The Princess and the Library

Guest Article by Sarah Toigo
George Washington University
Mural painted by ETA Sarah Toigo and students celebrating the opening of the new hostel library
“Oh by the way, Teacher, the Princess is coming,” one of my students interjected matter-of-factly as we chatted in the teacher’s lounge on an otherwise normal Thursday morning. Assuming this was a reference to Frozen, a movie that has a cult-like following at my Malaysian school I nodded understandingly and redirected the conversation towards an English paper I was helping her with. It was not until I heard my mentor utter the same sentence that the realization sunk in – they were not talking about an ice-slinging animation from a fictional Disney kingdom. Raja Yong Sofia, Princess and daughter of the late Sultan of Perak, would be coming to my host school, SMK Muhibbah!
Hours later, still processing the morning’s discovery, I found myself in the dining hall of my school’s on-campus hostel. To my left I was surrounded by students adorned in colorful attire (a marked departure from their usual bi-color school uniforms); to my right I was flanked by female teachers in their best baju kurung and men donning black songkoks draped with a white strip to denote mourning; and seated directly across from me was the Princess herself, looking effortlessly elegant in a pink, beaded dress. After silently lamenting my own mundane outfit choice, I mustered up the nerve to start a conversation. Much to my relief, our dialogue flowed easily as we discussed common interests (we both share a passion for running), my role as a Fulbright ETA, and some of the challenges my host school was facing – namely low literacy rates and overall academic performance. I told her that my objective for the year was to help tackle both of these problems, focusing primarily on increasing engagement and participation among my school’s Orang Asli students (peoples indigenous to Malaysia), who make up over 50% of the student body.
ETA Sarah Toigo with Princess Raja Yong Sofia
We parted ways after our brief conversation, and I was left feeling grateful for the opportunity to interact with someone in such a respected position. I didn’t think much else of our interaction until weeks later when my mentor casually mentioned that the Princess had given a sizable monetary donation to the hostel during her visit. I wasn’t at all surprised by her generosity, and remarked that I was sure the money would be put to good use. Shortly thereafter a faint, flickering light bulb went off in my head as I thought of what that use could be: building a library at the school’s hostel, a project that had been turning in my mind for some time but hadn’t made it much further due to lack of available funding.
As mentioned earlier, a large portion of my school’s student body consists of Orang Asli students, the majority of whom live at the school’s on-campus hostel rather than commute from their remote villages (which are usually hours away). While tremendously talented in a number of areas, literacy and English proficiency, and even Malay language proficiency rates among this population at my school are low (in their defense, the first language of the Orang Asli students at my school is neither Malay nor English, but instead an Orang Asli dialect called Temiar). During the first few months at my school I realized that a factor that contributed to these trends was limited access to reading materials. Students residing in the hostel had a desire to read and improve their academic performance, as well as ample free time to do so, but were severely limited in terms of the resources available outside of school hours.
With a potential funding source identified, my mentor and I set to work writing a proposal for the effort and were thrilled when only days later we received approval from the school principal. We set to work, identifying a small room in the hostel which was previously used as a meeting space/storage room and could be repurposed for our library. Next, several students and I grabbed some paint rollers, applied a fresh coat of green paint to the walls (and each other… who said work couldn’t be fun?), and sketched out a new, reading-themed mural. Then came the decidedly fun task of shopping for furnishings and reading materials. I was thrilled to find an American library essential- bean bag chairs- at a local department store, as well as some reasonably priced English-language books at a used book store (including some of my own childhood favorites, such as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Goosebumps series). Realizing that our dedicated budget would not support all that we envisioned for the project, I launched a small fundraiser online which surpassed its goal and raised an additional RM1,400 ($400) in donations to supplement our existing budget.
ETA and students getting down to work
Months later, I am happy to report that we are just a few days away from the library’s grand opening and are set to complete the project on schedule. All the proposal writing and late night painting (and associated paint-ruined articles of clothing) proved to be completely worthwhile when I delivered the first round of furniture and books last week. After setting up some new chairs and placing a stack of books on a table, I looked on with tears in my eyes as 20 anxious hands grabbed the books and ran over to our newly established reading corner, gleefully plopping into beanbag chairs and arranging themselves on the new carpet with their reading materials in hand. Over the next half hour the only sound that could be heard was the faint flipping of pages and an occasional giggle rising from behind the books – it was truly music to my ears.
Students at SMK Muhibbah enjoying the new library reading corner
             My last day at my host school is right around the corner- a reality that has been weighing heavily on me recently, but as I stand in the Library my feelings of sadness and nostalgia partially subside and I am filled with gratitude, pride, and hope. I am grateful that a Princess and a number of my friends and family were kind enough to donate to our school, that my mentor was willing to work behind-the-scenes to make this project come to life, and that my students so enthusiastically donated their own free time to bring our vision to fruition. I am proud that in some small way I am accomplishing the goals I set out for myself and that my legacy will include something tangible to be used for years to come. Finally, I am hopeful that with this new wealth of books at their disposal the students at my hostel will be able to improve their reading skills, hone their English language proficiency, and, perhaps most importantly, begin to explore the furthest corners of their imaginations…what better place to start than in a fairy tale-library created (in part) by a Princess!

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