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



There were eight at the school committee meeting in Heath’s office—Heath himself, Rae the policeman, Jock McEwan, the doctor, Arthur Henderson, the dredgemaster, the mine manager and Mrs Jimmy Cairns. Heath was not so sure of the support of the committee as he had pretended in his argument with Don Palmer. It was a new committee and had not met before. The doctor and Mrs Jimmy Cairns were new members—Heath had been opposed to their nomination on the grounds that the doctor had no children at the school and that women should not sit on local bodies. But he could not publish his objections because neither did the dredgemaster or mine manager have children at the school—the dredgemaster’s boys were at the Tech. in Greymouth and the mine manager’s two daughters were away at a boarding-school in Christchurch. These two were practical men and looked on school teaching as a woman’s job; they believed that every problem could be met with a quick effective decision and they generally supported Heath’s proposals without argument. Heath was especially resentful that before the elections, Ben Nicholson, as president of the Miners’ Union had announced at a union meeting that those miners who were entitled to vote at the school committee elections should vote for the doctor and Mrs Cairns, as people they could trust to put forward a socialist point of view. Previously Jock McEwan had been the only regular dissentient at meetings; since he was also secretary of the Miners’ Union, it seemed plain to Heath that he had engineered this further support for himself. Rae of course was quite trustworthy, being himself a public servant in a position of some authority, and Henderson, though he dickered, usually came round to the majority opinion.

Don Palmer waited smoking in the corridor. It was just a week since Donnie had been strapped, and his first anger had died down. But he was determined to complain and Mum had not let him forget page 160 it. She wanted to come herself, trusting her power to talk these men into censuring Heath, but Dad wouldn’t let her.

Henderson was elected secretary again and Rae was elected chairman. The doctor was nominated but he lost by one vote. Heath had intended to raise as a complaint the union president’s influence on the committee election, but he did not dare now that the doctor was in the room. Rae read a letter announcing that the school would be painted, inside and outside, commencing in the term holidays. Then he announced that the committee would receive Mr Palmer who had a complaint. Heath sighed with audible contempt.

Don entered and took a seat. He was a little uneasy, meeting men like this in public. He was used to personal informal contacts with people and here he felt out of his element, embarrassed by the air of importance of some of the members. But as he talked, with a restraint and sincerity that impressed them, his moral indignation increased and he forgot his uneasiness.

‘I’d like to put a question,’ Rae said. ‘Did you take a photograph of the mark on your boy’s wrist?’

‘I saw it,’ the doctor said. ‘I can vouch for Mr Palmer’s description of it.’

‘Well I have a question,’ Heath said. ‘Isn’t it a fact that your son had been getting very out of hand before I punished him?’

‘No, it’s not. Mum never has any trouble with him.’

‘When you say Mum, you mean Mrs Palmer senior?’


‘Then you admit that you don’t have much hand in bringing up the child?’

‘I was away in the war, four years, as you know.’

‘Oh, I know all about that, Mr Palmer. But don’t you think that seeing the child has no mother at home, the father should give it more attention and more discipline?’

‘I object to that question,’ Jock McEwan said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with the complaint.’

‘It’s none of your business who brings the boy up,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘I don’t see that the question is necessary,’ Rae said.

‘Well, I have another question,’ Heath said. ‘Has your son been obedient since I punished him?’

‘Yes. He’s always been obedient.’

There were no more questions and Don went out.

‘There!’ Heath said. ‘He admits the boy has improved since he was punished.’

page 161

‘He said it didn’t make any difference,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘I hope you never try anything like that on my boy, because I’ll tell you now he is obedient—obedient enough to do without your strapping.’

‘You’re getting off the subject,’ the doctor said.

‘We’ve got to come to some decision,’ Thompson, the dredgemaster said. ‘We don’t want to be arguing all night.’

‘Absolutely,’ Caddick the mine manager said.

‘Well, as I see it,’ Rae said. ‘It’s a case where the authority of the headmaster is challenged. What we’ve got to decide is whether the headmaster was right to punish the boy in the circumstances.’

‘I suggest that we should hear Mr Heath’s side of the question,’ Henderson said.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ Heath said, ignoring Mrs Cairns. ‘It was a sheer case of disobedience. I went into Mr Rogers’ room and the noise was something awful, I don’t mind telling you. That man seems to have no idea of keeping order or getting results from his teaching. I know about these things. As you know I’ve had thirty years’ experience and I’m not going to have some damned whipper-snapper telling me my job.’

