BATAK MEN “STORY TELLER”
Me and Toba
Mornings are generally quite chilly in the Toba region, and this one was no exception. There was always someone burning refuse in the backyard for fertilizer, and we children, attracted by the warmth, often gathered around the fire. But on this particular morning I sat warming myself by our hearth, cooking. My little sister was still asleep, and Mother sat weaving a mat near the door, where there was more light. My father had gone out with our buffalo cart, which he hired out to carry other people’s goods to market. He did this three times a week: Friday to the market in Balige, Saturday to the market in Sigumpar, and Wednesday to the market in Porsea. This was our livelihood, in addition to the rice we grew in the paddies.
Our house was a balebale ,[*] so we were obviously not rich. It was all black inside from the smoke, and in a corner under the roof hung a basket—the kind used to carry things on one’s shoulder—which had been saved as a souvenir by my father. From others I heard that when my father was young
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he had mangallung (or carried things to sell at the market in Pematang Siantar) and he had hung it there as a reminder of his younger days.
My father was an elder in the church, something like an assistant Gospel teacher. This position was called sintua in our land, and because he held this position my father did not have to pay the corvée tax of fl. 6.60 a year. Maybe this is why the title was much sought after. Anyway, my father had been sintua for so long that the title was considered part of his name; when people would call him they wouldn’t just say his name but would use Sintua Ananias.
An odd custom in our region was that the given names of one’s father, mother, maternal uncle, grandparents, and so on were taboo to children. Because we were forbidden to say them aloud, many of us were grown before we knew our parents’ or grandparents’ names. In fact, there were often fights about names, for example when a child dared to say the name of another child’s father.
One time, a child was punched by another, and as revenge the child who had been hurt threatened to say the name of the other child’s father. “I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna say your father’s name!” Finally he could not stand it any longer and cried out, “Betuel!” But what is so awful about that? Well, in fact, the name he shouted out was that of his own father rather than the other child’s, so we all laughed at him. A fight could even occur if the one child said to another “Hey, I just said your father’s name to myself?
Anyway, on that particular day I was standing on the hearth in front of the fire when I heard a voice from the front yard below say, “Sintua, Sintua!” It was our guru, the village schoolteacher, the man who was also, every Sunday, our gospel teacher.
“He’s gone, Guru. He just left,” answered my mother from above.
When he heard that my father was not home, the teacher said, “In that case, Inang (Mother), please tell Sintua that Djohanis (that was me) should be told to go to school, since he is six years old now.”
“Fine, Amang (Father), ” said my mother, and the teacher went on home.
My thoughts were still directed at the pot boiling in front of me, so the significance of this conversation was not immediately clean I was already used to cooking at home, even though I was only six. We village children were taught very early to help our parents in things like cooking, gathering firewood, fetching water, and so on.
Cooking was not difficult, for village people cooked in a very simple way. To cook rice, for instance, water was first heated in a pot. When it was hot, rice was added and left until the water came to a boil. Then the water was stirred with a spoon and the amount adjusted so that there was neither too much nor too little and the rice would be neither too soft nor too
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hard. Fish was usually just roasted over the fire. As for greens, cassava leaves were finely pounded and then placed in a skillet with heated water. Then they were seasoned with a bit of salt and left to simmer until done. It was indeed very useful for us children to know how to cook. Our parents were usually away from home and it was nighttime before they returned. My mother, for instance, went to market every day to sell mobe , a kind of fruit used to preserve fish. She would go as far as Porsea, Balige, and Sigumpar to sell the mobe, and on foot too, even though sometimes she made no more than twenty-five cents profit.
I scooped out all but a little of the boiling water from the pot with a coconut shell spoon. Then I damped down the fire and lit one in another hearth to cook the greens. But my mother said: “Djohanis, you better bathe or at least wash your face at the well. Then put on your clean shirt. The teacher has come to say that you are old enough to go to school now, so you should get along. I’ll cook those greens myself later.”
I had wanted to go to school for a long time, since for us children going to school meant being “promoted.” Now, we reasoned, we would be able to join in all the school talk instead of sitting around listening with our mouths hanging open while our friends told stories about school. We would often try to gauge our own ages, to see if we were old enough to go to school yet. Since we had no understanding whatsoever of days, months, or years, we had a general method of determining age. The usual method was to have a child stand up straight and put his hand up as straight and far as he could, then wrap it around his head to see whether he could touch his ear on the other side. If he could, it meant he was old enough to go to school. I had just been tested this way a few days ago myself, but my fingertips had only just brushed the top of my ear.
As happy as I was at the thought of attending school, the news had come so suddenly that it startled me for a moment. But I soon ran off to wash at the well. After eating a little and changing my clothes, I left for school with some friends who were already quite accustomed to going. The schoolhouse was not far; indeed, the schoolyard was just behind our house. The end of our backyard was marked by a clump of bamboo, then there was a road, and then the schoolyard fence.
My heart went thumpity-thump at the thought of attending school, my fear mixed with joy. All this time I had heard my friends’ stories about school, and I had often looked in from outside while the students were doing their lessons. But now I wanted to see the school from the inside. Might going to school bring happiness? The question filled my head as I awaited the great moment. The bell had already rung and the students had long since gone in to study, but we new pupils-to-be were only allowed to play in the yard. I waited and waited for us to be called inside too, to
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start school. But that day we did not attend school. We were only allowed to play in the schoolyard, and then when it was time for the regular pupils to go home, the head teacher told us to go home too. He said that we would start tomorrow. This disappointed me. All my hopes and dreams about school, and the joy I had felt when I left the house earlier in the morning, vanished entirely. I went home dejected.
I found this first experience bitter, and the next day I did not want to go to school any more. Over and over again my father ordered me to go, but I remained resistant. He threatened me with a beating if I did not go, but even that did not work. Then he slung me over his shoulder and carried me to school. I cried and struggled to free myself, but no matter what I did my father continued toward the schoolyard with me over his shoulder. There he put me down, moaning and groaning. Friends crowded around, watching the spectacle.
Imagine my embarrassment in front of my friends! If I had dared face up to my father then, surely I would have hit him. But how in the world could a child of six hope to fight a grown adult? After that I was no longer brave enough to play truant. I was afraid of my father and embarrassed in front of my friends. It could be said that I was among the most hardworking students after that.
In our land, village primary school was usually called sikola metmet (metmet = little). This school was for three years and went on to sikola panonga (middle school), but the level of instruction was really about the same as that of a “Gouvernements Vervolgschool” [a government continuation school]. This also required three years of study. Then there was sikola tinggi (high school), also called sikola guru (teacher’s school), for four years. The name of this school was “Zendings-Seminarie,” and its level of instruction was the same as that of the government-run Institute for Village Schoolteachers (the O.V.V.O.). The Mission School actually took a little longer to complete because the teachers who graduated from it had to be trained for the additional task of being Bible teachers in the local churches.
We had two teachers in village school. One of them, the head teacher, was a graduate of the Sipoholon Seminary. The other, his assistant, was a middle school graduate. This particular assistant teacher still sported a hole in his earlobe, like a woman. In our village there were still lots of men who wore gold earrings; that way, when there was an adat feast they could show that they came from a rich family. The earrings were so heavy that most of the older people had big holes in their earlobes, big enough to stick an index finger through. To tell the truth, I hated the sight of my
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teacher’s ear, with that hole in it. If he happened to be nearby I would stare at his ear, but when he looked at me I turned the other way.
This teacher with the hole in his ear taught us in second grade. Frankly, he was much smarter than the teacher who replaced him later on, but he certainly was not as smart as the head teacher. My estimation of him dropped considerably when I saw him and some other people plowing a rice paddy to prepare it for planting. In those days I considered teachers to be among society’s elite, and expected that they would live like salaried workers.
The head teacher of the school was streng , or as Jakarta people would say, very “traditional” and a stickler for obeying the rules. Sometimes we would be ordered to collect firewood for him. We were not allowed to stop until we had gathered a whole armful. Once he even ordered several of my friends to cart some of his pigs to market. They were paid only 2 1/2 cents apiece, even though the market was a whole kilometer from our village and they had to wait almost half a day for the pigs to sell.
Every Monday when I was in the third grade, as a matter of course we would be asked who had not gone to church the day before (Marminggu , as we called it). Anyone who had not gone would be given a punishment. I wasn’t really antichurch, and from the time I was very small I normally attended whatever the case, but there was something about that punishment that brought out the stubbornness in me. Once I did not attend church for months, so each and every Monday I would be given a punishment equal to my sin—and it really was a sin, too, my teacher said—and I was called names like “Red Devil” or “Horned Devil” and so on. On Mondays whoever hadn’t gone to church would be separated from the others and given various punishments: for example, our palms would be rapped hard three times with a cane. Became this did not seem to work, another punishment would be tried: we would be ordered to stand on one foot for half an hour. Whoever dared to put a leg down to rest would have it smacked three times.
