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No. 49 (November 1964)
– 11 –

The Positive Approach

at the last minute he hadn't wanted to go.

‘What say they have a party down at the pa?’ he said. ‘I don't like your being alone with all that drink about. I think perhaps I'd better not go.’

But she had brushed aside his objections. ‘I'll be all right, Trev. Really. There won't be any parties—no one's having a birthday. Anyway, it's your place to go; you're the only relative close at hand and the old chap was pretty good to you.’

‘That's just it. But are you sure you'll be okay? What about the nights?’

‘Look, I'll be fine. You know I'm not nervous. It's only two nights anyway.’

Next day.

‘Where's teacher gone, Miss?’ asked Moko. His hair was like rusty steel wool, his nose ran as usual, and his face was smeared redly with breakfast jam. Tinned jam, she thought, tinned jam, just like them. No idea of economy.

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‘To a funeral, Moko. My goodness what a dirty face! Did you wash before you came to school?’

Moko opened brown eyes in injured astonishment.

‘Oh, yes, Miss. Course I did, Miss. Big tangi, Miss?’

No, Moko, no tangi. And don't tell stories. You go right off and wash now, go on.’

She watched him disappear round the corner of the school, bare feet dragging, heard him muttering to himself, and the sudden angry spurt of the tap. Why did they have to tell lies, she thought, vexedly. Perhaps it was her fault, the way she went about things. Maybe she wasn't positive enough. She remembered the lines of the college text-book, almost their exact position on the page—‘Be positive. Never frame your questions so that the child is tempted to lie. Confront him with the fact.’ Hmm, very easy in theory.

She turned, and went in out of the sunshine, into the cool porch that never quite lost its smell of old coats, and discarded tennis shoes and disinfectant.

On that morning of all days, there had to be a new entrant. She had thought she knew all the ones coming on, but not this one. Where did this one spring from? Back from a prolonged loan to some aunt or other, she supposed; you could never get them sorted out into proper relationships.

The newcomer was a girl. She came as they all did, unheralded and unsung, hiding behind the others, and discovered only when the bell brought some sort of order out of the play-ground hurly-burly. She hung back at the door, and refused at first to come in at all.

‘Who is she? Whose sister is she?’

‘It's Ra, Miss.’

‘Your sister, Wiri? Well, don't leave her there. Bring her in. It's nearly second bell.’

Ra was as shy as a rabbit. Every time she was spoken to, she put both hands over her face, and hung her head, so that her hair hung down like a curtain. She stayed that way by the blackboard, unmoving except for one splayed brown foot, which, pivoting back and forth on the big toe, explored a dusty crack. Only when the bell was rung did she stir. First one hand, then the other, slid downward; one stayed at chin level, the mouth opening automatically to receive a dirty thumb; the other stayed poised in mid-air curled over on itself like a frond of summer bracken. Her eyes lit up at the sound of the bell, and she smiled with sudden pleasure.

The woman smiled back, warmly.

‘It's a nice bell, isn't it, Ra?’

You couldn't help being fond of them, especially when they smiled at you like that. Though they often let you down so that you swore ‘never again’, though they sometimes got into moods so black it was like looking into a bottomless pit, yet, in spite of it all, when they turned on that eye-dancing smile, you felt it was the best job in all the world.

The day didn't go so badly in spite of her having two rooms to watch. She set the standards to work, and left them to it. Riki and Monica, the big girls, she let off to help with the infant reading and to take the smallest ones out to play. At the end of school she knelt down beside the newest entrant, and sitting back on her heels, asked kindly—

‘Well, Ra, how did you like school?’ Then, hastily, (be positive) ‘School was good, wasn't it, Ra?’

But Ra was not to be drawn. She clenched one hand over her pocket, and hid her face with the other. The woman's eyes followed the direction of the lowered hand, idly, with amusement, until …

‘Ra, have you been taking … Ra, you have something in your pocket. Let me see.’ Confront them with the fact, said the book. ‘You have some of teacher's crayons, haven't you? Show me.’

No answer.

‘I thought so.’

The crayons, disinterred and laid out, were like so many pitiful little corpses on the desk top—a red one, two black, and a yellow.

