Title: Coal Flat

Author: Bill Pearson

Publication details: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Coal Flat


page 124


Rogers was taking the lower reading group at the blackboard: p for pipe, with a drawing of a pipe, f for flag with a drawing of a flag, and other letters. There were three girls in this group who were very slow to learn. Day after day he had the same experience with them: he would concentrate on three letters for several minutes, then he would rub off the drawings and go through the letters again and each of these girls would say the wrong sound. Peter Herlihy was very erratic. Rogers would hold on to his patience with set teeth. Why did Heath ever put me in charge of infants? he would wonder. You wanted a stout motherly woman of early middle age for infants, preferably a mother herself, a woman whose temper was beyond ruffling. It annoyed him all the more that these children were so keen to please him, bursting to say f when he pointed to p. Truman Heath walked in and said, as if he was an inspector: ‘Just carry on, Mr Rogers. I want to see what you’re doing.’ Rogers knew well enough that Heath disliked him; he didn’t know why, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was just one of these pointless stubborn personal animosities with which New Zealand is so rife. Rogers carried on, and the children’s recognition of the letters did not improve. Heath intervened.

‘These children don’t know their alphabet yet,’ he said.

‘They’re the C group. I’ve been giving them extra time on this for weeks.’

‘Let me take them for a while.’

Heath did as Rogers had done, and he got no better results. Rogers watched for a minute and seeing that Heath’s method was no different from his own, he quietly went to the back of the room where the children of the other reading groups were printing words, each on his own section of blackboard round the walls of the classroom. He knew this would irritate Heath, but he didn’t want to waste time. He was giving one boy assistance when Heath melodramatically threw down the ruler he had used to point to the letters and walked purposefully to Rogers.

‘This isn’t good enough, Mr Rogers,’ he said. ‘These children are not making the progress they should be.’

‘I’m doing my best, Mr Heath.’

‘Well, it’s not a very good best.’ Heath’s face was flaring but weak. He only found the courage to remonstrate openly when he could harness anger. He cast for an excuse to stoke his temper.

page 125

‘Listen to the noise,’ he said. ‘Break down the noise there!’ he called to the class.

‘They’re only infants, Mr Heath. I don’t object to a little talking so long as they are busy.’

‘They’ve got to learn to be quiet,’ he said. ‘You might think of the teacher who has to put up with them next year, instead of yourself. That boy!’ he called violently, and the whole class stopped in their work, awed at this intrusion of anger into their normally mild classroom. ‘That boy, come over here.’ It was Donnie Palmer. ‘Quickly now when I speak to you.’ Donnie had asked the boy next to him for a piece of red chalk so that he could draw a red hen where he had printed hen. He was not a bright boy in the class, average in ability, orderly, willing and easy to manage. He took no advantage from living in the same building as Rogers and meeting him in the sitting-room at home, and Rogers had never had a harsh word with him. Heath grabbed his shoulder and shook him. ‘You were talking,’ he said. ‘You disobeyed me.’ Donnie stared up at him paralysed with shock. Already Heath could feel detached from his anger; in another second or two he might have shrugged and walked away. But he had always promised himself that in future he’d be tough, show them he was a disciplinarian. ‘Didn’t you? Answer me now.’


‘Yes what?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘They don’t even know their manners, Mr Rogers…. Didn’t you hear me tell you to be quiet? Answer me now.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘And you deliberately disobeyed me?’

‘I don’t know sir.’

‘You talked, didn’t you? You said something to that boy?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘What did you say to him?’ He shook Donnie again.

‘I asked him for some red chalk.’

‘Well, you can come along to my office, my boy,’ Heath said. Donnie burst into tears. Heath looked afraid, but he marched the boy out of the room while the children stared with wide eyes and Rogers protested: ‘Mr Heath, Mr Heath….’ His protests only strengthened Heath’s flagging will.

Donnie came back a minute later crying in convulsions. He was holding a sore hand under his arm, and blowing warm breath on it occasionally. ‘Donnie, did Mr Heath give you the strap?’ Rogers said.

page 126

Short of breath, Donnie gasped, ‘Yes, he gave me two on the same hand.’

‘You sit down now and take it quietly,’ Rogers said, feeling useless. ‘Right-oh, class. All back to your seats and get your blackboards ready for some spelling.’ He bent over Donnie. ‘You don’t need to do any spelling,’ he said.

