Coal at Midnight

By Harlan Yarbrough

The family arrived late in the afternoon, after all the students—even the Trowbridge two—had left.  Randall rarely saw aborigines and many parents and other locals had warned him “the blacks” were dangerous.  These three didn’t look dangerous.  All three looked thin, and the tallest, the father, Randall assumed, didn’t stand as tall as Randall’s shoulders.  All three also looked tired.

Randall guessed they belonged to the Kuungkari people or in any case probably not the Mithaka or Bunthamara, because they came down the wagon road from the north.  He wondered if they were starving in the drought, wandering in search of food.  Mr. James stepped into his kitchen and hurriedly poured a pound of flour into a bag and half a pound of beans into another and carried the bags outside.  He greeted the family with a friendly “Parla kothogum!”, one of the few expressions he knew in Kungkari, then quickly added “Yandanji!” in case the visitors were of the Bidia people.

The schoolmaster felt pleased he could greet the family in the two main local languages but wished he could speak more of one or the other or both. He felt glad to see his friendly “Hello!” left all three looking happier, relieved perhaps. At Randall’s greeting, the man responded, “Hello, Boss.”

“You hungry?” Randall asked.  “Need food?”  He held the two bags out to the family.

“No, no, sir-boss,” the man said in heavily accented almost pidgin English.  “Have job.  Eat good.  Bring boy.”

Randall wondered if the boy was sick and they were looking for a doctor.  In that case, he didn’t feel confident of being able to help.  The nearest doctor was in Blackall or Emerald, though, so he would do what he could.

The schoolmaster set the bags inside his cabin then turned back to the family.  “How can I help?” he asked.

The father grasped the boy’s shoulder and moved the lad a step toward the schoolmaster then said, “Boy need school,” although the last word sounded more like “cool”.  “Learn school stuff.  Learn talk proper.”  The man paused a moment, seemed to hang his head, and continued, “Not like me.”

The schoolmaster nodded to the man and addressed the boy, “Can you speak some English?”

The boy nodded his head in a funny way, rocking it from side to side, and said, “Some Englij.”

Randall wasn’t sure whether the boy was answering or mimicking, so he asked, “What is your name?”

The boy nodded again and said, “Name Mogo.”

Encouraged, Randall asked, “How old are you?”

The boy held up both hands spread wide then one finger.

“Good!” Randall said, and gave the boy a big smile.  “You did understand me.”  The boy nodded again as the schoolmaster said, “Eleven.”  He held up his hands as the boy had and said, “That many is eleven.”

“Eleben,” Mogo repeated with a shy smile.

Randall squatted in front of the boy and pointed to his own mouth, as he placed his upper front teeth on his lower lip.  Breathing out, he made a “v” sound, then repeated “Eleven.”

The boy imitated the position of the teacher’s teeth and lips and made the “v” sound three times, then he, too, said, “Eleven.”

“Very good!”  Randall beamed at the boy and the boy smiled back.  Seizing the opportunity, Randall held up seven fingers and said, “Seven.”

Mogo copied the gesture, said “Teben,” stamped his foot in obvious annoyance at himself, made the “v” sound twice, and said, “Teven.”

Randall couldn’t resist working with the boy and spent several minutes back and forth teaching him the “s” sound.  Mogo rewarded him with “Seven”, after several attempts, and repeated it twice while holding up seven fingers.

“Well done, Mogo!” the master said, then repeated the eleven gesture and word.  The boy repeated both, then repeated the seven gesture and word.  All four wore smiles as teacher and pupil repeated, “Eleven, seven, eleven, seven.”

As the schoolmaster stood up, the father asked, “Boy come school?”

“Yes,” Randall said without a moment’s hesitation, “of course he can.  He’ll need to come regularly, though, and work hard.”

Mogo nodded vigorously and said, “Work hard.”

“No come tomorrow, Boss,” the father said.  “Help on station. Come next.”

“OK, he’ll start the day after tomorrow.”

The father made the funny nod, and the family turned and walked, silent as wraiths, back the way they had come.  No, not quite silent: when they were about forty yards away, Randall heard his new student saying, “Seven.  Eleven.  Seven.  Eleven,” over and over.