‘We’ve heard that before,’ Jock McEwan said.

‘Order please,’ Rae said.

‘As I said, I went into the classroom and tried to restore order. I was talking to the class and I had called for silence. This boy Palmer disobeyed me. He spoke when I was talking.’

‘What did he say?’ Mrs Cairns asked.

‘How do I know what he said? I wasn’t listening to him. He should have been listening to me.’

‘Well, it makes a difference. It might have been important what he had to say. He might have wanted to go to the lavatory or something.

‘Well, if you want to be comical….’

‘According to the boy he was asking another boy for some chalk,’ the doctor said.

‘There you are,’ Heath said. ‘It was quite a trivial matter. He shouldn’t have been drawing while I was in the room. Well, gentlemen, you must admit I was within my rights to correct him.’

‘You have to make an example,’ Caddick said.

‘Kids get too much of their own way nowadays,’ Thompson said.

‘That’s the first point then,’ Rae said. Caddick admired the method with which he ran meetings: there was only one person in the town better at it and that was the doctor. ‘Is there any disagreement on that point—that Mr Heath was within his rights to correct a boy who disobeyed him?’

page 162

‘Well, if I’m not allowed to do that I might as well shut up shop,’ Heath said.

‘Mr Heath, I’m putting it to the vote; don’t interrupt, please. Is there anyone disagrees?’

‘Are you sure you told the children to be quiet?’ McEwan asked.

‘Of course I told them. And anyway it’s Mr Rogers’ job to tell them they should be silent when I come in—even if he can’t get them to be quiet for himself.’

‘Did you actually tell them to be silent at the time of this incident?’ the doctor asked. ‘The boy said you didn’t.’

‘Well—I can’t remember if I actually said so at the time. But as I said, I expect Mr Rogers to have told them.’

‘Well, if you can’t establish that you told the boy in advance, you can’t accuse him of disobedience,’ the doctor said.

‘I did tell them. I must have told them.’

‘Did you or didn’t you?’ McEwan asked.

‘I don’t reckon Mr Heath’s memory is too good,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘No one ever remembers things exactly the way they happened. What about getting Mr Rogers along to hear his side of the tale?’

‘It’s impossible,’ Heath said.

‘Why is it impossible?’

‘Do you want this matter deferred till the next meeting so we can hear Mr Rogers’ evidence?’ Rae asked.

‘No,’ said Thompson. ‘Get the matter cleared up tonight.’

‘Absolutely,’ Caddick said.

‘It’s half-past eight,’ Heath said. ‘We haven’t time to get Mr Rogers. I’ve got work to do.’

‘We all have,’ Rae said. ‘We can’t hurry the business because of that.’

‘There’s no need for delay all the same,’ Caddick said.

‘Well, send along to the pub and get Mr Rogers,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘It’s infra dig.,’ Heath said. ‘Sending along for him.’

‘Why? We want his evidence, don’t we? I’ll run along for him myself.’

‘Order, please,’ Rae said. ‘I’ll put it to the vote. Do we need Mr Rogers’ evidence? If so, we’ll ask Mrs Cairns to fetch him.’

‘You don’t need his evidence. I protest that you’re insulting me. You’ve as good as called me a liar.’

‘We haven’t settled whether you warned the class to be quiet,’ McEwan said. ‘You couldn’t remember yourself.’

‘I’ve already told you, I do remember. I did tell them.’ Rae put it to the vote: only the three socialists wanted to hear page 163 Rogers: Caddick and Thompson wanted to get the meeting finished as soon as possible; Henderson didn’t like to offend Heath; Rae, remembering his own experience of being tripped on his own evidence by clever lawyers, thought he should stand by Heath. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘we’re satisfied with Mr Heath’s account. Do any of you disagree in principle with the right of the headmaster to correct a disobedient child?’

‘If he was disobedient,’ the doctor said.

Jock McEwan and the doctor abstained, Mrs Cairns voted against, but a resolution reaffirming Heath’s right was carried.

‘The second question is the important one,’ Rae said. ‘It’s a question of degree. Was Mr Heath justified in giving the boy the strap in the way he did?’

There was more disagreement on this. Caddick and Thompson argued that a taste of leather never hurt any kid, Henderson said children needed chastising sometimes but he didn’t think Mrs Palmer’s grandson was altogether a naughty child.