I rose in status, what with my Red Devil nickname. People said that my friends just copied whatever I did. As the “leader,” my portion of the punishment “gifts” was larger. I should be setting a good example for the other children, my teacher said. After all, wasn’t I a church elder’s son? One time my friends and I had to balance a school bench on our heads as punishment. This bench was long enough for six children to sit on, and four of us held it on our heads. When we got tired or our heads began to hurt, we were allowed to balance it on our shoulders. My shoulder was exhausted, my head ached, and my face got red, but I did not whine or complain. Stubbornly, even angrily, I would say to myself: I will not give in, I can take it!
Even though my teacher punished me severely, I was still his favorite in
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our daily lessons. Every week we would be asked to do sums and say our tables out loud (Maretong di roha , to count by heart). Whoever was the best would be allowed to sit way in back. I sat on the farthest bench.
One time I asked permission to be absent for several days (actually, with my Dad’s help) because our whole household was going to visit my uncle in Sibolga. My father had sold his cart by this time and had gone in with someone to buy an automobile on installment. This was the car we took to Sibolga. We stayed about two weeks. When I returned to class and took the usual arithmetic test, my score dropped to an 8; the student who had been number two, a child who was always scheming to force me off my “throne,” got a 9, and I was forced to surrender my championship to him. So I sat in the next-to-last row, because the last one was packed with kids who had scores of 9 and 8 1/2. I pretended not to care, and sat in my place without protest, but inside I was burning with shame. I had wanted to hide all this, but the other children kept tormenting me with their victory and finally I could not stand it any longer. First one tear and then another fell from my eyes. A kid cried out to the teacher, “Djohanis is crying,” intending to embarrass me further. But the teacher came up to us and said, “That’s just a sign that Djohanis is a good child. By crying he shows that he is sad about the slip in his grades. Doubtless he will improve them by next week.” The other kids just kept quiet.
My teacher was extremely frightened whenever the school inspector came, and for several days before the arrival of the “school police” he would show signs of anxiety and jumpiness. We would rehearse over and over again the way we were supposed to stand up and greet the inspector, sit in our seats, answer questions, and so on. The smartest children were instructed to stick their hands up high in the air when the school inspector asked a question. They were allowed to sit up front, while the dummies sat near the back. All of this was arranged beforehand. I was surprised. Why was our teacher so scared of this schoolopziener ? But then aren’t people everywhere always frightened of the police?
In addition to the school inspector, Tuan Preacher (the German minister) would also pay us an occasional visit (these schools were run by the mission). Our teacher was not as afraid of the clergyman as he was of the school inspector or examiner. One time, after a class period, I deliberately hit a friend of mine in the presence of the visiting German minister. When he saw me do this he looked at me furiously and said—in Batak, of course, but with a German cadence—”Now, aren’t you ashamed to do such a thing?” He told me to say I was sorry. My face reddened but I did it. My aim of making myself known to him had been achieved; earlier in class he had paid no attention to me even though I had raised my hand when he asked a question.
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We ate two meals a day, one in the early morning before I left for school, and the other in the evening at about six or seven o’clock. In between those times we children got hungry, of course. Sometimes there was leftover rice from the morning, and we ate that when we got out of school at one in the afternoon. But often there would not be any rice left over, so we were forced to search for edibles from the garden: various sorts of ripe mangoes, kecapi , and petai beans that could be put to use filling up a growling belly. We brought salt from home to put on the sour fruits. Often we were unable to find very many fruits, and children who were still hungry would ask for a few extras from their friends. We had a method for dealing with this: we spat on our fruit so that others would not want any. But some children ate them anyway. We never brought a knife (we were afraid it might get lost), so we took turns biting into ripe mangoes. We also had seed-swallowing competitions; whoever could swallow the big sour kecapi seed was the champion. It absolutely never occurred to us that we might get a bellyache. Grownups tried to frighten us by saying that the seeds would sprout in our bellies and come up through our chests and necks and out our mouths, but of course we paid no attention.
Because we ate so much fruit, sometimes we really did get bellyaches and that often meant loose bowels. Going to the bathroom in the village was difficult because there were no proper W.C.’s. We were forced to look around for a somewhat secluded spot, but even then the dogs and pigs soon came snuffling around. You could only conclude your business by brandishing a cane in your hand. There was no water for washing up and paper was hard to come by, so we used castoff stuff or dry leaves and such to clean our behinds. Often we would rub ourselves against a big housepost, and the posts in the village got to looking sort of yellow. If two children were defecating near each other, they would have to throw something (a rock, a branch, a handful of sand) at each other and say, “On ma holang-holanghu tu ho” (Here’s my distance from you). If you did not do this, it was said that the nipples on you mother’s breasts would close up.
There was an H.I.S. kid we played with. Every morning he took a horse and buggy to school, about seven kilometers from our village. We were a bit resentful and standoffish toward him, since we knew that they studied Dutch at his school. Sometimes we would ask him what this or that was in Dutch, but he always kept silent . . . I don’t know why. He was only in the first grade, but one time he was feeling boastful and wanted to show us how good his Dutch was. He said, “In Dutch, our names change to something else.” Immediately I thought of my own name and had to agree; my name at home was Djohanis but in school the teacher called me Yohannes.
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When we asked him what his name was in Dutch he answered, “My name is Maningar, but in school I’m called Manginar.” We just kept mum. Maybe what he said was true, we thought.
When it came to games I was not entirely incompetent. For instance, when we played ball I was generally chosen to be goalie because I was the best at kicking and stopping balls. But I was skinny, so if I got bumped even slightly I tended to fall down. My mother always chided me for being so skinny. She would remark, “Indahan diallang ho, ranggas tem” (“You eat rice, but your stools are nothing but dry sticks,” a saying directed at children who ate a lot but remained skinny). A soccer ball was expensive for us—a rubber ball cost at least fifteen cents—so usually we just used a big citrus fruit. Our feet got all red from kicking it.
Sometimes we played other games, such as the candlenut game. We would arrange a bunch of candlenuts in a circle on the ground. Then with another candlenut (called a panuju , a shooter) we would try to shoot nuts out of the circle. The nuts that went out we could take, while the nuts that stayed on the edge, or on the line, would have to be redeemed with a nut. If the shooter nut stayed inside the circle or landed on the line, it would have to be redeemed with two nuts. This game was called marpinse (pronounced “marpisse,” that is, marbles). The shooter nut had to be heavy so that the candlenuts could be knocked out of the circle easily. It was also more fun to shoot if it was heavy. So the insides of the shooter nut would be emptied out through a little hole. It was hard to get the insides out, no matter how much you scraped it with a palm fiber. So instead, you found an anthill and placed the candlenut there with its hole pointed down so the ants would clean it out. They you filled the empty candlenut with little broken pieces of a ceramic cooking pot, and close the hole with tar, asphalt, or forest rubber. Another candle nut game was markaulu . Several candlenuts were placed in a row, and you tried to hit them one by one with your shooter. If the candlenut at the head of the line was hit, you had the right to take all the others behind it. Each time you hit a nut, you took the others behind it.
Often we sat on the ground playing margaja . The first game of this sort we learned was Hole Margaja (margaja lombang ). A circle would be divided into four equal parts and a quarter of the arc would be rubbed out; this was the hole, the space in which no one was allowed to step. The game was played by two children. The playing pieces were bits of branches, stones, or really anything just so long as you could tell your friend’s playing pieces from your own. The game was over when one player lost by having his pieces crowded along the edge of the hole, unable to move forward. There was also the game of markansuhi . In this one, a square would be divided into sixteen tiny squares. Each player had eight pieces, four on his left and four on his right, placed in the square located on the farthest edges. You
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moved your pieces from square to square, but if you were going to “eat” your friend’s piece you had to step on it by moving alongside it or standing right next to it, and you could not jump over two pieces at once. You lost when all your pieces had been eaten by your opponent. There were lots of other margaja games such as Dutch Margaja, Tiger Margaja, and so on. So we really had no lack of games to play, waiting for mealtime.
When evening came we returned home to eat and often would not bathe beforehand. Sometimes I did not bathe for an entire week, but just washed my face in the morning before I went to school. My chest and neck would get all black from the sweat and dirt, but I still had no desire to bathe; my mother would sometimes drag me to the riverbank and give me a bath there, saying, “Anggo nisuan lasiak diandorami manigor do tubu” (Chili pepper seeds would sprout on your chest). That’s how dirty I was. I also used to wipe my runny nose on my shirt-sleeve. The snot dried and my sleeve got all stiff, and my nose got red from all the wiping back and forth. As far as I was concerned, handkerchiefs simply did not exist, and even if I had carried one I probably would not have used it. Wasn’t it easier just to use my hand?
We had only one water buffalo, which pulled my father’s cart. When I was not collecting firewood for my mother I watched over the water buffalo. I was always happy caring for that animal because he always won when matched against another buffalo in a contest. His horns formed a circle with the arc open at the top, which meant he was called a sitingko in our language. Sometimes when Dad was not looking, I paired the animal off against another water buffalo and hugged him happily if he won the contest. We also used our buffalo to pull a plow in the rice paddies. We really loved him. With me, he was always good. He let me sit on his back, or stand on his neck or on top of his head; he let me do anything. When he became old and was no longer so strong we did not have a heart to sell him to be butchered for meat. My Dad arranged for him to be cared for out in a village on a mountain slope and I never saw him again. Later on I heard that my buffalo had fallen into a ravine and died. Apparently he was just too old.
