PUPILS and teachers of Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) returned to school yesterday to the sober reality that seven of their schoolmates and two teachers were not coming back.
They died during an expedition to Mount Kinabalu when an earthquake in Sabah on June 5 caused massive rockfalls.
"Some of you might have known these students personally. Many of them were our student leaders, so you would have known them by their faces," said TKPS principal Caroline Wu yesterday.
Altogether, 29 Primary 6 pupils and eight teachers had gone on the trip.
"I am confident that... we will be able to bounce back. We will emerge from this stronger," Mrs Wu told pupils during the morning assembly.
She also called on them to be respectful and compassionate, and not pressure the survivors or the siblings of the victims for their accounts of the disaster. Three of the victims have siblings in Primary 4. Mrs Wu ended by asking the school to "cheer up, move on and be strong".
Their deaths had plunged a nation into mourning.
At the entrance to the school, sunflowers and balloons with the messages "Welcome Back" and "Little Bravehearts and Courageous Teachers" greeted the pupils. Teachers and pupils also received a small bouquet of flowers each, as a way of remembering those who had perished.
The contributions were made by Mr James Ho, who lost his 12-year-old daughter Rachel in the disaster, on behalf of the
parents of the victims.
"We wanted to give the students and teachers encouragement as they walked into the school," said Mr Ho, 45. "It is our own small way of making sure the TKPS community settles in and adapts back to life here."
But he said he felt "a bit of an emptiness" since he would normally drop his daughter off at school before going to work.
"It is the first day of school and it feels different," he said, adding that he missed the routine of having short but cherished conversations with Rachel in the car. "But we are recovering and, with the TKPS community behind us, we are not alone."
Several new staff members started work yesterday, including a third vice-principal and two school counsellors. The school now has four counsellors to offer support to those affected.
Instead of the scheduled lesson after the assembly, pupils returned to their classes and shared how they felt, while the teachers taught coping strategies. After that, normal classes resumed.
TKPS teacher Ashiq Hashim, who sat next to the late teacher Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed in the staff room, lost a confidant and good friend he had known for more than two decades.
"We have to be positive and help the kids to move forward. The school still has to function," said Mr Ashiq, 35.
The solemn mood, especially among the Primary 6 pupils, dissipated over the course of the day.
"Kids being kids, once they are with friends, they will lighten up," Mr Ashiq said. "It was nice to see them smiling."