‘He didn’t use to be,’ Heath said, ‘before he went into Rogers’ class.’

‘It’s about time someone stuck up for Paul Rogers,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘I don’t know him well. But my husband does. He says he’s a good young chap.’

‘In the bar, no doubt,’ Heath said. ‘But we’re discussing his ability as a teacher.’

‘We’re discussing no such thing,’ Rae said. ‘We’re discussing a complaint by Mr Palmer.’

‘Well, as I said before,’ Heath said. ‘Ask yourself. This boy has been brought up in an hotel. He’s the child of a broken marriage. You saw the father yourself. And well—I know I’m sticking my neck out—but, well, in my opinion he’s—irresponsible…’

‘Don Palmer’s a returned soldier,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘Third echelon too. Alamein and all that. You’ve got no right to judge him. How do you know what he’s been through?’

‘Well, call him a war casualty if you like. The fact is, it’s had a bad effect on his child.’

‘That boy’s a perfectly normal boy,’ the doctor said. ‘He’s quite a steady little chap.’

‘Steady and lazy—just a bit too steady. He never makes any progress. You should see his work. And there’s another question, his race….’

‘There’s no bloody need to bring the Maoris into it too,’ McEwan said. ‘You’ve brought everything else in without that. You New Zealanders are always saying there’s no colour bar here.’

page 164

‘Let’s get this straight,’ the doctor said. ‘A boy of seven, who’s usually quiet and obedient, talks when you say you told him not to. You strapped him twice, leaving a nasty weal on the wrist. Do you usually strap children from the infant department?’

‘No,’ Heath said. ‘This is the first time in my life that I’ve done that.’

‘Why, then?’

‘Because it’s the most undisciplined class of infants I’ve struck in all my thirty years’ experience.’

‘Forget the thirty years,’ McEwan said. ‘It’s getting monotonous.’

‘Now, now, Mr McEwan,’ Rae said, and then, ‘It seems to me there’s a third party on trial here.’

‘Well, as I see it, it’s not fair to try a man in his absence,’ Henderson said.

‘Let’s get back to the point,’ the doctor said. ‘I’m not going to ask any more questions, and I’ll express an opinion instead. I think, in this case, if the boy was disobedient as Mr Heath said he was, that it would have been enough to reprove him by word of mouth.’

‘Hear, hear,’ McEwan said.

‘Donnie Palmer would jump if you said Boo to him,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘I had to make a strong example,’ Heath said. ‘In the circumstances. That class needed drastic treatment. I was thinking of Mrs Hansen who has to have them next year.’

‘What’s wrong with that class?’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘My boy Russell is in it. He doesn’t say anything about it. He learns his reading at home, and he never used to. He says he likes school now.’

‘Well, that goes to show you,’ Heath said.

‘Do you mean to say you think kiddies shouldn’t like school?’ McEwan asked.

‘A teacher can’t expect them to like it, if he’s doing his job properly,’ Heath said. ‘Oh, I know, it’s very pleasant for everyone if you want to play all day. Unfortunately we teachers have work to do.’

‘I disagree strongly,’ the doctor said. ‘In my opinion Rogers has got some progressive ideas on education. I think they’re sound as far as they go.’

‘Progressive!’ Heath said. ‘I’ve had….’

‘….thirty years’ experience,’ McEwan said. His look was like a stone well.

Heath picked up the thread in spite of his hesitation. ‘Sound ideas! Wouldn’t the inspector laugh if I told him that!’

page 165

‘Let’s get back to the point,’ Rae said.

‘It’s nearly nine o’clock,’ Thompson said.

‘We’ve got other business to get through yet,’ Caddick said.

‘I’m going to frame a resolution,’ Rae said. ‘It doesn’t mean that I’m in favour of it. But it’ll give the meeting something to work on —“This meeting disapproves of the severity of the punishment inflicted on Donald Palmer in respect of the complaint of Donald Palmer, senior.”’

‘That’s old Dad, Donald Palmer senior,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘Well, Donald Palmer, the father of the aforementioned,’ Rae said.

‘I’ll second it,’ the doctor said.

‘I have an amendment,’ McEwan said. ‘“And urges that the headmaster shall not in future use corporal punishment on children of the primer classes.”’