Donnie sniffled. ‘What’ll Grannie say?’ he sobbed.

‘Don’t you worry. I’ll tell Grannie what happened,’

‘It’s the first time I’ve ever got the strap.’

Peter Herlihy was agog. ‘Please sir, he’s the only kid that’s ever had the strap out of all us kids.’ Donnie sobbed harder.

‘You mind your own business Peter,’ Rogers said, resisting a temptation to project all his anger against him. ‘Are your blackboards ready, class? The first word is rope. Jane lost her skipping-rope. Rope.—Donnie, you take out some plasticine and go on with that. I’ll let you give out the milk tomorrow.’

‘Please sir, it’s my turn,’ a boy said.

‘I think we should let Donnie have another turn,’ Rogers said.

‘Oh, that’s not fair.’

‘You’ll get your turn the next day. I won’t forget you, Ray. The next word is wall. Dad is papering the wall. Wall.

The class was working intently now, and Heath walked in again. ‘That’s better,’ he said, ‘This is how they should be working. Quietly, efficiently.’ Rogers didn’t comment. ‘A little shake-up now and again does them a world of good. Oh, it’s be very nice to be easy with them like you Mr Rogers. Teaching would be very pleasant then. But it doesn’t pay. We’re here to work, I’m afraid, not to play.’

Rogers was calling the next word, but Heath interrupted him. ‘Attention, class,’ he said. ‘Hands on heads. Like this. Hasn’t Mr Rogers taught you to put your hands on your heads?’

Several voices said, ‘No-o.’ Heath looked sideways at Rogers. ‘Well, I’m showing you now. And every morning from now on when you come into school I want you to practise doing this. Because some day I’ll come in and ask you to do it to see if you’ve remembered. You won’t forget, will you, Mr Rogers? I want you to remind Mr Rogers just in case he forgets. We all forget things now and again, don’t we, boys and girls?’

‘Please sir, I forgot my hankie this morning and Mr Rogers lent me his.’

‘I forgot to take my spelling book home last night and I couldn’t learn my spelling.’

‘That shouldn’t be,’ Heath said. ‘There’s no excuse for that. page 127 Let me see, where was I? Yes, there was a little boy here before who forgot to obey me. Well, perhaps I was hard on him, children, but I warn you there’s one thing I won’t stand for and that’s disobedience. So just remember, if you don’t want to be punished like that boy, you must do as you’re told. Where is the boy?’

Heath’s eyes sought and found Donnie, his crying stopped, his face still blubbery with resentment. ‘What’s this? Why aren’t you doing your spelling like the others?’

‘I told him to go on with some plasticine,’ Rogers said. ‘His hand is too sore to hold a chalk.’

‘Right-oh, class. Put away your boards. Take out your reading books and no talking,’ Heath said.

‘Please sir, we’ve had our reading.’

‘I said no talking,’ Heath replied, his face flushed again. ‘You remember what, happened to the last boy who disobeyed me.’ Donnie Palmer began to cry again.

‘Look here, me boy,’ Heath said to Rogers. ‘We’ve got a little bit of business to discuss.’ He spoke in undertones while the children stared at their books, listening to him. ‘Why did you excuse that boy from his work?’

‘I said his hand was sore, Mr Heath. He’s not in a fit condition to do his spelling. We’ve got to consider how children’s natures work.’

‘What you mean is, you disapproved of my strapping him. That’s it, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, if you have to know, I did.’

‘So you let him off his work to show you were taking his part.’

‘That’s correct.’

‘You’re encouraging insubordination, Mr Rogers. I won’t stand for it.’ His voice was raised. His face was flushed, his eyes spurting the anger of a man publicly insulted. He was frustrated that Rogers didn’t answer. ‘Oh, it’s not the only time, Mr Rogers. Oh no. Don’t think I haven’t been watching you. Oh no, I’ve got a dozen complaints to make about you. But I kept them back because I’m not a hard man and I wanted to give you a chance. But the time has come, Mr Rogers, for a showdown.’

He looked round the room but the children’s eyes avoided him. He noticed that Donnie Palmer, without being told, had put away his plasticine horse and was reading.

‘For example, Mr Rogers, I’ve come into this room twice this morning. And each time the children looked at the door as I came in. They should have been concentrating on their work.’

Rogers laughed. ‘Isn’t it natural to look at a door to see who’s coming?’

page 128


‘I would have thought that you’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t looked up at you.’

