Maria.

Sixty years as a teacher and still going strong, Mr Santa Maria, who turned 80 last week, said he would never allow his students to form cliques based on race.

"If I saw a group of boys all from one race forming cliques, I would ask them, 'What is going on? Mix with others'. I never allowed that!"

On his birthday, the former headmaster of La Salle Brickfields was entered into the Malaysian Book of Records with the accolade of "longest-serving teacher".

"The award is a real honour," he said, joking that he would be framing it up complete with a small spotlight.

In his own words, Mr Santa Maria has "survived World War 2, the Emergency, the May 13 riots, travelled the world, driven fast cars, met hordes of people and educated thousands of young students" - a charmed and illustrious life indeed.

Born on Jan 15, 1935, Mr Santa Maria became a teacher in 1953 while waiting for his Form Five (Cambridge School Certificate) results.

"At first I had no intention of becoming a teacher. It was just a temporary job while waiting for my results. But then I found I liked it, and after I got my results I just continued," he said in an interview yesterday.

"I never even considered changing jobs as I was so fully involved in my career. I've met teachers who hated their jobs, and I told them to quit. It's not fair to the students - and you can't bluff them. They know when teachers aren't bothered."

After 31 years at La Salle Sentul, Mr Santa Maria moved to La Salle Brickfields, where he became headmaster in 1986, after which he had a short stint at MAZ International school before moving to Stella Maris Primary School in 1994.

A jazz aficionado and sports car fanatic - he has owned a Renault Dauphine, an MG Midget, a Triumph Spitfire, a Mitsubishi Colt Celeste and a Mitsubishi Sapporo, which he has been driving for the last 33 years - Mr Santa Maria enjoys most the challenges of teaching.

"I always try and impart more than the subject when I am teaching. To inspire my students, I always include stories about real people and heroic deeds which I find from reading the newspapers, watching the news or reading autobiographies."

Mr Santa Maria said that he loved teaching mathematics because children so often had difficulties with the subject.

"If you teach maths, you have to be good at explaining. Children tend not to like it, so I come up with simple solutions that they can use."

Now the lifelong bachelor and self-described "former fashion plate" (he owned 30 pairs of shoes, including snakeskin boots) said he enjoys his twilight years in the company of nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews and, of course, his former students.

"During my birthday celebrations I received letters from as far away as Alaska and Bosnia-Herzegovina."

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