Teacher Cheryl Fernando was in disbelief when a film producer approached her. Never in her wildest imagination did she think that someone would want to turn her stories posted on Facebook into a movie.
Early last year, Fernando, 31, was approached by executive producer Jason Chong. He had read about how Fernando formed a choral speaking team in a rural school in Kedah and wanted to make a movie based on her experiences.
At first, she thought he was joking but later realised Chong was serious about it. He was determined and had even prepared a story outline. He eventually brought along Singaporean film director Eric Ong and actress Sangeeta Krishnasamy to meet her.
At that time, Fernando was a teacher at Teach For Malaysia, a non-profit organisation.
She was also writing a fortnightly column for The Malaysian Insider (a now defunct news portal). Often, she shared her personal stories of what happened in the classroom and sometimes, about her students.
In 2008, Fernando, who has a degree in mass communications from Taylor’s University College in Petaling Jaya, worked as a public relations consultant in Kuala Lumpur for four years. Later, she found that she loved teaching children after volunteering to teach underprivileged students in Puchong, Selangor.
In 2011, she worked as an assistant teacher for students with special needs for a year at Garden International School in KL.
“I wanted to learn how they do things in an international school and apply it to local schools,” explained Fernando.
Road to success
In 2013, she took “a significant pay cut” to join Teach For Malaysia. The organisation accepts fresh graduates or young professionals without teaching degrees or teaching backgrounds but have the passion for teaching.
After eight weeks of training, she was placed in SMK Pinang Tunggal, a rural school in Sungai Petani, Kedah.
It was “a very difficult transition” for city lass Fernando. But her parents were supportive and drove her all the way there to look for a house to rent.
“Rental was cheap at RM250 per month. Food was also very cheap and delicious. Until today, I missed the food in Kedah and missed laksa Kedah,” she exclaimed.
At first, she found it “weird” that the locals ate a heavy breakfast of rice with lauk (dishes). A few months later, she found herself eating heartily like Kedahans!
Fernando taught English in the school for three years. SMK Pinang Tunggal is a “high needs” (underperforming) school where pupils require a lot of help.
Initially, she was frustrated that her students were afraid to speak English, preferring Bahasa Malaysia, instead. She used creative ways, such as games and popular pop songs (by Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars), to encourage them to speak in English.
Later, she and other teachers coached them in choral speaking (recitation of poetry or prose by a chorus or ensemble).
“During my first year in the school, the students entered a district-level choral speaking competition but did not win,” she recalled.
“The 35 students entered the competition again during my third year (in 2015) and made it to the Top 5 (among 25 schools) at Kuala Muda/Yan district level,” she said.
Fernando herself was a choral speaking member of her school (SRK Taman Sri Gombak, Selangor) team in Year Six. Her team went on to become Selangor state champions.
Making of the film
The film, Adiwiraku (My Superhero), which premieres in Malaysian cinemas on March 9, is an adaptation of Fernando’s anecdotes. Costing RM600,000 to produce, it stars Sangeeta, Xavier Fong and students from SMK Pinang Tunggal.
“The premise revolves around a teacher who leads her students to emerge fifth in a choral speaking competition. It tells of the struggles and joys of students and is one of the first few teacher-student movies in Malaysia,” related Fernando.
Certain moments in the film, said Fernando, were inspired by real life events but were exaggerated for dramatisation and to protect the identities of students still in the school.
Besides contributing her stories to the movie, she offered edit suggestions to the script.
According to Fernando, the production team thought it would be good to shoot the movie at the original school and involve the students as actors.
The team met the school authorities and obtained permission from the Education Ministry, parents and students before shooting the film.
“Sixty students, including child actors from Kedah, were picked after being auditioned. Filming took place last March for two weeks during the school holidays,” said Fernando.
“I was touched by how hard the students worked. They were a very dedicated lot who never acted in their lives but had a lot of passion,” mused Fernando, whose character is played by Sangeeta. The actress restyled her hair to look like her.
“My (ex) students told Sangeeta how I walked and talked,” she said, adding that they were at first confused and thought the actress was there to replace her as their new teacher!
Fernando visited the film set once and is looking forward to the premiere.
“A few students will be coming from Kedah. It will be interesting to watch their reactions to the movie,” she said.
She is still in disbelief that her simple story of teaching in a rural school has been made into a movie.
“It’s surreal and even more so watching my own students act in the movie,” quipped Fernando, who has seen the movie thrice.
“I feel that this film is a representation of teachers in Malaysia. Very often, people are quick to criticise and comment on what a teacher does, but they fail to see the daily struggles a teacher has to go through,” she opined.
“I hope this movie will inspire young people to join the teaching force and for teachers to know that their mission to provide quality education is appreciated and will never be forgotten by their students.”
Presently, Fernando is director of Education & Learning at EduNation, an online initiative which provides free and quality education for all students in Malaysia. She manages content development of the online platform, recruits teachers and ensures videos are up to par.
Not surprisingly, Fernando still loves teaching.
This year, she again volunteered to teach English to poor students in a Christian centre in Puchong every Saturday. She concluded: “You can’t work in education and not be connected with students and their progress.”