Melodramatically Heath raised his arm and pointed to the door. ‘Get along to my office,’ he said. Rogers dallied, thinking to refuse. But the children, he thought, had had enough emotional upheaval this morning. ‘I’m not one of the children, you know,’ he said. Heath followed him out of the room forgetting to tell the class, automatically, to be silent.

When they had gone the children heaved a communal sigh. Peter Herlihy grinned fiercely. ‘Mr Rogers’s going to get the strap!’ he said. ‘Mr Heath is going to give him a hiding!’

‘Is your hand still sore, Donnie?’ a girl asked. She went over to look while he showed a small red weal licking into his wrist. ‘Gee!’ she said, and the children gathered round to see. ‘That’s nothing,’ one boy said. ‘You should’ve seen the one my big brother got for smoking.’

‘Well, he shouldn’t smoke, so there!’

‘Donnie didn’t do anything naughty. Mr Heath’s not fair.’

Peter Herlihy was dancing in front of the class with Rogers’s ruler in his hand, pretending to be Mr Heath hitting Mr Rogers, slashing the ruler at his other hand which he pulled away just in time. ‘I wish I could see them,’ he said. ‘Hey, kids, let’s sneak along to the office and listen.’

‘No-o,’ several voices said.

Peter slid to the door, opened it slightly, and stood in his crime-film manner, hidden by the door-post and slowly sneaked his eye round it to look up along the corridor towards the office. His eye sneaked with a bump into Miss Dane’s cardigan, coming in to see what the noise was about. He ducked back to his seat sniggering.

‘What on earth is going on in here?’ Miss Dane said. ‘Everyone back to their places at once. Didn’t Mr Rogers tell you to be silent while he was out of the room?’


‘I’m sure he did. I don’t want anyone to tell me fibs. You know what happens to you when you tell fibs.’

‘Please Miss Dane, you don’t go to heaven when you die.’

‘Yes, you go to a very nasty place which isn’t very nice for little boys and girls at all. Where is Mr Rogers?’

‘Please miss, Mr Heath gave Donnie Palmer the strap.’

‘Donnie Palmer! Well I am surprised at you, Donnie. You must have been a very naughty boy.’

‘Please miss, he was talking.’

page 129

‘What’ll Grannie say?’ Donnie asked and sobbed again.

‘Grannie will say you’ve been a very naughty boy, that’s what Grannie will say. I’m sure your father will be very displeased with you too’—though she wasn’t at all so sure. ‘I always thought that of all the boys in this room Donnie Palmer would never get the strap. You must have been very naughty this morning.’ She brightened. ‘What went wrong, Don? Did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning?’

‘No,’ he said. The children laughed.

‘Have you had a tummyache, to make you feel in a bad mood?’


‘Well, I’m sure there’s something radically wrong somewhere. You’ll just have to learn to be a good boy and do as you’re told. I’m sure that if I ask you to, you won’t let me down, will you?’

‘No,’ he said shyly.

‘Even if you have let Grannie down—and Mr Heath and Mr Rogers.’

Peter Herlihy said: ‘Please miss, Mr Heath’s giving Mr Rogers the strap because he was naughty too.’

‘Peter Herlihy! Don’t you talk such rubbish. Mr Heath and Mr Rogers are very good friends. We teachers are always friendly to each other. You’ve no right to talk, Peter Herlihy. I know all about you. I’m warning you, I’ve been watching you. And if you don’t watch your step, you’ll be in trouble. You’re two years older than the other children and you should be setting them an example. You don’t think much of a boy of eight who’s still in the primers, do you?’ she said to the class, and they answered, ‘No’.

‘A boy of eight down among the babies,’ she said, and they laughed. She left them, warning them to get on with their reading, quietly. Peter Herlihy sat sneering and sulky. He did not talk to anyone.

When they got to the office, Heath said, ‘Oh, it’s easy to see you’re just the boy. You think you’re someone, don’t you? In big with the Palmers. Calling on the doctor talking a lot of rot about communism. Well you might be able to get away with it at Palmers’ or at the doctor’s, but you can’t get away with it here. I’m in charge here, not you or anyone else.’

‘I didn’t doubt it.’

‘Well, you’d better not doubt it. Don’t think I haven’t complained, Mr Rogers. I’ve let the board know my mind about you. And the committee.’

