I come from a family of five – my parents, my two brothers and I. Growing up, we were a very low-income family, living in Kuala Lumpur. My dad worked in a blue-collar job, and my mum had to quit her job after she had my little brother, because of the recession.
When I was a kid, we had a lot of financial issues. We depended on my dad’s single income – if I’m not mistaken, it was around RM500 a month, it maybe went up to RM800 when I was 17. I honestly don’t know how we got by. My mum managed the money, made sure we went to school and ate every day.
It was a very tough journey for us. There were times when we only ate rice, anchovies and bean sprouts for days; I don’t think my mum even ate. We were lucky because my aunt helped us a lot. She gave us food and encouragement. My mum helped take care of her sisters’ children to earn extra money. Somehow my brothers and I managed to finish school.
Fighting for my future
When I was 13, an opportunity opened up for me to go to one of the top-performing secondary schools in KL, not that I had good results, but because there was a programme for kids like me. Unfortunately, I needed to commute daily by train and we couldn’t afford the fare. I ended up going to a band 5 school instead (Malaysian schools are ranked band 1 for top performing, to band 7 for lowest performing).
It was then when I started to think about my future. How can I be successful in life? At that time, I didn’t care about English, though my mum frequently stressed that it was important. A senior in my school told me, “You’re not going to go anywhere if you don’t excel in English.” That really made me think.
I was lucky to meet a few awesome teachers, and in Form 4, I met my best friend, Sri Venkateswara Rao. I told him, “I really, really want to learn English, but maybe it’s too late.” He said, “It’s not too late, just learn English.”
I was touched when he made an announcement within our small group of friends: “Whenever Helmy speaks English, nobody is to laugh at him. We correct him… unless he laughs at himself haha.” So for two years, I learned to speak English, I learned how to write. Although I didn’t get an A in English for SPM, it paid off. I was satisfied because I was able to speak English!
Things started to turn around. I pursued a Diploma in Science, and worked really hard. I ended up being first in my class. One semester, I scored a 4-flat CGPA; all my grades were an A or A+.
I got about 10 offers from universities in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. One of the universities even offered me a kind of scholarship, but I literally didn’t have any money to buy a plane ticket there. So I had to turn it down – and all the other offers.
Although we are orang susah, and my parents’ highest qualification is SPM, they taught us to set a high bar for ourselves. 90% of the time, we may not be able to achieve it, but it becomes our source of encouragement.
So I didn’t give up. I went to a local university to pursue my degree, and got second in my class. Once again, I got an offer from one of the top universities in London, but I got a scholarship to pursue a PhD in Singapore instead.
Unfortunately, I fell into depression. I didn’t have many friends to lean on. My results suffered. Back home, my dad was getting warded at the hospital every week; he had terrible asthma. I had to go back to KL, and withdrew from pursuing my PhD. But I didn’t stop – I enrolled at the University of Malaya to pursue a Master’s in Computational and Experimental Physics.
Then, I found out that a friend of mine applied for the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship. Although I felt like I didn’t have anything to offer, I wanted to do something for students in Malaysia. I didn’t want them to be like me, struggling to survive after school.
So I applied for the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship, and today, I am a full-time English teacher at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang, Johor.
Opening up opportunities
My aunt told me, if you want to succeed in life, you need to have better education, to have better opportunities. Though life was hard, I had certain opportunities opened to me. And that’s what I can give my students – opportunities.
For some, their only goal is to get an SPM certificate – they only want to pass Bahasa Melayu and Sejarah, the bare minimum.
During #TFMweek this year, the CEO of Iskandar Malaysia, YBhg Prof Datuk Ismail Ibrahim was a guest teacher to my class. I’m really thankful for his session because it opened my students’ eyes. This is one of the weakest classes in Form 5, ranked 11th out of 13 classes. More than half of them failed BM and Sejarah, only six students passed English. Now they really want to pass not just BM and Sejarah, but also English, in hope of a better future.
They told me they felt lucky, because normally only the top class would get access to special opportunities. Since then, I see my students thinking about what they want to do after SPM, like to be a make-up artist or nurse, when the norm in their community was to just get married after school, if you weren’t good academically.
They also thought it was too late for them to learn English. I told them I only started learning English in Form 4, and that they can be as good or much better than me. They may be weak in English now, but I can see them making an effort. They even try to speak English whenever they see me outside class.
Most of the students in these weak classes come from families that are poor. I want them to believe that they can be a successful person one day.
Today, I feel ready to share my story with you, because I feel successful in my own way, now that I’m a teacher. I’m proud of my students – they are my biggest achievement. I’ve seen changes in them these past 8 months, I wonder what changes I’ll see if I teach for another 8 years?
Helmy Arifin is a 2017 Teach For Malaysia Fellow, who teaches English at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang, Johor. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Universiti Teknologi Mara, and is pursuing a Master’s in Physics at the University of Malaya. He is involved in several initiatives to expand opportunities for students including Project Kickstart, Arduino Innovation Project and Local Focal.
Everyone deserves a #fightingchance. Get in the front line in the fight against education inequity. Apply for the Fellowship today or donate RM50 monthly to help empower one Fellow to impact two students.
Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 73,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.