The schoolmaster returned to his desk in the one-room schoolhouse after adding wood to the firebox of his outdoor oven.  He had sat down to assess the students’ work, as soon as they all left for the day, but found that sweet Miss Troman—his erstwhile pupil and now assistant—had already marked most of the work.  She had even written a couple of notes to him, directing his attention to the work of three students she thought needed special help.

He saw why straightaway and set about making worksheets that would help the three over some weak spots in their understanding.  That finished, he began a letter to a close friend overseas, Lawrence Baker, Randall’s favorite teacher in his own teenage years.  He interrupted his letter for the aboriginal family, and their departure sent him back to writing.

He reached what felt like a good stopping point and retrieved the potatoes from the oven, put them on a plate with the rest of his dinner, and ate while reading a letter from an elderly couple in San Jose who had befriended him soon after he left his parents’ home.

Dusk had enveloped the school and the little cabin, so the schoolmaster began a reply and wrote most of a page by lamplight.  At the end of that first page, he put that letter aside, too, lit a single tallow candle, and extinguished the lamp.  Music called, so he practised his banjo and his guitar for an hour each.  He re-lit the lamp then and set it on its shelf by his bed.  After an hour of reading a new novel, he again snuffed out the lamp.  A typical evening–almost, he thought and, while he wished he had someone to share his bed, then thought, Could be a lot worse.

Rowena and Mattie Trowbridge arrived first the next morning, as usual, with the Lonnigan siblings six minutes behind them.  The schoolmaster showed Rowena the worksheets he’d made up, and she said, “Yes, exactly,” then added, “I was thinking …” and described a slightly different approach for one of the sheets.  Randall liked the idea, and Rowena proceeded to make one on her design.

While the students disported themselves at morning recess, the master told Rowena about his visitors of the previous evening.  She looked pensive and said, “So we’ll have a new student, a beginning student.”  The master grunted an affirmative and nodded, and his assistant said, “That could take up a lot of time.”   

“Could.  Prob’ly will at first.  We’ll just have to see.”

“Some of the kids aren’t going to like it.”

It tickled the schoolmaster when his assistant referred to the students as “the kids”, because some of them were older than Rowena.  Pushing that thought out of his mind, he said, “Like your ex-boyfriend?”

“For one,” she replied, “and probably Michael and Liz—although she’s nice.  She might surprise me.”

“Mmmm … yes, we’ll see.”

The remainder of the day passed, like most days at Jindarah State School, productively and pleasantly.  Feeling slothful after two sedentary days, the master took a brisk walk to the river—or, more accurately, the riverbed—and back right after the students departed.  He continued his letter to Lawrence Baker and finished the one to the elderly couple.  Otherwise, minus the visitors, the evening duplicated the previous one.

The next morning, however, proved anything but typical.  Young Mogo arrived, smiling and enthusiastic when in front of the master and obviously intimidated by the fifteen white children and teenagers, all of them curious, not all of them friendly, when elsewhere.  Mr. James and his redheaded assistant separately spoke with both Harold and Michael with stern warnings about any negative behavior toward the school’s new pupil.  Wayne Lonnigan—Bless his heart, both Rowena and her mentor thought independently—took it upon himself, without any urging from the schoolmaster or his assistant, to speak to the other boys in a similar vein.

As a result, and with Liz Clifford’s only slightly reluctant urging, the entire class accepted their new classmate, if somewhat grudgingly on the part of two or three students.  Mogo’s friendly manner helped facilitate the class’s acceptance of him, and by the end of the week he seemed to have fledgling friendships with Mattie Trowbridge and Anthony Reilly.  Mogo’s appetite for and prowess at learning exceeded the hopes of his two teachers.  His pronunciation improved daily, and he had mastered both the alphabet and counting to twenty before the end of the next week.

The new student had a little difficulty with one of the words easiest for most learners, because he had never seen a cat.  He took no time to learn to say “dog” for what he knew as a dingo and added other words for everyday objects and animals each day.  Mogo added more than fifty words to his vocabulary, and could write most of them, before the month ended.

Mogo’s pronunciation continued to improve at a pace that gratified his teachers.  Mr. James and Miss Trowbridge agreed the youngster’s academic work would probably catch up with the youngest of the other students within two or three months, if he maintained the same impressive pace.

“He soaks it up like a sponge,” Rowena said to her mentor one afternoon.

“Like you,” Randall replied with a grin.