‘Thanks for telling me. You might have spoken to me first.’

page 130

Heath was a man who, in argument, fought with cheap verbal parries and thrusts. He said, ‘I might as well talk to that wall as to you.’

‘It’s common courtesy to warn me if you’re going to complain about me.’

‘I’m the headmaster. I don’t consult you on matters of school policy.’

‘What, if it isn’t too pertinent a question, do you find wrong with me?’

‘Everything. And it’s an impertinent question. It just shows you up. You think you know everything, that’s your trouble. All you young people today wont’ listen to the older generation.’

‘What’s that to do with my teaching?’

‘You’ve had no experience. Two years in a training college, one year as a probationer. Experience is what I look for, practical ability….’

‘How can you get experience if you can’t start without it?’

‘You get it from me from the older teachers. But you won’t listen to me. You forgot everything while you were in the army, anyway. You’ve got a damn cheek to call yourself a returned soldier anyway. You were a conchy. Returned soldier!’

‘Unlike you.’

‘I’ve got no time for conchies. I’d shoot them. Utter cowards and traitors.’

‘I’d rather be a pacifist than dodge any commitment one way or the other as you did in the war before, gathering up grading-marks while other men were dying.’

‘I’ll break your bloody neck if you’re not careful.’

‘So far you’ve taken me to task for the people I know, for being a know-all, for being a pacifist. What has all this got to do with my teaching?’

‘I’ve already told you. You’re inexperienced. You forget that men of thirty years’ teaching know a little more about it than you do.’

‘I’m learning.’

‘You’re incompetent. The insubordination in that room. The noise. You’ll have to learn to be harder on the children.’

‘I don’t believe in teaching by fear.’

‘You’ll have to learn. There’s enough cheeky brats in this town without you encouraging them. You’re not up to much if you don’t want children to respect you. Trying to be popular with them. Crawling to infants.’

‘You’d rather have me crawling to you, I suppose.’

page 131

‘Well, I’m warning you. I’ll be watching you from now on and I’m going to do my level best to have you shifted. Now get out!’

‘When you ask me civilly, I’ll go.’

Heath took Rogers by the neck and pushed him into the corridor. Rogers made a great effort to control himself.

A few minutes later Heath came to Rogers’s room and complained that he hadn’t yet marked the roll.

It was the day on which Rogers was on lunch-hour duty. When the children had gone he realized he should have given Donnie a note to Mrs Palmer, explaining how he came to be strapped. Miss Dane had gone, so there was no way of sending a message.

Half-way through the lunch hour a boy from Mrs Hansen’s class came to tell Rogers that Peter Herlihy was chasing his sister and twisting her arm.

‘I’ll speak to him,’ Rogers said. ‘If he does it again, fight him. I’ll see that you’re not punished for it.’

He went into the playground and called Peter.

‘I don’t think much of the boys that have to fight girls smaller than themselves,’ he said.

‘She’s the same size as me.’

‘Well, you shouldn’t have to fight any girls. Why don’t you fight boys? I think you’re frightened of them.’

‘I am not.’

‘Yes, I think you are, all right.’

‘You’re frightened of Mr Heath. You wanted to fight him this morning and you didn’t.’

‘Well, if you go fighting girls again, there’ll be trouble.’

He knew that this would provoke Peter to chase the girl again, and he was not surprised when a few minutes later Dick Cairns came again to say that Peter was twisting her arm.

‘Well, fight him, Dick. You’re both the same size, aren’t you?’

He called Peter, who was big for his age and a fair match for Dick. ‘You’re pretty good at hurting a little girl,’ he said. ‘You’re not so keen on fighting her brother.’

Peter cowered in a corner of the corridor. Rogers continued cruelly to provoke him till he lunged savagely at Dick. They boxed and wrestled for half an hour while Rogers supervised. Dick fought gamely without malice. Peter fought with frustrated fury, but once warm he was tenacious. Once he took off his belt and would have lashed at Dick with the buckle, only Rogers stepped in and took it from him against a flow of insults. Rogers’s hardest job was, like that of a policeman at a street accident, to keep other children away. They crowded at a few yards’ distance in the corridor, and though page 132 they shifted every time he shouted at them, they didn’t move far and they kept coming back. He did not dare to leave the fight. It was an evenly-matched fight. Both boys were breathless but there was no sign of either wanting to withdraw when Belle Hansen pushed her way through the children crowded in the corridor and asked imperiously, ‘What on earth is going on here?’