My father tried another line of work. He left our cart in its storage shed and became a blacksmith. When I came home from school in the afternoon I worked the bellows. I did not like this task, especially if any of my pals were playing nearby. Every moment or so, while my father was forging a piece of iron we had heated to a nice glow, I would go over to my friends. I would say to my Dad, “It’s too hot near the fire,” and fan my body with my shirt as I walked away. But then I would enjoy playing so much that I forgot my duties. My Dad would get angry with me and, thoroughly irritated, I would return to my work at the bellows.
Anyway, blacksmithing did not suit my father for long. He bought a cow
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to pull our cart. Cows are able to pull carts faster than water buffalo, but they are not as strong. Again I was the one who kept watch over our cow, but it was different from watching a water buffalo. I was not allowed to spoil the cow, and I was not supposed to ride her. What is more, the cow smelled positively rancid, probably because it was never bathed.
The death of our old water buffalo had apparently been a sad event for my father, too; he did not seem to want to hitch up the cart very often anymore. The cow cart was not used for long. He sold it and used the money to buy the car we took to Sibolga. My Dad drove it from Medan to Bukittinggi and back again, as a hired driver. But after a year of driving, he asked for his money back because, he said, “The automobile has made me forget my obligations as a church elder.” But perhaps that was not the real reason my father asked for his money back. A life of driving an automobile truly had no structure to it.
In those days the language of instruction in village school was Batak. But then we learned that beginning with the next school year students would be taught in Malay, so my teacher and my father decided that I should repeat the third grade. I would not lose any time, my teacher said, because the following year I could go right into fourth grade in middle school. Since third graders from primary school were usually admitted only to third grade in middle school, if I were admitted to fourth grade after an extra year of primary school, I would not be behind at all. According to my teacher I would certainly pass the entrance exam for fourth grade. So for a whole year I emphasized Malay and did not pay much attention to the other subjects.
After a second year of third grade, the time came to take exams in arithmetic and the Malay language; in the latter, we had to translate from Batak to Malay and vice versa. Batak and Malay were not the same, even though the two languages shared many words, for example “finger,” “hand,” “eye,” and so on. Other words in Malay like “gun,” “edge,” and the like were somewhat different in Batak, for example the Malay “e” was often changed to “o” in Batak; thus bedil [rifle] became bodil , and tepi [edge, border] became topi . Yet other words were entirely different. So when we had to translate sentences such as “Bojak mangangkat-angkat dirodang” (The frog jumped about the swamp) and “Rongit mandoit-doit di podomanku” (Mosquitoes were biting me in my bed) from Batak to Malay, some students translated them into “Bedjak beringkat-ingkat di redang” (The bejak ingkat -ed in the swamp) and “Rengit mendeit-deit di pedomanku” (The mosquito deit -ed me in my guide book), neither of which made much sense at all. I did not know what the Malay word for “bojak” (frog, katak ) was, so I just wrote bedjak , which means nothing in Malay. Despite such problems,
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I was accepted into fourth grade in middle school, for I had the second highest grade on the exam.
Middle school was the next educational level for students from dozens of little primary schools in the surrounding area. Middle school in Laguboti, for instance, accepted primary school graduates from a number of places, such as Lumbanbagasan, Lumbanbalian, Hutahaean, Tambunan, Baruara, Haunatas, Sampuran, Bonandolok, Sintongmarnipi, and so forth. Not all these places were near Laguboti. Some were five, and even ten stone marker posts away; Sampuran, for instance, was more than ten kilometers away, so the children who came from there really had to get up early. To keep from being late for school they would take a large citrus fruit from home. They would run along kicking the fruit, and by practicing soccer in this way they managed to get to school on time. [Djohanis apparently lived in a tiny village outside Laguboti.]
Nearly every day when I was in fourth grade we came across a certain crazy person. We called him Si Lingis, but if he heard this name he would fly into a rage and threaten to pounce on the person who had yelled “Lingis.” If there happened to be a stick or stone at hand, he would often throw it. But we always teased him with the name Lingis, so he would always be chasing us and hurling abuse. He dressed in a tattered soldier’s uniform, and according to what school friends from Bonandolok said, one time he taught the kids in primary school how to line up in rows, military fashion. He gave the command, “Links om!” So if the children saw him they yelled out “links,” “lings,” or “lingis,” and eventually his nickname became Lingis. Si Lingis was also fond of sermonizing. Regardless of whom he was speaking with, verses from the Bible would tumble out of his mouth (that is, of course, if he was not being teased about his name at the time). He considered anyone who called him “Apostle” to be a great pal and he allowed that person to sit beside him. Unfortunately, we children were happier tormenting him by calling him Lingis.
The head teacher taught our class in the fifth grade. People said that he was the best at instructing that grade and so had been promoted to head teacher. He had been married—for the second time, as his first wife had passed away—for just a few months, so when he went home during recess we children had many naughty suspicions about what he was doing.
Our class did not have many atlases of the Netherlands East Indies, so the teacher asked us all to order atlases from Jakarta at a price of Rp. 1 per book, with an additional x o cents in postage, for a total cost of Rp. 1.10. Within a month, he said, the atlases would be in our hands. However, the month became 5 weeks, 6 weeks, 2 months, 3 months, and still no news about our order. “Maybe the order forms or our mail order payments didn’t arrive at the bookstore. Maybe they went astray,” the teacher said. We believed him, too. Who among us could suspect our teacher?
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Drawing and penmanship did not particularly interest me, but arithmetic—ah, that was the thing. Nevertheless, by the last quarter of third grade I ended up with an 8 in penmanship. When I compare it with my handwriting now—well, my present penmanship is not worth more than a 3.
Around this time my father bought a horse and a two-wheeled buggy called a bendi (in Indonesian, delman ). Two months later he bought a second horse. Once more, of course, I was the one who tethered the horses and kept an eye on them out in the grassy pasture.
My father was rarely angry with me, but when he was, it was not unusual for him to grab a bamboo or palm rib switch to beat me with. I was the only child—well, there was my younger sister, but for us, girls in the family did not really count—but my Dad did not spoil me. He was of the opinion that “It is better not to have any children at all than to have bad children.” (“Children” here meant “sons” in Batak; daughters were called boru . )
One time I was busy looking for rice paddy crickets, which we called bangkurung in Batak. We looked for them in the paddy fields after the harvest. The rice had already been cut with sickles, and the only things left standing were the stalks. The bangkurung made their nests in little holes in the ground; these places were easy to locate if the crickets made a sound. Walking on tiptoe, we crept up on the bangkurung as they chirped away. If they heard us, of course they fell silent, but we would already know approximately where they were. Often the noises would lead us astray, however. It would seem that a cricket was right in front or right behind us, when actually it was far away. We put the male bangkurung into a matchbox and fed him with rice and grass; we did not take females, because they did not sing. If you wanted the cricket to make a noise, you just poked him with a blade of grass and he would start singing, perhaps because he liked being tickled, or perhaps because he thought he had defeated another cricket in battle and was signaling victory, like a fighting cock that crows when it wins a contest.
Once I became so engrossed in hunting bangkurung that the horse I was watching wandered off somewhere. I looked and looked but could not find him, though it was already getting dark. What could I say to my parents if they saw me come home without the horse in tow? Because I was afraid that my father would beat me, I waited till sundown. I did not have the courage to go to a relative’s house since they would surely tell my Dad that I was there. So I crept up slowly upon our house. Through the spaces in the wall I could see that my mother and sister were eating. This made me even hungrier, but I still did not dare to go into the house. My mother had been looking for me and had asked my friends where I was, but no one knew. Eventually, since it was already nighttime, they closed up the house and went to sleep. I found a place to lie down on top of a beam that
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joined the houseposts. There, holding on to the beam above, I dozed until daylight. Luckily my father had not come home that night, for if he had I would have gotten a whipping for sure. I went right out to search for the horse, and very fortunately, I found him. I totally forgot my exhaustion and considered it to be my punishment for neglecting my duties.
One time we went in the buggy to visit my grandparents in Narumonda. Dad and I sat up front, while Mother and my sister sat in back. Every so often I was allowed to hold the reins, but when I did so the horse slowed down and then Dad took them from me. Apparently the horse always knew who was holding the reins.
Unless there was something I really needed, I did not speak very much with my father. He did not question me about my work at school or what I did every day. He believed he was fulfilling his duties if he just made a living for us and kept us in food. I still remember when I was very small (exactly how old I don’t remember), my father would often bring little cakes for me when he came home from the marketplace; I would rush up and welcome him every evening. But suddenly, for some unknown reason, he stopped bringing me things. Perhaps he thought I had gotten too old for such treatment, that it was no longer appropriate for me to be brought cakes.