‘I’ll second that,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘It’d be better to keep them separate,’ the doctor said. Take them one at a time.’

‘Take them both together to save time,’ Caddick said.

‘I warn you, gentlemen, you’re going to make my job twice as difficult,’ Heath said. ‘I could give you good reasons….’

‘Put it to the vote,’ Caddick said.

‘You haven’t heard my case,’ Heath said.

‘You’ve been talking all night,’ Caddick said. He decided now to vote for the motion: he had intended to support Heath.

The motion was put, and to the doctor’s surprise, was carried, even with McEwan’s amendment. Henderson couldn’t make up his mind and decided to vote with Caddick. Even Thompson voted for it, because Don Palmer, the grandfather, had been the best foreman he’d ever had. Rae abstained. Heath was the only dissentient.

‘Well, that’s over,’ Rae said.

‘Well, I’ve got a complaint,’ Caddick said. ‘It’s from the widow of a man now dead who used to be underviewer in my predecessor’s time, Mrs Ned Seldom. She sent word to me that a boy called Herlihy has been throwing coal on her roof.’

‘That’s her grandson,’ McEwan said. ‘Why can’t she tell him herself?’

‘She doesn’t recognize him,’ the doctor said. ‘The boy’s mother married against her wishes.’

‘She doesn’t see anyone,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘She won’t hardly talk to Jimmy’s mother and she’s known her since they were brides together. It’s a wonder she went out of her house to tell you, Mr Caddick.’

page 166

‘She told the grocer’s boy to tell me.’

‘Well, as I see it,’ Henderson said. ‘It’s purely a family concern. It’s not for us to be chastising every damn kid in the district.’

‘I think it’s a matter for me,’ Rae said, ‘I’ll have a yarn with his father on the quiet.’

‘He’ll be too drunk to know what you’re saying,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘Sin and damnation, that’s all he ever talks about. He was a priest or something.’

‘That’s another boy from Rogers’ room,’ Heath said. ‘You see?’

‘You’ll be blaming young Rogers for every unwanted baby in the district soon,’ McEwan said.

‘That’d be handy for some people,’ Mrs Cairns said with a smirk, since it was rumoured in the town that Henderson’s wife’s two children were by another man; some people said Mike Herlihy.

‘I’m being serious,’ Heath said. ‘I have good reason to know that Rogers is particularly soft with that boy. Miss Dane, the new infant mistress, told me that Rogers actually encouraged him to fight another boy in the school corridor the very day of the incident for which I’ve just been censured. Instead of suppressing the boy, Mr Rogers is encouraging him, I say. And if you knew who it was, Mrs Cairns, you wouldn’t be so keen to protect Rogers. It was your boy Dick he set Peter on to.’

Mrs Cairns looked amazed. ‘Well all I know is that Dick never said anything about it, and if he’s got a grievance he doesn’t usually keep it to himself. So if it was all right with him there couldn’t have been very much wrong. Who won the fight?’

‘I haven’t any idea who won the fight,’ Heath said. ‘As I said I only heard about it at second hand.’

‘Well, it all sounds funny to me,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘Well, if there’s to be any complaint about that, it’s you that will have to make it, Mrs Cairns,’ Rae said. ‘You’ll have to ask your boy about it. But let’s get back to the complaint under discussion.’

‘It should be said that the boy is psychologically very much a misfit,’ the Doctor said. ‘He’s an exceptionally unstable child and might easily turn into a delinquent.’

‘Then he needs putting in his place, I can see that,’ Rae said. ‘I’ll give him a scare.’

‘Scaring won’t do it,’ the doctor said. ‘He’s had too much scaring. It only provokes him to do worse. Rogers has some hopes of using abnormal psychology to treat him and turn the boy’s energies to constructive ends. I myself think that only experience of a co-operative school or community would cure him.’

page 167

‘It seems that Mr Rogers has friends to represent him here tonight,’ Heath said.

‘The point is, you can’t blame Rogers for anything that Herlihy boy does. If you like, you can blame his dipsomaniac father, or his mother—she doesn’t give him any affection. He’s certainly a boy in need of affection.’

‘You wouldn’t let me blame young Palmer’s parents,’ Heath said.

‘The boy is half-delinquent already, Rogers or no Rogers.’

‘Well, as I see it, it’s a matter for Mr Rae,’ Henderson said.