To prevent her taking control of the situation, Rogers for a minute ignored her. ‘Right-oh, boys. Break it up,’ he called. ‘It was a fair fight. I think it’s a draw. You both won. Now go outside and get a breather before the bell goes. Peter, here’s your belt. Now shake hands on it.’ They shook hands, Dick not willingly, Peter glowering. ‘Don’t carry on fighting outside because the fight’s over. It’s a draw.’ In fact they were both too breathless to continue.

‘Have you gone crackers, Paul?’ Mrs Hansen asked.

‘No. I’m sorry I didn’t answer first, Belle. I wanted to finish it.’

‘Not before time, either. What was it all about?’

Rogers explained. ‘Don’t say anything to Dickie, Belle,’ he asked. ‘I put him up to it. It was about time Peter met his match.’

‘There’s no doubt about that.’ She turned and quizzed him coldly. ‘Aren’t you a match for him? Can’t you manage him yourself without setting other boys on him?’

‘He had to have it from someone his own size.’

‘I don’t get it,’ she said. She bellowed at the other children in the corridor to go. ‘Whew! Just as well Truey wasn’t here. There would have been trouble.’

‘I’m not telling him about it.’

‘Nor I. I hear you had a barney with him this morning. Tell us about it.’

He began to explain while she paced majestically beside him, listening critically, balancing between her enmity for Heath and her uncertain contempt for Rogers’s simplicity.

‘Donnie Palmer,’ she said. ‘I can’t see Gran taking that lying down. I think,’ she said with pleasure, ‘Truey has bitten off more than he can chew. Poor old Truey. Everyone’s against him. All the more the merrier.’

‘He says he’s going to get me shifted.’

‘How can he? You know, when you came he thought he was going to find an ally in you, against his rebellious staff. I half expected he would, too.’

‘What, me? Me siding with him? What made you think that?’

She didn’t answer. Suddenly she challenged him. ‘I thought you were a pacifist?’ she said.

‘Yes, I’m still against war.’

page 133

‘Well, Germany attacked Poland. What’s the difference between making Dickie attack Peter?’

He began to protest that it wasn’t a fair analogy, but she was striding off. She had scored her point.

It was the day when the school had half an hour of scripture after lunch. The local parsons would come to the school, and two church-going women, to take classes on Bible stories while the teachers marked books or gossiped in the staffroom. The few Catholic children met apart in one room for catechism. Usually a local woman led them, but once a month the priest came; he had a big district to cover. He came along the corridor now, in a black suit of a modern cut. He was young, fair-haired and handsome with a modestly cheeky boyish grin. Local people who had seen Bing Crosby as a priest in a film called Going My Way had said he looked just like Father Flaherty. He was very popular in the district, because of his easy worldly manner. Once at the school, he grinned welcome at the Presbyterian parson but the parson turned his back and stumped away. It was one of Father Flaherty’s favourite stories: ‘I can tell you my fist very nearly met up with his nose.’ You were liable to meet him at the races or in a pub. On Sunday afternoons, under an assumed name, he refereed league matches. You were likely to forget he had anything to do with religion, and that was the secret of his popularity. Even Rogers was attracted one Friday when the priest was having lunch at the hotel, and Rogers asked for fish, and the priest said: ‘It’s easy to see you’re not a Doolan, preferring fish to meat.’ Then suddenly, almost with a touch of shame, he contracted out of the talk to mutter his own grace, then brightly, as if from a blackout, rejoined the talk. Today he slapped Rogers’s shoulder.

‘Well, old chap!’ he said. ‘I bet your hand trembles when you sign your pay sheet. I don’t know how you have the cheek to take it, having half an hour off while us clergy do your work for you.’

‘It’s not my work,’ Rogers said. ‘I’m not a believer.’

‘You’ll be brought to your knees some day,’ the priest said, then brightly, ‘Why don’t you play football? That’d bring you to your knees.’ More seriously he said. ‘Football gives you as good a training in team-work and self-discipline as I know.’

Rogers grinned. The Father said, ‘It’s you that’s got young Herlihy in your class, isn’t it? Now there’s a handful for you.’

‘The convent couldn’t manage him,’ Rogers said.