Not once did my dad clearly show his love for me. Not because he did not love me, but probably because that was just his way. If we were eating a meal together, he always gave me advice not to eat too much curry: “Later on, no one will want you as a son-in-law,” he said. If a jengkol bean or a petai bean was still left, he would joke, “Don’t eat too many jengkol, Djohanis, or your hair will turn red,” and I would believe him.
There were lots of food taboos for us children. For instance, we were not allowed to eat oranges at night. Eating the head of a chicken also was not permitted; people said that your hair would turn white. But no one told us that eating oranges at night might give you a bellyache or that chicken heads were the special parts reserved for grownups.
Often, when I was quite small, my dad would teach me how to sing songs after dinner. These were not church hymns but songs in the Malay language; even now I do not know what they meant. Maybe they were in old-fashioned Malay, I don’t know.
I realized that we were not rich and that my father worked hard to find us a handful of rice each morning and evening. So I did not ask him for money very often, unless it was for something I really needed. I realized that if I asked for some clothes, for instance, he wouldn’t give them to me right away. He always dodged the question by saying that I still had lots of
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clothes, but if I asked him many times—at least four—he would finally take me off to the tailor’s, where he always tried to get away with buying the cheapest things possible. If I had not been really stubborn about it (with the support of the tailor, naturally) I never would have gotten anything halfway decent.
I was not even particularly close to my mother, especially once I got into middle school. She was satisfied if I helped her out by collecting firewood, boiling the rice, washing my clothes, watching the livestock, and so on. These duties I often forgot because I was so busy playing, and Mother often got angry at me, especially when she came home in the evening from the market and found that the rice still was not cooked. Often she grabbed a cane to beat me with, but I was really too big to be hit like this and I fought back. I tried to dodge her swipes, and if it hurt too much, I grabbed the cane and hit her back. Then Mother would go complain to my father. He was not particularly concerned—he knew my mother was always exaggerating—so sometimes he just laughed. My mother, of course, would be put out by this and say, “You’re the one who’s always spoiling Djohanis. Now he’s just incorrigible.”
I rarely played with my little sister, especially after I went to middle school and she entered girls’ school. It was customary for a boy not to be too close to his sister; they were supposed to stay apart from each other. You could not address your sister as engkau , it had to be kamu . Other little girls were closer to us than our own sisters.
Perhaps because none of them was a close friend to whom I could pour my heart out, I was not particularly close to my parents or sister. Yes, it was true that my parents fed me, bought me clothes, paid my school fees—in short, gave me everything I needed—and in return for their hard work and struggle they hoped I would keep progressing in school. My father and mother were my parents, but they were not friends or close companions.
Once I was very ill—I found out later from my mother that I had a bad stomachache and for half an hour solid I slept with my eyes wide open, not moving at all—and my mother cried because she thought there was no hope that I would live. My dad looked at me and was silent, as if he did not love me. Mother was angry with him. Why was he just sitting there in a daze? But Dad did not answer her. Finally he could hold back no longer and cried out in a low moan, “My son, my son, how can you have the heart to leave us like this?” Luckily I came back to the world. I started to move again and a week later I was all better. Right away my mother brought me a lele fish—a sibahut , our people say. She grilled it and then sprinkled it with lime juice and salt. My mother always bought that sort of fish for me when I was sick, and in fact she said that the reason I had become sick was that I had not eaten any lele lately.
Christmas Day and New Year’s Day were joyful days for us children, spe-
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cial days that we waited and waited for. Beforehand, we got new clothes. For instance, I asked my father for shoes, a tie, a shirt, and a European-style straw hat or, as we often called it, a tudung tuan [“Master’s hat”]. (Everything that was foreign or unusual would have tuan [master] or “Dutch” tacked onto its name. For example, big mangoes, which were hard to find in our area, were called Dutch Mangoes. All Europeans were called tuan , and to differentiate a Batak preacher from a German preacher, there were the terms “preacher” and “tuan preacher.” That is also how the terms guru and tuan guru came about, to distinguish between the graduates of the teacher training school in Sipoholon and the kweekschool in Solo.) In the village usually I went without shoes, so to guard against my feet hurting over the holidays I practiced wearing them at night. The first time my father bought me some rubber shoes, but the second year I asked for leather ones. My socks were made of silk and were usually called sok , a Dutch word. I wore short pants. The socks were held up with elastic garters, which snapped on down at the bottom. But because only one side of the sock was held up the other one fell down. The elastic garter was buttoned on above the knee, so it wouldn’t fall down. This style was already outmoded, but at that time I felt myself quite the tuan , a little master. In addition to all this I wore a suit jacket and a shirt with a tie, with a straw hat on my head. Without fail, everyone would look at me as I passed by and say, “Just look at how dashing our Djohanis is!” But imagine how annoyed I was when I heard one of father’s acquaintances say, “Can that be your son, Sintua ? He’s certainly gotten big. But he sure doesn’t look like you. Nope, he looks like a Chinaman.” After that I never wore the straw hat, the one that made me look Chinese.
It was the custom for us Christians to celebrate the night before December 25. At that time a lighted tree would be put up (a gaba-gaba in Batak, a kerstboom in Dutch), all decorated with strips of paper, lighted candles, and so on. Often, too, a few children would recite verses from the Bible near the gaba-gaba , a practice we called liturgi . We were given these verses to memorize three months before Christmas. The children who said their verses well were praised, while the others were criticized and made fun of. That didn’t make things easier for the child who was reciting. After the ceremony on December 25 was finished, lots of folks—grownups as well as children—milled around in front of the tree to see if they could get a candle. Immediately the church elders would form a circle around the gaba-gaba to guard against anyone taking candles, but no matter how firm the protection was, someone would succeed in getting one. The next morning, the church elders’ children could be seen playing with candles.
On one Christmas Eve an accident almost happened. Our teacher at the time had recently moved in from Balata to our village. The sintua who was
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decorating the gaba-gaba apparently hung the strips of paper too close to the candles, and when the candles were lit the paper caught fire and the whole thing had to be put out. From that event folks made up a ditty: Guru i guru sian Balata, Disi ro guru i masurbu gaba-gaba (The teacher, he’s a teacher from Balata. The teacher had barely arrived when the Christmas tree went up in flames).
On New Year’s we were allowed to set off firecrackers. About two weeks before New Year’s Day (sometimes as much as two months before, since the closer it got to New Year’s the more expensive fireworks got) we bought firecrackers. These firecrackers were sold in bunches, wrapped together in packages. Some kids would buy one package, some two, three, or four, depending on their parents’ wealth. There were three kinds of firecrackers: small ones, which usually had black wicks and could be held after they had been lit; regular ones, which had black and white wicks, and at least the black ones could still be held when lit; and big ones, normally called long . Among us children, Goose brand firecrackers were the most famous, and we always looked for this kind at the market. After you bought them you did not just store them in the cabinet until New Year’s Day. Rather, you laid them out in the sun every day to dry. Sometimes you also roasted them on a para-para (a sort of rack set on top of hearthstones that had turned black from the smoke) so they would be extra dry and make a great big noise when they were lit.
Not every child was able to buy firecrackers, so those who could not often made their own . . . out of bamboo. They took a length of bamboo more than three joints long, and removed all but the last joint, making a bamboo pipe with one end closed. Then near the closed end they scraped out a hole as big as an index finger; that was the mouth. A little kerosene was rubbed around it, and because fire was always being put into the pipe via this entry, the pipe got hot and created a sort of gas from the kerosene. It was probably this gas that made the “pang” sound when the device was lit.
We thought that whoever had the most firecrackers was tops. (This particular fact would be publicly known on the morning of New Year’s Day by the number of wrappers strewn around the yard. We took a good long time sweeping the yard clean that day, so friends could see all the firecracker wrappers.) When we set off firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, we were able to “lengthen” the night, that is, stay up until after midnight, when everyone in the family gathered together and prayed to God, giving thanks to Him for protecting us unto that day.
We did not set off all the firecrackers at once, but rather bit by bit. When other people had finished theirs, we set ours off with a vengeance so that all might hear that we had lots of firecrackers. If possible, we set off a quarter, a half, or even a full package all at once, so the explosion was re-
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ally loud. A crackling sound would be followed by the sound of one of the long ones, rrrrrt . . . pang . . . rrrrrt . . . pang! Such were the joyful, splendid sounds we heard. Sometimes we did not use up all of our firecrackers on that one night but kept a few for the next day, for playing with friends.
My mother would generally get angry if I set off firecrackers in the house, but one New Year’s Eve I was surprised at her. Before we went off to sleep to wait for the stroke of midnight, my mother set off several firecrackers. She threw one in the kitchen, for instance, and one into the house or into our bedroom. When I asked her why she did this, she answered, “So the jins [evil spirits, demons] and devils get frightened away and do not hide in there.” I just nodded my head.