Rowena grinned back and giggled, then said, “But he’s begun with a handicap.”

The master agreed that Mogo’s lack of exposure to standard English before age eleven constituted a handicap, and both said they felt glad to see the boy doing well.

The second Monday after the new student’s arrival brought a parents’ committee meeting.  Mr. James invited his assistant to stay for the meeting if she wanted to, but she said, “No, thank you.  I’m getting out of here as fast as I can.”  Then, she turned back and added, “Unless you want me to stay to support you.”

She’s so sweet to offer, Randall thought, but he said only, “No, I’ll be OK.  I hope your Dad will support me, though.”

“I’m not sure, but I think Papa will.  I don’t know about the others, though.”  As she started toward the door, she added, “John Lonnigan’ll probably be on your side, too.  You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

Randall did want his assistant to stay, but not because of the meeting.  In any case, he wasn’t about to reveal those feelings to her—the only secret he ever kept from his favorite student.  Instead, he wished Rowena a good ride home and said, “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine.”

Mr. James’s assistant and erstwhile top student passed and greeted her father and John Lonnigan while still within sight of the school.  The schoolmaster saw them and also saw a rider in the distance approaching from the north.  Within twenty minutes, seven fathers sat with Mr. James in the circle of desks he had arranged in the schoolhouse.  The men disposed of all outstanding business in the first ten minutes, and Mr. James asked if anyone wished to present new business.

Mr. Locke cleared his throat and began, “I understand you have enrolled a new student.”

“That’s correct, sir.  We have increased the roll again.”

“You enrolled the new student without consulting the committee.”

“Yes, Mr. Locke, I did, just as I enrolled Daniel Howard, Rachel and Oliver Wilson, and Elizabeth Clifford without consulting the committee.  I wasn’t aware I was expected to consult the committee before enrolling students.”

“But, Mr. James, that boy’s as black as a lump of coal at midnight.”

“Let me just point out that, given the appropriate conditions, a lump of coal at midnight can shine bright enough to illuminate a large room.”

John Lonnigan got his hand over his mouth just in time to stifle the sound of his laughter.  Joe Trowbridge, too, had his hand over his mouth, hiding a smile, although he didn’t laugh out loud.  Mr. Locke colored and seemed to puff up, but then got his ire under control and said nothing.

Jackie Bourke asked, “But, sir, do we really want blackamoors in our school?”

“I can’t speak for anyone but myself, Mr. Bourke, but I’m happy to educate any child—no! any person, child or adult—who’s ready to learn.”

“Very noble of you, I’m sure,” Mr. Locke said, “but they don’t belong among us.  They come from a completely different culture.”

“I came from a different culture, too,” the schoolmaster replied, “although perhaps not quite as different.”

“Not nearly as different.  Their whole way of seeing the world differs enormously from ours.  Their values are completely different.  You can’t go putting them in schools with our children.”

“How else are they going to learn our values?” Randall asked.

The discussion continued longer than most parents’ committee meetings, with strong feelings on both sides, but never descended into acrimony.  John Lonnigan and Joe Trowbridge leapt to the schoolmaster’s defence several times, and once Mr. Locke said, “No son of mine is going to sit in a classroom with a blackamoor.”

The master replied, “That’s fine, sir.  Harold is virtually done here anyway.  You have everything arranged for him to continue his studies at Dookie, don’t you?  He doesn’t need to continue here, if you would rather he didn’t.”

Harold’s father quickly backed down and made no further comments suggesting he might withdraw his son from the school.  After more grumbling and peacemaking overtures, the committee accepted the status quo without any official action, ate the biscuits the schoolmaster had baked for them, drank the tea he had brewed, chatted about the dance to be held at the end of the semester, and made their farewells.

The school year continued with no additional drama.  Mogo did not overtake his age cohort by the end of his first semester but did before the end of his second semester.  He proved an apt pupil and Randall’s best-behaved student.  Harold Locke left at the end of the year to attend Dookie Agricultural College.  By the middle of the new year, the other students treated Mogo as just another schoolboy, a development which pleased Mr. James and Miss Trowbridge and Mogo’s friends, Matthew and Anthony.  To the surprise of everyone except Miss Trowbridge, everyone at the school learned as much from Mogo as he did from them.

Category: Featured, Short Story