‘There’s only one way to handle that kid,’ the priest said, ‘and that’s to scare him. Oh, he’s very wary of me. Last time he played up in catechism I said to him, “Look here, young fellah, if you carry page 134 on like this, do you know what I’ll do?” I said, “I’ll come up behind you one day when you’re not looking and I’ll hang-you-up-by-the- toenails!” He didn’t know whether to believe me or not.’ The Father laughed. ‘He still doesn’t either. But he takes notice of me. What can you expect? The father’s a renegade.’

‘That’s hardly the way to teach him Christian charity,’ Rogers said. ‘Scaring him like that.’

‘Well,’ the priest said with that frank man-to-man look of his. ‘Do you know any other way?’

‘Love,’ Rogers said.

The Father laughed kindly. ‘I don’t think you know what the word means,’ he said. ‘You’re too innocent for this world. Don’t look so flattered. Innocence isn’t goodness. Innocent people never know the harm they do.’

Rogers went looking for Peter, determined to tell him he needn’t go to catechism, but he couldn’t find him.

When the class was reassembled neither Donnie nor Peter were there. Rogers asked the children if they knew where Peter was, and someone said that Mrs Hansen had called him to her room. Rogers feared the worst.

In a few minutes Peter came in glowering with wet fierce eyes holding one hand under his shoulder. He came to Rogers’s table and said, ‘I’m sorry sir.’

‘What for, Peter?’

‘Mrs Hansen said I had to tell you I was sorry. She gave me three cuts.’ He was trembling with suppressed anger.

Rogers was furious with her. He didn’t know what to say to Peter, yet he had to say something. He improvised. ‘That’s all right, Peter. I know you’re not frightened of boys now.’

It sounded better than he thought it would, and Peter took it well.

For the rest of the afternoon Peter sat sullen and withdrawn, engaged in some internal upheaval.

Rogers was reading a story to the class half an hour later (and he noticed Peter listening intently) when the door opened and Heath came in. Luckily, without prompting, the children stood up. ‘That’s the way,’ Heath said. ‘Mr Rogers, I want you for a minute please.’ He looked troubled.

Don Palmer was in the corridor with him. “Mr Palmer has a complaint about you,” Heath said.

‘Hullo, Don.’ Rogers said, pleased and troubled to see him.

‘Hullo Paul.’ Heath did not like the way they established a contact over his head.

page 135

‘I don’t know if it’s you, Paul,’ Don said. ‘It’s whoever gave Donnie the strap. Mum’s in a fit. We took him to the doctor.’

Rogers looked at Heath. ‘You’re not suggesting that I did it, Mr Heath?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Well, why didn’t you admit it?’ Don said. ‘We knew it was you. Donnie said it was you. He said Paul—Mr Rogers never uses the strap.’

‘Yes and that’s just why I had to do it. If Mr Rogers used it a little more often this wouldn’t have happened.’

‘I don’t see that I’m to blame.’

‘Oh, yes you are. You kept an undisciplined class, Mr Rogers, and I had to put it in order.”

‘I’m not interested in that,’ Don said. ‘I want to know who strapped my son, and why.’

‘I did, Mr Palmer,’ Heath said. ‘But the blame is with your precious Mr Rogers. If he won’t keep his class in order I have to. If I were you I’d try to have your son put in another class, or have his teacher shifted.’

‘That’s nothing to do with me, Mr Heath,’ Don said. ‘It wasn’t necessary to punish my boy like that. Mr Rogers says he’s been good in class. Isn’t that right?’

‘Certainly. He’s never given me any trouble.’

‘Well, he gave me trouble this morning. And I’m not going to take it, parents or no parents. Conchies or no conchies. I can’t see why a returned soldier like you should be so anxious to take the side of a conchy.’

‘That’s all right about that. I don’t think you’re the one to talk,’ Don said. ‘I’m not interested in that. My son came home with a weal two inches long and darn near sixteenth of an inch high.’

‘I can’t help that, Mr Palmer. He has to be disciplined.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He was talking when I called for silence. I won’t tolerate disobedience. And it’s a pity a few more parents aren’t the same. The modern generation, they don’t know how to bring up children.’

‘I’m not here to be insulted, Mr Heath. I’m here to talk about my son. If he had been obstreperous, I wouldn’t object. But you didn’t have to strap him for that.’

‘I’m the headmaster of this school, Mr Palmer, and I don’t take orders or advice from you.’