‘Absolutely,’ Thompson said. ‘We waste our time on too many things already.’

‘Well, that’s that,’ Rae said. ‘Any more business?’

‘It’s quarter past nine,’ Caddick said.

‘Yes, I’ve got a complaint,’ Heath said. ‘It’s my turn to have to complain. I wouldn’t have brought this up, gentlemen, but you’ve forced me into it. You’ve forbidden me to use corporal punishment on infants; then I wash my hands of all responsibility for what happens to the children in Mr Rogers’ room. I tell you my only hope lay in the threat of physical punishment, and unless you get a new teacher, I disclaim responsibility.’

‘What are you getting at?’ McEwan asked.

‘I’m complaining about Rogers,’ Heath said. ‘I’ve told you before I disapprove of the Board’s policy in sending us inexperienced teachers….’

‘Well, they have to start somewhere,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘You were inexperienced once.’

‘You wouldn’t think so to listen to him.’ McEwan said.

‘I listened to my seniors,’ Heath said. ‘Rogers doesn’t listen to me or anyone else. I’ve told him what I think of his teaching and he’s insubordinate.’

‘Well my Russell’s reading is all right,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘Well I know the rest of the class is not all right. Gentlemen, I want to move that we send a strongly-worded letter to the Board, asking Rogers be shifted.’

‘I protest,’ the doctor said. ‘You can’t do that without hearing Rogers’s side of the matter.’

‘Not tonight for God’s sake,’ Caddick said.

‘Well I won’t condone going behind a man’s back,’ McEwan said.

‘Or me either,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘That’s a scab’s trick.’

‘I won’t sit here and be insulted,’ Heath said. ‘If you were a man I’d hit you. Hiding behind your skirts.’

‘I’d take you on, skirts and all.’

page 168

‘Mrs Cairns, I must ask you to withdraw that remark,’ Rae said.

‘All right, I withdraw it. But I’ll still not go behind Roger’s back.’

‘Well I can’t see anything wrong with Rogers,’ Henderson said. ‘As a man I mean. He seems to be a likeable young chap. He’s a great favourite with the Palmers.’

‘Not only the Palmers,’ Heath said.

‘Well, I’m not saying you haven’t good reason to complain, Henderson said. ‘You must have or you wouldn’t suggest this course. But we can’t make fools of ourselves before the Board.’

‘Rogers is the right man for this town,’ McEwan said. ‘He understands the working man’s point of view.’ (Though since Rogers’s speech at the election meeting, he had his doubts.)

‘Well if you want to make a political issue out of it,’ Heath said.

‘There’s a bit too much socialism in this town,’ Thompson said.

‘Does he teach that in the school?’ Caddick asked.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ Heath said.

‘Well, you’re supposed to know,’ Mrs Cairns said.

‘All this is beside the point,’ the doctor said. Politics has got nothing to do with it. It’s a question of teaching ability. In my opinion there’s worse teachers than Rogers.’

‘Well, I suggest we leave the question till we’ve got more to go on,’ Rae said. ‘I find it hard to believe the man is as bad a teacher as you say he is. Why not leave it to the inspectors to decide?’

‘I’ll soon put them wise to him,’ Heath said.

‘Yes, I’ve no doubt you would,’ Mrs Cairns said. ‘I reckon we should have a delegation ourselves to Rogers, to see for ourselves.’

‘Hear, hear,’ McEwan said.

‘Yes … yes,’ Henderson said. ‘That seems fair enough.’

‘Without warning,’ Heath said.

‘I think it’s only fair to advise him,’ Rae said.

‘That undermines the whole purpose of the visit,’ Heath said. ‘He’ll do a lot of window-dressing in advance.’

‘I don’t see anything wrong in just dropping in on him,’ the doctor said. ‘If we go with open minds, he’s got nothing to fear from us.’

The delegation was elected—Mrs Cairns, Caddick, Thompson and Rae. Before the meeting closed, Heath said, ‘Well, gentlemen, I must say, I haven’t had the support I hoped for from the new committee.’

‘You’ve had a fair innings,’ Caddick said. ‘Anybody would think you had to run a coal-mine. You’ve been talking all night. I believe in action, not talk.’

page 169

‘That’s what I say,’ Heath said. ‘If I’d had more support I wouldn’t have had to talk so much.’

As he left the school he told himself the time had come to apply for his next job—the one he could take for the asking.