Just think how noisy and festive it all was on New Year’s in Laguboti! It was just like “Ka, naval” week, which we had often seen in newsreels at the movie theater. The only difference was that in Laguboti there were no big puppets, but it was probably just as much fun. The little town was laid out in a long rectangle, and around it on New Year’s Day there marched a gala procession of bicycles, animal carts and automobiles. All these vehicles were beautifully decked out, and people even competed with each other in creating the most beautiful decorations. It cost 5 cents to go around once, and the cost for an automobile was one benggol , worth 2 1/2 cents. But to just sit there in a delman or a car certainly was not very interesting, even if everyone was sporting new clothes. So people would think up different things to do. For instance, men riding in a delman [buggy] would wear women’s clothes, or automobile passengers would dance to the beat of a gong ensemble or play a serunai , a type of big wind instrument or blaasin-strument , and so on. Firecrackers were not omitted from the proceedings, either. People never tired of going around in circles the whole day long. From all over the region people would come in to the little town to watch, to meet friends, or to say “Happy New Year!” to relatives and acquaintances. And the children, of course, came along to have fun!
There were not many secondary schools in our land to go on to after finishing middle school. Middle school graduates could continue their education by attending a missionary-run vocational school, but even there not everyone was accepted. Anyhow, not all pupils felt called to become craftsmen, who were not held in very high regard. Then there was nursing school, and also high school, that is, the teacher training school in Sipoholon. Beyond Batakland there were other schools such as the Normal School (also an institution for training teachers) in Pematang Siantar, but it accepted very few of our people, no more than four a year. I still
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remember how the students from this school wore sarongs, white shirts, and peci when they came home on vacation. They were not allowed to wear trousers, people said. It was a real “native school,” an Inlandse school.
Each major church congregation area in our region (or huria sabungan ) was divided into a number of smaller congregations (or huria pagaran ). Each of the smaller congregations had a primary school, and each major congregation a middle school, which was a secondary school for all the primary schools around. The Laguboti huria sabungan, for example, had about ten huria pagaran, so the Laguboti middle school received pupils from about ten primary schools. If each primary school turned out 30 pupils a year, that would mean that ten of them graduated about 300 pupils every year, which was certainly too many for a single middle school, even though there were two parallel classes. If each class took 30 pupils, only 120 could be accepted altogether. So where would the other 180 students go? They were forced to return home.
There were more than twenty major congregations, and if each turned out 50 pupils a year, there would be about 1000 people leaving the benches of middle school annually. And for these l000 people there was only one vocational school, two nursing schools (in Balige and Tarutung), and one high school (in Sipoholon). It was no great surprise that those who entered these schools felt themselves a select group, as indeed they were. A missionary school teacher’s standing was high in our circle, in spite of the fact that his salary only started at Rp. 7.50 and went no higher than Rp. 30. Even a medical assistant (mantri verpleger ) did not receive a salary higher than Rp. 30 a month, but his standing was also high in our social circle. He was called a dostor (doctor).
Because very few children were able to continue their schooling past middle school, many migrated outside the Batak region to become policemen or soldiers, although people held the latter occupation in low esteem: it was “selling your head,” folks said. There were some who continued their studies in private Dutch- and English-language schools. But none of this could solve the problem of too few secondary schools. First of all, not everyone was accepted into police or military training, and second, there were not, in fact, very many who went to private schools, for the fees were too high.
Anyone who was an official (in Dutch, an ambtenaar ) was held in high regard. It goes without saying that the life of an ambtenaar was manifestly more orderly and stable than that of a villager. Ambtenaars were like tuans already, and in order to become one of the ambtenaars people would even go so far as to work several months in a government office without pay in hopes of being noticed and offered a job. Mission school teachers and dostors were ambtenaars, so people tried very hard to get their children into the appropriate schools. Sometimes they did not play fair, either. For
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example, they might give the man preacher a valuable ulos cloth so that he might exercise his influence on their behalf. Or a father who wanted to get his son into Sipoholon high school might suddenly become extraordinarily faithful in attending church on Sunday, for whether or not a child’s father was “good” would also be investigated by the school admission authorities.
My father very much wanted me to become a teacher in a mission school. As a sintua he believed that his son should also work in the religious field. When we graduated from middle school we were still only twelve or thirteen years old, too young for teachers’ school, which you had to be fifteen to enter, so a preparatory school was established, a night school. Anyone who taught at this school also had to teach in the daytime, and so they only had evening hours open. Usually the night school instructor was the head teacher at the regular school. We paid him tuition in the form of two hanging lamps and, each month, a can of kerosene, some of which he could use to light his own house. So, each year the head teacher got two lamps and free kerosene, for after the course was over the lamps were not returned, but were presented to the teacher as a gift.
Our lessons in night school simply repeated what we had studied in middle school, the only difference being that Bible study was added. We really had to know the Old and New Testaments and the Ten Commandments. The school was attended by pupils from the huria pagaran too, and because their homes were so far away, many of them had to spend the night. My house was only one kilometer away, but often I slept there too, since I was afraid to walk home by myself. Even though my teacher had told me that there is no such thing as jins and devils, I did not believe him.
Like almost all Batak villages, ours was surrounded by clumps of bamboo, and at night something that sounded like the voice of a baby crying could often be heard from the direction of the bamboo thicket. This was said to be the voice of the homang , a kind of spirit which could jump about without being seen. One night such a voice was heard behind our house. My mother and several girls (girls from the village always made a habit of sleeping at our house, since it had a porch) went off to chase the homang away. They left me behind, all by myself, to guard the house. It was very dark and, all alone, I became frightened and started to tremble. I thought it would be best to close up the house tight so the spirit couldn’t get in, but then I remembered that the homang could move about without being seen and so could enter the house without anyone knowing how it got in. So I opened the door very wide and stood leaning against the door post waiting for everyone to return, peering left and right, up and down, and back to front, in case the spirit tried to leap out at me. I was shaking all over and was all ready to scream as loudly as I could, but luckily nothing
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happened. I heard my mother and the girls shouting to chase the homang away; I also heard the homang being quiet. They told me they had heard the bamboo canes creaking and rubbing against one another. Perhaps the homang had just hopped away, but in any case they had not seen the creature; maybe it had been too dark. With my mother and the girls close by once again, I returned to normal and pretended I had not been at all frightened. I was ashamed to tell them what had happened while they were off chasing the homang.
About thirty of us attended the night school, but only two were picked to continue in school. We were being sifted through and chosen with great care. The night school failed to satisfy my expectations, so my father put me in the government school in Balige, seven kilometers away from home. This school started at 8 A.M. , and since there were no horse carriages available at that hour, I was forced to walk. (Even if there had been carriages available, I would not have had the money to pay for one every morning.) I left at 5 A.M. so I wouldn’t be late. The school was run by the colonial government, and most of the students who went on to the Normal School in Pematang Siantar were from its ranks. The teachers were almost all products of the Pematang Siantar Normal School too. The lessons were of a much higher quality than those of middle school, and the Malay was better as well; it was the genuine article. Even the local language used there was special. In Toba, we were forced to study Mandailing.
A Normal School teacher felt himself to be much above a Mission School teacher. Mission School teachers would even pay considerable sums of money to take lessons from the Normal School teachers in hopes that they might pass the government examination, which would give them the same rights and privileges as the Normal School graduates. Sometimes the Mission School teachers would even take Dutch lessons from a government teacher’s school graduate. In such ways Mission School teachers would attempt to elevate their standing, but very few of them ever succeeded.
Mission School teachers did not study the Dutch language in Sipoholon, so when they came across some Dutch words in our reader, they had a hard time pronouncing them. Sometimes the words would come out badly mangled. I still remember that when I was in middle school one of our teachers was putting on airs and teaching us how to say “‘s Lands Plantentuin Buitenzorg” (the State Botanical Gardens in Bogor). He always put too much stress on the letter “s,” and his tuin sounded more like toin .
It was too tiring to walk back and forth to Balige every morning, so my nephew and I stayed in Baruara at the house of one of our relatives, whom we paid for room and board. We only went home on Saturdays. In the evenings we cooked our own rice, since our relative did not get home
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from the marketplace until after dark. But this lifestyle did not last long for me. In Sigumpar, about five kilometers from Laguboti, a “government link school” opened. People said that this school was almost the same as a full-fledged government-run school, and since this one was run by the Mission and the head teacher had an excellent reputation, my dad insisted that I attend. My father promised to buy me a bicycle, so I agreed to move from Balige to Sigumpar. I was back in fifth grade again.
My dad sold his horses and the delman, and went in with someone else to open a goldsmithing business. He had to study, too, in order to learn the trade. This business prospered to some extent, so my father replaced our house with one with a porch . . . and fulfilled his promise to buy me a bicycle. At first I got a sort of broken-down bicycle to practice on, and then after I could ride I got one that was fairly new. I did nothing after school every day except ride my bike. At first my friends lifted me up onto the bike while they held it, and then gave me a push from behind (still holding the bike). Eventually they only pushed me, as I learned how to keep my balance. But this did not work well after a while because I could not always find someone to push me when I needed it. So I tried to do it myself, and finally succeeded in starting off from a standing position rather than sitting down.