‘The kid’s not used to being punished like that.’

‘That just goes to prove what I say. He needs punishment.’

‘He’s a good boy without any punishment,’ Rogers said.

page 136

‘If you had to make an example of him you’d only have had to give him a tiny tap and that would have been enough to frighten him,’ Don said.

‘If you want to know, Don,’ Rogers said. ‘Mr Heath wasn’t punishing Donnie, he was taking it out on me. He hit Donnie too hard to get his own back on me.’

‘Well!’ Don flared. ‘You schoolteachers can fight as much as you like. Leave my boy out of it.’

‘I didn’t hit him,’ Rogers said.

‘You didn’t try to stop Mr Heath.’

‘I’d have got the sack.’

‘You might yet, young man,’ Heath said, pleased with this argument between them. ‘No, Mr Palmer, I’m afraid you’ve got no cause for complaint. I’m a father myself and I understand a father’s feelings’—he looked a little superciliously towards Rogers—‘but you must admit you want your son to grow into an obedient citizen. Oh, it’s not easy, I know. We have to be cruel to be kind.’

‘No cause for complaint,’ Don said. ‘Ask the doctor about that! He said that any teacher that hit a boy of six as hard as that wasn’t fit for his position.’

‘I know all about the doctor,’ Heath said. ‘A communist.’

‘Does that affect his doctoring?’ Rogers asked.

‘Just out to make trouble,’ Heath said.

‘Well, I’m out to make trouble,’ Don said. ‘No man’s going to hit my boy like that and get away with it. Even if it was you, Paul, I’d have gone crook.’

‘I wouldn’t blame you, Don. I wouldn’t have done it.’

‘Well, you two can talk about this over your beer out of school hours. I’ve got work to do, I’m afraid. And so have you, Mr Rogers. We can’t all lead a life of leisure.’

‘Meaning what?’ Don said.

Heath tried to smile blandly.

‘If you mean I’m loafing, Mr Heath, I’d remind you of my arm.’

‘Oh, no, no. I wasn’t suggesting anything personal at all, Mr Palmer.’

‘Well, just you be careful what you say.’

‘You see, Mr Palmer. It’s natural for you. It’s—well—your race. Your race lived in a land of plenty. They had no need to work. But nowadays your race needs discipline, and your son as well as anybody.’

‘Mr Heath,’ Rogers said.

‘You keep my race out of it,’ Don flared again. ‘I’m as good as page 137 you, even if I’m only part Maori. And any Maori is worth two of you.’

‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ Heath said, assuming his insecure superior smile.

‘I came here to talk about my boy.’

‘As far as I’m concerned the matter is closed. We can’t waste the Board’s time. Come on Mr Rogers.’

Rogers went back to the room. ‘Well, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of it. By Christ, it isn’t. Mum’s going complain to the Committee.’

‘Mum’s going to complain to the Committee. Well, the Committee will stick by me, Mr Palmer. This is a school, Mr Palmer, not a Sunday school. We’re here to enforce discipline and get results.’

Twice that afternoon Heath came back. The second time the class was modelling plasticine. Heath walked about smarming, patting children’s heads, encouraging and expansive.

‘This is the proper time for what you said,’ he told Rogers. ‘Self-expression, creativeness. Everything in its proper place, at its proper time. What I’m interested in is results. I don’t care how you get them as long as you get them. If you can get them your way, well and good.’

‘Do you mean that you don’t object if I carry on the way I’ve been doing?’

‘But you haven’t been getting results, Mr Rogers. There’s the rub. No, I’m afraid you’ll have to change your ways if you’re to do your duty by the parents and the children.’

‘See here,’ he said, taking from a boy a horse he was making out of plasticine. ‘Now, son, you look at that horse and then think of a real horse. Now, what’s wrong with your horse? It doesn’t look like a real horse, does it? You look at it and see where you went wrong.’

The boy took back his horse, looking cheated. When Heath had turned he broke it up and began to make a lorry.

‘You see, aim at the highest, Mr Rogers. Never let them be satisfied; there’s always something they can do better than they have done.’

‘Always find fault.’

‘Exactly, there’s always something wrong with what they’ve done. That way you’ll get results. Some day you’ll thank me for this advice, Mr Rogers. If you follow it, you’ll be a headmaster yourself, and you’ll be checking young teachers who haven’t had experience and argue back at you.’

Rogers didn’t comment.