THAT morning , when I was just a boy, I sat on a long bench outside of a school. The branch of an old filicium tree shaded me. My father sat beside me, hugging my shoulders with both of his arms as he nodded and smiled to each parent and child sitting side by side 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 door frame 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 Efendy 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 also were smiling.
Yet Bu Mus’ 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 beading around her nose 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 people, 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 friendly and at ease this morning, his rough arm hanging around my neck gave away his quick heartbeat. I knew he was nervous, and I was aware that it wasn’t easy for a 47-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 owner at the morning 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 that was no easy matter for our family.
My poor father. I didn’t have the heart to look him in the eye. It would probably be better if I just went home, forgot about school, followed in the footsteps of some of my older brothers and cousins, and became a coolie …
My father wasn’t the only one trembling. The face of each parent showed that they weren’t really sitting on those long benches. 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 only afford 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. Ididn’t know them.
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, and we were Belitong-Malays from the poorest community on the island. As for this school, Muhammadiyah Elementary School, it too was the poorest village school in Belitong. There were only three reasons why parents enrolled their children here. The first, Muhammadiyah Elementary didn’t require any fees, and parents could contribute whatever they could afford whenever they could do so. The second, the 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. The third, their child wasn’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. So unlike other elementary schools that were full of happiness when welcoming the students of their newest class, the atmosphere on the first day at Muhammadiyah Elementary School was full of concern, and the most concerned of all were Bu Mus and Pak Harfan.
Those humble teachers were in this nerve-wracking situation because of a warning issued by the School Superintendent from the South Sumatra Department of Education and Culture: If Muhammadiyah Elementary School had fewer than ten new students, then the oldest school in Belitong would be shut down. Therefore Bu Mus and Pak Harfan were worried about being shut down, while 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 School only had eleven students. Pak Harfan was pessimistic that they would meet the target of ten this year, so he secretly prepared a school-closing speech. The fact that he only needed one more student would make this speech even more painful to give.
“We will wait until eleven o’clock,” Pak Harfan said to Bu Mus and the already hopeless parents. The atmosphere was silent.
Bu Mus’ face was puffy from holding back tears. I understood how she felt, because her hope to teach was as great as our hope to go to school. Today was Bu Mus’ first day as a teacher, a moment she had been dreaming of for a very long time. She had just graduated the week before from Sekolah Kepandaian Putri (Vocational Girls’ School), a junior high school in the capital of the regency, Tanjong Pandan. She was only fifteen years old. Sadly, her fiery spirit to be a teacher was about to be doused by a bitter reality—the threat of her school closing because they were short by just one student.
Bu Mus 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.
In the meantime, the parents probably took the shortage of one student as a sign for their children—it would be better if they sent them to work. The other children and I felt heartbroken: heartbroken to face our disadvantaged parents, heartbroken to witness the final moments before the old school closed on the very day we were supposed to start, and heartbroken to know that our strong desire to study would be crushed just because we were lacking one student. Our heads hung low.
It was 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 on this tragic morning.
“Just nine people Pamanda Guru,” Bu Mus uttered shakily once again. She had already reached the point where she wasn’t thinking clearly, repeating the same thing everyone already knew. Her voice was grave, normal for someone with a sinking heart.
Finally, time was up. It was already five after eleven and the total number of students still did not equal ten. My overwhelming enthusiasm for school dwindled away. I took my father’s arms off of my shoulders. Sahara sobbed in her mother’s embrace because she really wanted to go to Muhammadiyah Elementary School. 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’ eyes glistened as they filled to the brim with tears. Pak Harfan stood in front of the parents. He looked devastated as he prepared to give his final speech. However, 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.
Immediately, we all turned to look, and off in the distance was a tall, skinny boy, clumsily headed our way. His clothes and hairstyle were very neat. He wore a longsleeved 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 onto him. That boy was Harun, a funny boy and a good friend of ours. He was already 15 years old, the same age as Bu Mus, but was a bit behind mentally. He was extremely happy and moving quickly, half running, as if he couldn’t wait to get to us. He paid no attention to his mother, who stumbled after him, trying to hold onto 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 theway on Bangka Island. We don’t have the money to send him there.”
Harun folded his arms over his chest, beaming happily.
His mother continued.
“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 his shoulders.
“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. The young teacher’s tears subsided, and she wiped the sweat from her powder-smudged face.