I cannot relate everything about my first experiences riding a bicycle; my only clear memory is that for days and days I did not want to let go of that bike. My mother got angry at me. She said I might get too tired. One time I fell off and ran into some thorny bamboo. Not unexpectedly, the thorns scratched me all over, but at that time I felt nothing, probably became I was so enthralled with the bicycle.
Mornings I rode my bike to Sigumpar, but my mother forbade me to ride my bike every morning. She said I had to alternate it with other modes of transport. I did, but not because I was afraid of getting sick like my mother said, but because riding a bicycle every day eventually got sort of boring.
Legend has it that the Batak people are the descendants of Si Raja Batak. He was born from his mother, Si Boru Deak Parujar, and was the child of gods. In fact, the child of the highest god, Debata Mula Jadi Nabolon, whose purpose was to create the world. Once the world was created, he lived in Sianjurmulamula. This village also became the residence of Si Raja Batak and was located near the slopes of Mount Pusukbuhit, which is said to be the land of origin of the Batak and Karo peoples. The legend also held that Si Raja Batak had two sons, and from them sprang the Sumba marga and the Lontung marga. These two marga groups later
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broke apart to become other margas, and even today new margas are still being formed.
The old people in our land knew their family histories in detail, as far back as three or four generations. If someone came to visit, it would have to be ascertained exactly who he or she was (this was called martarombo , or investigating the family connections). Often we heard the grownups repeat the saying
Tiniptip sanggar bahen huruhuruan
Djolo sinungkun marga asa binoto partuturan.
The sanggar grass is clipped to make a little cage.
So by asking what the visitor’s marga was, who the father was, and who the uncles, grandparents, and so on were, we would know what family relationships we had and in what manner we should serve this guest.
Knowing the family history also meant knowing about one’s dongan sabutuha (literally, womb companions), that is, one’s lineage within the marga. Ties within the lineage were still strong, and the members of the same lineage would immediately feel themselves united against outsiders. This sometimes resulted in the desire to put the interests of one’s own lineage first and foremost, before all others. If one’s lineage did not get ahead, often a person would find a way (sometimes a decidedly improper way) to get ahead of another lineage or bring it down. Small margas or lineages often did not have much room for maneuvering.
In our village our marga was a small one. Even though we were the village founders or “owners” (in the past, the village took the name of our marga), after a while we had for the most part gotten crowded out. As a child I did not feel this too sharply. My only experience was that I had no older brother within the lineage to complain to or lean on for support if someone was trying to beat me up. One time the “other side” challenged me to a tugging match with a kid almost my age, but I was not interested. Then they told my opponent to flick my ear with his finger. It was customary for us children to do this as a sign that we were not afraid of someone; it was a kind of insult. Of course I got angry, and the two of us set to fighting. The others yelled at us, egging us on. I got so angry I forgot the proper tactics in fights of this sort. I got flopped on my back on the ground, with my opponent on top of me. I surrendered, and they shrieked gleefully. I got all red in the face, but how could I fight that many people all at once? I just remained silent and thought, So what if he flicked my ear, what good would it do to fly off the handle? After that I realized exactly where I stood. I knew that I was all alone and would have to rely solely on
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my own strength. From that time on, I always took care to avoid fighting; I knew how to carry myself around other children so as to avoid confrontation. My father called me a “good boy” because I never got into fights.
My dad became rather skillful at working gold, and because the business was not sufficiently profitable for him (it did not make enough to be divided two ways, [between the two partners]), my father opened his own goldsmithing outfit in Porsea. At that time I was still a night school student in Sigumpar. Because school was closer to the business than to our village, I lived with my dad, who also needed me around to do the housework. He did not tell me why he had moved to Porsea, but in fact it was not entirely because the goldsmithing business did not bring in enough profit; from others I heard that he had had a disagreement with our district headman. He preferred to laugh that situation off.
All this time my father had been discussing me with the teacher from the government school in Porsea. The teacher told him that I could be admitted, but that it would be better for me to try fourth grade first. If it became apparent that I could keep up with the lessons, then I would be allowed to move to fifth grade. So I entered fourth grade in government school first (normally graduates of middle school and link school were placed in fourth grade in Government School). After several months I was asked to go on and move to fifth grade, but I did not want to do this. I thought that following a full year’s course of study in just four months was too much, and I was afraid I would not be able to pass the fifth-grade final exam. But I had another reason to stay behind in fourth grade. I had great hopes of being the smartest kid in the class, and therefore great hopes, too, of taking the entrance exam for normal school.
One time our fifth-grade teacher told us to add up two sets of figures very quickly. Whoever was the fastest and got the right answer would get a prize consisting of a pencil and small briefcase. It happened that there was a kid in class who was repeating fifth grade. He was smart, and was taking fifth grade a second time because he had not passed the entrance exam for normal school. He finished a little bit before me and ran up to the teacher to show him his work. But unhappily for him one of his computations was incorrect. I was the second one to finish so the award was presented to me. Unfortunately, however, the Depression meant that neither the normal school nor the high school were accepting new students. My plans had to be changed again. But in what direction?
When I was in the link school my name because associated with that of a certain girl. Being around girls was a normal sort of thing for me, actually. Since I was little I had played with both older and younger girls. In our village, indeed, I had a fiancée, an oroan in Batak. (According to adat, a boy could be engaged to a girl even when they were quite young, so young in fact that their stools were still milky.) My parents did this, Mother
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said, following someone’s recommendation that I would grow up healthy if I were engaged. And indeed, after being seriously ill that one time, I never got sick again. My oroan was older than I—six years older—so I was shy in her presence. To tell the truth I would not have known she was my intended if it had not been for the fact that other kids yelled it at me, or slipped me the word quietly. Since I was shy, I moved away if I saw her coming.
Every church had its own choir, and since I had a nice voice I was allowed to sing in the choir made up of teenaged girls. I was the smallest of the lot, and they were always pestering me. I horsed around and sometimes even traded punches with them. Apparently some of the older boys got annoyed when they watched me playing and joking around with the girls, and one time one of them called me over and said, “Try hitting her breasts. You watch, you’ll make her cry.” I wanted to try this out, so at one point I did punch one of the big girls in the chest. But she did not moan with pain. Instead I heard her say, “Hey, you’re naughty!” Her breast was indeed softer than the normal chest, but I really did not have a clue why she called me naughty.
So in the girl department I had lots of “experience,” if I can use that word here. In government school I felt rather attracted to the opposite sex, though I did not know why. And why my friends started shouting that girl’s name along with my own, I had no idea. From the pupils in another class—the classmates of this girl—I learned that one day when their class had been let out, she and one of her girlfriends happened to be eating sweets in front of the classroom window. This girl supposedly peeked at me every now and then from the next doorway (she used a mirror), and gestured invitingly toward the snacks she was eating. (I had no idea what she was doing.) Anyway, the others drew the conclusion that this girl wanted to be friends with me, and they took to shouting out my name whenever she passed by or if I happened to be in the neighborhood. I pretended to pay no attention to them, and anyway, what could I do to fend off that many kids by myself? Actually, the girl had caught my eye, and me hers. This became evident later, after we graduated. But at this point in our story I will surrender to time constraints and move on.
In Porsea we bathed in the famous Asahan River. It was a deep river, and anyone who did not know how to swim was forced to stay close to shore where there was lots of mud. I learned how to swim very quickly so that I could have fun and play tag with my friends in the water. In fact, after school let out we did nothing but play in the water (I told the folks at home I was going to take a bath). We splashed about for as much as four hours at a stretch, to the point that my eyes were red when I went home.
In this river there were different places for males and females, but we boys liked swimming at the girls’ spot better. The water was clearer (be-
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cause it was deeper), and in addition there were lots of girls we knew there. We bothered them, and frightened them by diving down deep and pulling their legs as we came up. The never failed to scream and squeal.
It was when I was in government school that I first discovered the Balai Pustaka books. According to the rules we were not allowed to borrow more than two books every two weeks, and since I did not like this rule I tried to make friends with the librarian. I would help him register the books and put covers on them. In exchange, I was allowed to read to my heart’s content. I read a great many books. The ones I still recall were love stories like Pertemuan [Meetings] I and II, Karam dalam gelombang pertjintaan [Foundering in the waves of love], Pertjobaan Setia [A trial run at being faithful], Djeumpa Atjeh [The flower of Atjeh], and so on. I read no fewer than sixty books in that year and three months’ time.
The Dutch language was held in unbelievably high regard by people in our area. There were several H.I.S. schools: one in Sigumpulon, one in Balige, and one in Narumonda that was run by the Nommensen School-vereniging. Of course, people preferred the mission’s H.I.S. to the others, since we were all Christians. Sometimes there were children from the huria pagaran [church congregations] who got into those schools; they were usually the children of mission school teachers or of the district head. On Christmas Eve these H.I.S. kids were often asked to recite Bible verses in Dutch, even though there were only one or two people in the whole church who could understand them. I suppose it had to be demonstrated publicly that the H.I.S. fourth graders were skilled at Dutch.