‘That was very naughty, Ra. You mustn't take things that belong to teacher. Do you hear? You must never take things from school. It's very bad. Now run along home.’

Young monkey, she thought to herself, as she crossed the playground wearily on her way to the house. I'll have to watch her. First day at school, too.

There was a high wind that night. It made a roaring in the poplars like the sound of the sea. At each fresh gust the branches of the lilac swept fretfully against the house wall. She lay restless in the big bed, listening to the scrabbling branches with growing irritation. I meant to cut it back, she reproached herself, now it'll scratch all night. Borne fitfully on the wind came the sound of singing. There was a party after all; she had forgotten it was a year since the Pungas' baby had arrived. Anyone's birthday was a good excuse for a party. Now they were hard at it—the guitars

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and the banjos and the beer—anything up to a couple of days it'd last, intermittently, and tomorrow the children would be dull-eyed, drooping over their desks, untidier, more unwashed than usual. She though back to earlier times, other parties, when she and her husband were new to it, and more horrified.

‘Who gets your meals for you, Rangi?’ she had asked. ‘Who looks after you when there's a party?’

‘We all right, Miss. We get a bread.’

The children thought nothing of it. They were used to having to forage for themselves. But she and Trev—they never got used to it. They were filled each time with a furious disgust, in turn with the moneymaking publican, the happy-go-lucky Maoris, the whole setup of decrepit housing, dirt, and neglect.

Hope nothing happens tonight, she thought uneasily. If only I could get off to sleep. Did I lock up the school? I can't remember. The pumphouse door rattled free of its catch, and began to bang. With taut nerves she lay listening for each succeeding crash, waiting for it, dreading it like an expected physical pain. Like having a baby, the thought came. Her mind wandered over the empty house, counting the children who had never come to fill it, wondering what it would have been like not having to teach, no primers to struggle with, that new one, now, that Ra, she was going to take some watching.

A stronger gust made the house tremble, whipped the lilac to a new frenzy and filled the air with a confusion of sound. Above the high roaring, the smack and bang of branches, the wooden crash of the pumphouse door, there came a new sound, faint and uncertain, approaching, withdrawing, like dancers in a gavotte. In a sudden lull it came clear and strong—the sound of a bell.

She sat up with a start. Who could be ringing the bell at this hour? One, no, two o'clock by the faint glow of her watch. She got up wearily, groping for slippers and snatching an old coat of her husband's from behind the door. The moon came out as she crossed the playground; it seemed to be looking back over its shoulder at the scudding clouds. The school door stood open, and from the direction of the infant room came the subdued clang of the bell. She walked quickly down the corridor and flung open the door. The bell clattered to the floor, rolled a little with lolling tongue and lay mute.

‘Ra! Whatever are you doing here at this hour?’

She surveyed the crouching figure with mounting exasperation. Those crayons again! What they wouldn't do to get what they wanted!

‘You were after teacher's crayons again, weren't you? You naughty little girl. Come here. Give them to me.’

Ra eyed her warily out of wild brown eyes. She said nothing.

‘Quickly now. Do as I tell you.’

No sound, no movement.

‘Oh, you exasperating child. Let me see!’

But there was no sign of a crayon anywhere. The pocket of the far-too-big pyjama jacket was quite empty. Just as well, thought the woman, another few minutes and the child would have been embarked on a career of petty crime. These parties! No wonder the children got themselves into trouble, roaming all over the place at two in the morning.

She picked up the silent child, folding the flapping jacket more warmly about the little bare seat, and set off up the road. As they drew near the Pungas', the music grew louder. Joe Punga was sitting on the doorstep, crooning over a bottle and shouting blurred comments over his shoulder. He waved the bottle amiably as they passed.

‘Have a drink, Miss,’ he offered, not a bit surprised to see her trudging up the road at that hour with a child in her arms. She glared at him in silence, and past him at the teetering dancers weaving back and forth across the doorway. Soon she turned off the road and followed a rough path across the paddock, her footsteps startling half a dozen black pigs which rose grunting from among denuded stalks of cabbage. Cabbages! They planted cabbages and then left the fences gaping for the pigs to get in. She would never understand them.

The shack was in darkness except for a wavering candle on a box by the bed. Two of