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To Be A Pemberontak

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That was what I said I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote a little essay (I can’t even remember for what reason) while in grade school talking about my ambitions. I said I wanted to be a scientist and a pemberontak; pemberontak means rebel in the Malay Language. But taken into extreme context, it can also be used to denote ‘traitor’.

I remembered reading this word in a novella. I thought it meant ‘inventor.’ I didn’t look up the dictionary, I just assumed that it meant that, though why I even assumed so, I can’t remember. Maybe it is because the pemberontak character in the story seems to be the most interesting, the one refusing to conform. After all, to be an inventor is to say that the status quo is not enough, that there is another better way to do things, to get things done, to move out the enforced mould.

So, I wrote that I wanted to be a pemberontak. I got pulled up by my class teacher, a mostly ineffectual and lackadaisical woman who hardly ever came to class. In fact, she usually did not show up for class for weeks on end, and the class I was in was one of the wildest ever. A few of us (less than 10) managed to make it to college, ranging from the equivalent of a community college to a national university, except for one girl who was could afford to go abroad. However, a larger number became dropouts and problem kids, a few not even reading at grade level. Not like she cared. I’ll call her Ms F.

My writing about wanting to be a pemberontak must have shakened her, hence her pulling me up for that pep-talk. Otherwise, I was hardly in her radar. To warn me of the consequence (the police will catch you). If I learnt nothing for the five years of my grade school life, except when some nice trainee teachers came to teach us math and the Malay Language, and maybe an English teacher or two, I did learn about the word pemberontak.

None of us knew how to memberontak in a constructive way, having been trained into docility at an early age when dealing with authoritarian figures, but engaging in ‘mass destruction’ among our peers. By sixth grade, I was moved into a different class where we were forced into rigid exam-cramming mode. I sat in the ends of a rigidity in the final year and a laxity that’s been the first five years of grade school. We were warned, again and again, to not write anything that would touch on matters of religion, politics and race. Maybe they feared the resurfance of the word pemberontak in another student’s essay.

I’ve always tried to memberontak in adulthood, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Deep down inside, I believe that I harbor a fear of the authoritarian representation, having that drilled into my unconscious so many times over by that devious pedagogy I was subjected to in my grade school years, and later, through junior high and high school. The depths of that unconscious fear may require much pyschoanalysis to uncover. Maybe that is why that some of my nightmares always involved a return to the school setting and my sheeplike subservience to the regime, however many years I’ve grown since.


Clarissa Lee is a graduate student in Literature at a southeastern university in the US. She writes in an attempt to maintain a balance of sorts in her usually all-consuming academic life.

Images belong to Aaron Koblin‘s interactive online project ‘The Sheep Market‘.  Workers were paid USD$0.02 to draw ‘a sheep facing to the left’ on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk digital service. 10,000 sheep were collected and can be bought as a series of adhesive stamps for USD$20 while stocks last – (SC)

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 8 July 2010.

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