It is easy in a season of Christmas fun and food to forget the really poor and those helplessly sick. Miss May Lilly was in charge of the Methodist Girls’ School when it met in the Middle Road chapel more than a hundred years ago. Visiting some of her destitute pupils and their families, she provides us with food for thought.
‘AN AFTERNOON’S CALLS: The School has not been growing so fast as it ought lately. What’s the reason? Is it because the fees, one dollar a month, are too high? Aside from the Orphanage girls there are very few free pupils. At one time there were many such, and no one paid more than twenty-five cents. They came with about one book for two girls and sat six in a row, and six teachers in a room.
While thinking about that time I set out to visit the children whose friends have complained they were unable to pay the usual fee. The first place was a typically miserable Tamil hut. The mother was an ayah, and she had been very ill and was still unable to wait upon herself, and the girl of eight or nine was her only helper. Of course, the illness had cut off the eight dollars wages she had been earning.
At the next place a narrow footpath led in between two shop-houses to a sort of court mostly peopled by poor Portuguese. One of my pupils was living in the first bare house. When an infant, she had been adopted by an aunt, her own mother paying ten dollars a month for her support. The aunt had something more than a half dozen children of her own and then the husband died, and this ten dollars of the adopted child seemed to be the only available resource of the bereft family. While getting this information, various neighbours came, and among them, one of my old time pupils. I went next door to see her mother who is a leper, and to ask if the story I had heard was true. She assured me it was.
In the crowd I had seen a tiny tot who had been absent several days. I asked why, and was told that the teacher had asked for her fees and she had none to pay. The mother came to explain, bearing in her hands the tiniest, poorest little morsel of a starved two-month-old baby whose father had died suddenly six months ago, leaving the wife wholly unprovided for. I promised the child free admission and took a tin of milk to the baby next day.
I asked my friend what their church did to help its poor people. She did not seem to know. Then I asked her if the priest would give her anything if she asked for it. “O, yes, half a bag of padi and thirty cents a month.” “Rent?” “No, that’s all.”
After leaving that house I stopped at a Jew’s where two girls spend most of the time on the dirty road. I found three families in one small shop-house. The father had earned fifteen dollars and paid six dollars for rent. Then he paid school fees and kept his mother, wife and three children, but sickness had stopped his wages. So I applied to and received their fees from the Children’s Aid Society. Also for their fair-haired little Jewish neighbour, an orphan.
We are urged to make our Girls’ Schools self-supporting. Is it not at the expense of our usefulness?’ – MM, Dec 1905, p.25, 27.
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By May Lilly