1 TEN NEW STUDENTS
That morning, when I was just a boy, I sat on a long bench outside a school. The branch of an old filicium tree shaded me. My father sat beside me, hugging my shoulders as he nodded and smiled to each parent and child sitting on the bench in front of us. It was an important day: the first day of elementary school.
At the end of those long benches was an open door, and inside was an empty classroom. The doorframe was crooked. The entire school, in fact, leaned as if it would collapse at any moment. In the doorway stood two teachers, like hosts welcoming guests to a party. There was an old man with a patient face, Bapak K. A. Harfan Effendy Noor, or Pak Harfan—the school principal—and a young woman wearing a jilbab, or headscarf, Ibu N. A. Muslimah Hafsari, or Bu Mus for short. Like my father, they were smiling.
Yet Bu Mus’s smile was a forced smile: she was apprehensive. Her face was tense and twitching nervously. She kept counting the number of children sitting on the long benches, so worried that she didn’t even care about the sweat pouring down onto her eyelids. The sweat smudged her powder makeup, streaking her face and making her look like the queen’s servant in Dul Muluk, an ancient play in our village.
“Nine people, just nine, Pamanda Guru, still short one,” she said anxiously to the principal. Pak Harfan stared at her with an empty look in his eyes.
I, too, felt anxious. Anxious because of the restless Bu Mus, and because of the sensation of my father’s burden spreading over my entire body. Although he seemed at ease this morning, his rough arm hanging around my neck gave away his quick heartbeat. It wasn’t easy for a forty-seven-year-old miner with a lot of children and a small salary to send his son to school. It would have been much easier to send me to work as a helper for a Chinese grocery stall at the market, or to the coast to work as a coolie to help ease the family’s financial burdens. Sending a child to school meant tying oneself to years of costs, and for our family that was no easy matter.
My poor father.
I didn’t have the heart to look him in the eye.
My father wasn’t the only one trembling. The faces of the other parents showed that their thoughts, like my father’s, were drifting off to the morning market as they imagined their sons better off as workers. These parents weren’t convinced that their children’s education, which they could afford only up to junior high, would brighten their families’ futures. This morning they were forced to be at this school, either to avoid reproach from government officials for not sending their children to school, or to submit to modern demands to free their children from illiteracy.
I knew all of the parents and children sitting in front of me—except for one small dirty boy with curly red hair, trying to wriggle free from his father’s grasp. His father wasn’t wearing shoes and had on cheap cotton pants.
The rest of them were my good friends. Like Trapani sitting on his mother’s lap, or Kucai sitting next to his father, or Sahara, who earlier had gotten very angry at her mother because she wanted to go into the classroom quickly, or Syahdan, who wasn’t accompanied by anyone. We were neighbors, Belitong-Malays from the poorest community on the island. As for this school, Muhammadiyah Elementary, it, too, was the poorest, the poorest village school in Belitong. There were only three reasons why parents enrolled their children here. First, Muhammadiyah Elementary didn’t require any fees, and parents could contribute whatever they could afford whenever they could do so. Second, parents feared that their children had weak character and could easily be led astray by the devil, so they wanted them to have strong Islamic guidance from a young age. Third, their children weren’t accepted at any other school.
Bu Mus, who was growing increasingly fretful, stared at the main road, hoping there would still be another new student. Seeing her empty hope scared us. The South Sumatra Department of Education and Culture had issued a warning: If Muhammadiyah Elementary School had fewer than ten new students, then it, the oldest school in Belitong, would be shut down. Therefore Bu Mus and Pak Harfan were worried about being shut down, the parents were worried about expenses, and we—the nine small children caught in the middle—were worried we may not get to go to school at all.
Last year Muhammadiyah Elementary had only eleven students. Pak Harfan was pessimistic this year. He had secretly prepared a school-closing speech.
“We will wait until eleven o’clock,” Pak Harfan said to Bu Mus and the already hopeless parents. We were silent. Bu Mus’s face was puffy from holding back tears. Today was her first day as a teacher, a moment she had been dreaming of for a very long time. She had just graduated from Sekolah Kepandaian Putri (Vocational Girls’ School), a junior high school in the capital of the regency, Tanjong Pandan. She was only fifteen. She stood like a statue under the bell, staring out at the wide schoolyard and the main road. No one appeared. The sun rose higher to meet the middle of the day. Waiting for one more student was like trying to catch the wind.
The other children and I felt heartbroken. Our heads hung low.
At five till eleven, Bu Mus could no longer hide her dejection. Her big dreams for this poor school were about to fall apart before they could even take off, and thirty-two faithful years of Pak Harfan’s unrewarded service were about to come to a close.
“Just nine people, Pamanda Guru,” Bu Mus said. She wasn’t thinking clearly, repeating the same thing everyone already knew.
Finally, time was up. It was already five after eleven and the total number of students still did not equal ten. I took my father’s arm off of my shoulders. Sahara sobbed in her mother’s embrace. She wore socks and shoes, a jilbab, a blouse, and she also had books, a water bottle, and a backpack—all were new.
Pak Harfan went up to the parents and greeted them one by one. It was devastating. The parents patted him on the back to console him, and Bu Mus’s eyes glistened as they filled with tears. Pak Harfan prepared to give his final speech. When he went to utter his first words, “Assalamu alaikum. Peace be upon you,” Trapani yelled and pointed to the edge of the schoolyard, startling everyone.
We turned to look. Off in the distance was a tall, skinny boy, clumsily headed our way. His clothes and hairstyle were very neat. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt tucked into his shorts. His knees knocked together when he moved, forming an X as his body wobbled along. A plump middle-aged woman was trying with great difficulty to hold on to him. That boy was Harun, a funny boy and a good friend of ours. He was already fifteen years old, the same age as Bu Mus, but a bit behind mentally. He was extremely happy and half running, as if he couldn’t wait to get to us. His mother stumbled after him, trying to hold on to his hand.
They were both nearly out of breath when they arrived in front of Pak Harfan.
“Bapak Guru,” said his mother, gasping for breath. “Please accept Harun. The special-needs school is all the way on Bangka Island. We don’t have the money to send him there. And more importantly, it’s better that he’s here at this school rather than at home, where he just chases my chicks around.”
Harun smiled widely, showing his long yellow teeth.
Pak Harfan was smiling, too. He looked over to Bu Mus and shrugged. “It makes ten,” he said.
Harun had saved us! We clapped and cheered. Sahara, who couldn’t sit any longer, stood up straight to fix the folds on her jilbab and firmly threw on her backpack. Bu Mus blushed. Her tears subsided, and she wiped the sweat from her powder-smudged face.
Copyright © 2005 by Andrea Hirata
Translation copyright © 2009 by Andrea Hirata