Sometimes this tendency to show off got rather silly. If an H.I.S. student was walking with his parents to the market and they happened to run into a Dutch person—it did not matter who—the parents often told the child to speak Dutch with the Dutch person. If the child, perhaps only a second or third grader and naturally still very shy, did not want to do this, the father would grumble, “Well, don’t continue in that school, let’s just ask for your tuition money back. It’s wasting money to keep you there.” Or if two H.I.S. kids happened to meet, the father would tell them to speak Dutch to each other: “Okay, friends, we want to hear you two speak Dutch.” What delight there was in hearing other people speaking Dutch I cannot imagine, especially if the listeners themselves did not know a single word of the language. The two children—little kids in the first or second grade!—of course felt shy and embarrassed.
Toward the end of my time in fifth grade in government school, a Dutch course opened in Porsea on the initiative of a teacher from the teacher’s school. It cost Rp. 2.50 a month, with one lesson a week. I took this class.
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About ten of us at first (the number shrank to six after a month, four after two months, and then dwindled to none at all) diligently sat there in front of our teacher. One time the teacher told us to finish the sentence, “de vogel vliegt over . . .” (The bird flies over . . .). A pupil answered, “De vogel vliegt in de logulogutooi” (The bird flies in the logulogutooi ). The day before the teacher had taught us the sentence “De vogel zit in de kooi” (The bird is in the cage). The child had apparently memorized this sentence but he had not gotten it quite right. What had apparently remained in his head was just the sound “ooi,” so when the teacher told him to complete the sentence “De vogel vliegt over . . . ,” he added “in de logulogutooi.”
The night school for Dutch did not last long. When we heard that a Schakelschool was going to open in Parmaksian, I registered as a pupil there. Almost everywhere wild schools for Dutch instruction were opening up. The first in our area was a schakelschool in Balige that was built and run by the Dutch Trade Association. Within two years this school had brought results: two of its students passed the entrance exam for MULO. They got a lot of propaganda out of that one.
There is a Batak saying that goes, Songon lombu do hajolmaon (Humankind is like cattle). That is, people follow others, just as cows always follow their bull. I still recall how, back in the beginning, very few people owned automobiles (actually, they didn’t own them, they were just paying for them on credit). But soon lots of people formed groups to buy cars on credit, to the point that there got to be too many automobiles. The same is true with mechanized rice mills. They sprang up like mushrooms, even though there was not all that much rice to mill. (People preferred to pound their rice by hand, especially since they did not always have enough money to pay to get it done.) So all because of people wanting to “keep up with the Joneses,” dozens and dozens of mechanized rice mills, wild schools, churches, and so on sprang up. Indeed, North Tapanuli can hardly be conceived of without all its churches, they got so numerous.
Each church had a bell, and its sound became part of our flesh and blood, for we heard it nearly every day. The bell was rung at any and all opportunities; if there was a meeting at church, for example, or if a person died, if it was a holiday, and so on. On Sundays the bell woke us up very early in the morning, at about six o’clock. At eight o’clock the bell would remind us to eat; at nine, to walk to church; at 9:30, to gather in front of the church; and at 9:45 or 10:00, for services to begin. So on Sunday morning alone we heard the bell ring four times before church even began. Maybe after church the bell would be rung again, if some boys were practicing their hymn singing (in Batak, marguru ende or margurende ). If someone died, the bell would be struck, but not continuously; it would be hit once and then it would stop. After that it was hit once, then
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a pause, then once more, then a series of beats with pauses between them. When it was struck, the number of beats was counted, and from the total number we knew whether it was a child who had died or an adult. If there was a fire or an accident, the bell was also rung.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve (that is, twelve o’clock on the night of December 31) we children heard our church bell, along with those of all the churches nearby. The bells with the clearest and richest tones were praised, and the ones which did not sound nice were criticized as sounding tinny. Sometimes fights broke out as a result. Kids whose church bell had been called a tin can would feel insulted. Maybe that is why all the churches ordered—yes, they actually fell all over themselves ordering—nice bells from Germany.
A teacher without a diploma who taught at this wild school was called Guru Hebben. The story was that once someone happened to walk by and hear this teacher giving a lesson in Dutch, as follows: “Ik heb, wij hebben” (I have, we have). Apparently the word hebben stuck in his mind and, because he often forgot the teacher’s name, he’d just call him Guru Heb, Guru Hebben. After that everyone called the teacher Guru Hebben, and soon the name was applied to all teachers who did not have diplomas. In fact these teachers had a variety of educations. Some were from H.I.S. or from levels one, two, or three of MULO. Some had already graduated from MULO, some had gone to teacher’s school but had not graduated, and so on.
I became a pupil at the Parmaksian Schakelschool, though not with the intention of continuing my education from that point. I just wanted to know a bit of Dutch. It never occurred to me that next I might tackle the entrance exam for MULO, and even if this did somehow happen I certainly had no hope of actually passing it. There were lots of people from H.I.S., people who had studied Dutch for seven full years, who still could not pass the test and continue.
Parmaksian was about three kilometers from Porsea. We biked over there and when we got bored with our bicycles we walked and took a shortcut. Some girls we knew rented a horse carriage on a monthly basis. Sometimes we tried to tag along after them (wherever there are flowers, bees buzz around). I was rather attracted by one of these gifts, so I tried as hard as I could to get near the carriage. But sometimes we pretended not to care about the carriage at all, to act as if we did not care about them in the least. That was a tactic too!
I knew the owner of this carriage well. Once, when he had no one to drive it, he asked me to do so. At school I could tether the horse and give him grass (he said), and after school I would take him home, along with the girls. I did not mind being a coachman. But when I drove the carriage, quarrels would break out between the girls and me. The way I figured it,
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the girl I had my eye on hated me just like the others did, since she was joining in on all the teasing. But one morning I was astonished to get a letter from her through her little brother. She said that it was not because of her that we had the quarrels in the carriage; she was not at fault in the least. I did not answer this letter, but it was a sign that she did not hate me after all. Even so, I asked the carriage owner if I could quit my job as driver.
Our studies at the Schakelschool went very quickly. This was not surprising, since most of us had already graduated from middle school. And our teacher worked really hard for us. He punished us severely if we did not study or if we did something else wrong. Nevertheless, we knew that he was doing this for us. We all studied happily under his leadership.
When we went home along the main road we did all sorts of things to amuse ourselves along the way, so we would forget how hungry we were or how long the journey home was. I had played these games when I was forced to walk home from link school in Sigumpar to Laguboti. For one thing, there were lots of telegraph poles all in a row along the road. We tried to hit them or the telegraph wires with stones we found by the roadside. Whoever could hit the wire consistently was generally considered the most accurate shot. Sometimes we stopped and put our ears against a pole. Friends told us that if we listened really close we could find out what people were saying on the telephone, or what they were wiring in their telegrams. Indeed, there was a sort of “ngiung-ngiung” sound that you could hear through the poles. Friends told us it was the telegrams being tapped out!
We stopped these games if we heard the road inspector coming along on his motorcycle. This man was a rather tall Dutchman, so we called him Tuan Sibarung , or Mr. Heron. He was really funny to look at, sitting all hunkered down, with his knees sticking up on his motorcycle, as if he were hunkered down to defecate in the river. We ran into him almost every day, so we got to know the sound of his motor. Our hearing was really sharp then, and we knew all the cars in the vicinity, for we passed them every day. We knew which auto was coming just from the sound of its motor or horn, or from its license plate number. Plates marked B.B. were from Tapanuli, and those marked B.K. were from East Sumatra.
There were lots of kapok trees along the road. Sometimes we knocked the kapok fruits off the branches with rocks. The young seeds were edible, even though some people said that if you ate too many you would come down with tukik , a kind of ear ailment in which your ear exudes pus. One time I ate some kapok seeds, but they did not taste very good. But of course if you are hungry you will eat anything.
The wild schakelschools in our district were always half alive, that is, ex-
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isting somewhere between life and death. This was not surprising, considering our land’s economic conditions at the time. The tuition fees, which at first had been Rp. 4 and were later dropped to 1 ringgit, were still too high for most people. The Toba region, for instance, had no other product besides rice and there was only enough of that to eat. To buy the other necessities people had to raise one or two pigs. They cost hardly anything because they only ate rice bran and leftover cooked rice. All we had to do was sell them once they got big. Fear of losing this comfortable means of livelihood and fear of not being able to eat this delicious meat was what often pushed North Tapanuli people into becoming Christians.
There was only one way out of this cramped economic situation, and that was to migrate outside the region or seek a paid position in another district. This is why parents were so competitive in trying to enroll their children in school, even if it nearly killed them to pay the bills. A great many students thus went off to Java to attend school. Without anyone really noticing, there was a huge exodus of young men, the flower of their people, from the Batak region, which thus became a kind of second Menado and Ambon!
Our teacher in Parmaksian Schakelschool once got into a disagreement with the administrators of the school, as a result of which he moved to Porsea and opened his own school. The old Parmaksian pupils split into two groups, and we were his first pupils. I was already in third year at the time. Our school was just a regular old house, with our teacher’s house right next door. The school was at the edge of the market, so when it was market day it was really noisy. Luckily we just had a half day of classes on market day.
Our teachers here consisted of the head teacher, two male teachers who were both products of the MULO in Tarutung, and a lady teacher who was a product of the Padang Panjang Normal School. One of the men teachers taught us Dutch and arithmetic; the other one gave us elective subjects (or, as we said in Dutch, blokvakken ) such as geography, history, and so on. This second teacher was very touchy. If someone happened to be laughing and he could not see them, he always asked why, quite angrily; he was afraid that the child might be laughing at him. When he strolled about the school, he looked quite dashing. He stood straight up, not looking left or right, gazing off into the far distance. Maybe this performance, in which he appeared so bold and tough, hid feelings of inadequacy.
The Dutch language teacher was a real braggart. He could often be seen chatting with our juffrouw [Dutch, “Miss”: unmarried woman], our young lady teacher, the normal school graduate. One day he got angry at one of the girls in my class, the plump, dark one who had sent me the
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letter via her little brother. At the time, we did not know why he was angry. Later on he told the child who lived with him in his house to go fetch his album. He showed all sorts of pictures of Tarutung to this girl, telling her that he was very used to socializing with girls. The girl who had gotten him angry just kept silent. Only at recess did I find out (from the kid who lived in the teacher’s house, of course) that people—and apparently especially the plump, dark girl—were linking him with our encik . We noticed that, for her part, our encik remained quite unflustered, and in fact thought that the matter was too small to have gotten so angry with the girl about. But maybe the teacher was paying some attention to the encik after all, or else why would he have gotten all that angry?
This normal school lady teacher taught us Malay and singing. She was not all that expert at speaking Dutch, and one time we burst into laughter when she said, “Tot so feer mar eeerst.” One time she got angry at me because I had left my songbook at home, and she said, “Waarom laat je neus ook niet achter?” but I simply replied, “Dat kan niet, Juffrouw” [That’s impossible, Miss]. She looked at me without saying another word.
Our encik was replaced by another lady teacher, a product of the Medan Home Economics School. This teacher did not have the nerve to teach us anything except reading, and even then she never explained any of the complicated words. She was too full of herself, which was especially grating since we were much more fluent in Malay than she was.
My father was not only a craftsman, fixing or making things of gold; he also sold gold jewelry, which he obtained from a Chinese in Pematang Siantar and handled on commission with the agreement that when objects sold he would pay up immediately. So there was always a good deal of gold jewelry in my dad’s storage cabinet. When the pieces were not on display in the shop window, they were stored in a box. I always felt nervous holding them, perhaps because when I did I could not help thinking about a woman’s body. If I held an earring, I thought about a girl’s ear; if I had a necklace in my hands, I recalled her neck. So I tried not to handle the jewelry, and whenever my dad asked me to go get a certain piece I would bring him the whole box and say, “Perhaps you should take it out of the box; I’m afraid I might break it.”
After school I usually stayed at home keeping an eye on our business, because in addition to running his jewelry shop my father also sold other things. In the evenings I would play with my friends. In our town there was a person who did bicycle stunts. He could stand up, lie down, and do all sorts of other things on the bike. So we tried to copy him. We did have lit-
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tle accidents now and then, but that did not stop us from practicing. Often, too, a boxer would come to town, because his father happened to live there. Sometimes he showed us his skills in the ring or demonstrated his strength by lifting something heavy. We had a notion to do the same things, so not long afterward we bought the ropes for a boxing ring. But that is not all we did to get strong. We often tried to lift heavy objects (for example if someone was unloading an automobile), just as we often watched the drivers’ helpers do. In fact, we kind of hankered after becoming driver’s helpers ourselves because they got really, really strong from loading and unloading baggage and freight all the time.
We had great hopes of getting strong and becoming bikers or boxers. We admired the strongman very much indeed; he was tops. Because we were always working out, naturally we wanted to test our strength, to put what we had learned into action. All this pent up strength had to come out, so when we got into disputes with each other, we moved quickly to displaying our physical strength and punching, boxing, and wrestling. After all, weren’t our bodies strong by now? We wanted to show off our boxing skills.
Fortunately none of this lasted very long. One day our teacher told us that whoever wanted to try taking the entrance exam for MULO would have to tell him right away and bring in Rp. 5. I told my father that we were allowed to take the exam to get into MULO, but my aim was only to let him know about it; actually planning on taking the exam did not even enter my head. It was impossible to think that someone from a wild school could pass the exam for MULO. Nevertheless, my dad advised me to take it, and I brought in Rp. 5 and gave it to the teacher. After that, I did not have time to play anymore. I had to return to the schoolhouse again in the evening, to study with the head teacher, going over the same lessons and preparing for the MULO school exam. And the closer it got to examination day, the more anxious I appeared.
The MULO exam was really a trial for me. Day and night I thought of nothing else. Lessons I had already gone over, I went over again. I groaned and moaned. What was the exam going to be like? Did I have any hope of passing? All these questions filled my brain, to the point that I started to look troubled and weak.
One day two of my friends who were also going to take the exam said to me that they no longer saw any use in taking it. They said they knew, from a dream one of them had had, that they would fail and only I would pass. When I asked what the dream had been about, they did not want to tell me. Only after the results of the exam were known did they tell me about it. One of them had dreamed that a mouse appeared in the main hall at the marketplace. The three of us were there and we tried to chase the
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mouse away. One of us got a length of bamboo pole to poke the mouse with it, but no matter what he did, it would not budge. The other boy took a try too, with the same result. Then I came along. I barely picked up the pole and right away the mouse ran away. The boys interpreted this dream to mean that I was the only one of us who would pass the exam. Fortunately we are not allowed to believe in dreams! [as Christians]. But maybe this dream was true after all, in another sense; those two friends of mine are no longer with us here in this transitory world.
I could hardly sleep the night before the exam. Anxiously I awaited the next day. I awoke very early, and after I washed, my father told me to eat a little something but I was not hungry. It felt just as if I were leaving on a long journey. The horse carriage we rented for that morning was going to take us to Narumonda, where the exam was to be held, only three kilometers away. It took only fifteen minutes, but it felt as if I sat in that carriage for hours.
In the yard of the Narumonda H.I.S. many pupils had gathered to take the MULO exam. Because we were from town, lots of them knew us, so we did not feel like total strangers.
All our wishes were fulfilled. Out of us four students from the Hematschool [the “cut rate” school], two got into Level One and one into Level Zero of MULO. My scores were 6 in Dutch, 7 in geography, 8 in history, and 9 in counting and calculating; they said I should be especially proud of such a good score in Dutch.
A father was understandably pleased if his son got ahead in school. But in our region there was an additional facet. A household’s prosperity was no longer measured simply by how extensive its rice fields were or how many animals it owned, but now especially by the kind and level of school its children attended. To denote how high-level such and such a child’s school was, just mentioning Java or Betawi (old folks would say “Matau”) was quite enough.
In Laguboti there was a certain Mission School teacher who had a son attending the kweekschool in Solo. He was very proud of his son, and whenever he was chatting with someone at a food stall he would steer the conversation toward education in order to have a chance to relate how this son of his was going to school in Java. One day, during vacation, his son came home for a visit. His father had him teach his students to do calisthenics, and Dutch military commands spilled from the boy’s mouth. After that, the father, not wanting to be outdone, also gave his commands in Dutch. “Een, twee, een, twee” (One, two, one, two), that is what we heard as he led the exercises. Once he even tried teaching Dutch to his pupils by having them say the words Landbouwbedrijf Sibarani (Sibarani Plantation) for one solid hour.
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The social standing of a child who was in school was therefore really quite high in our area. A father of even modest means who had daughters would often offer to support a boy through school, with the firm promise that he could marry the man’s daughter later on. So sometimes a boy who was not particularly well off could get ahead if, as we said, he “had a brain.”
Our people did not understand many of the ins and outs of schooling. When we were explaining something about a certain unfamiliar school to an older person or a parent, often we took the simplest path, which meant comparing it to a school or a position in our own area that they’d be familiar with. For instance, when the question was, “What’s the difference between the Solo teacher’s school and the Sipoholon teacher’s school?” or “Why do you have to go all the way to Java to attend teacher’s school?” the answer would be “The teacher’s school on Java isn’t like the one in Sipoholon. The teachers who graduate from this school are just the same as the tuan guru (Dutch teachers) who teach over at the H.I.S.” Many children from our area went to school in Solo, so all parents knew that if a child said he was going to school in Solo he was a pupil in a teacher’s school. Solo had become synonymous with teacher’s school!
Also in our area was the GAIB school. People knew that GAIB men went on to become demangs , assistant demangs , and so on. Medical school was also getting to be known. The graduates of this school were not just “dostors,” either, like pharmacists’ aids or nurses; they were real dostor manusia [human doctors, i.e., “real” doctors].
Because our children were going to more and more kinds of schools, new terms sprung up to explain them. For instance, parents would ask, “What sort of school do you go to in Java?” The child would answer: “A.M.S. school.” But the parent would not know what that was and so would ask further, “So, what are you going to become then, once you get out of there?” It was hard for a student to say he did not have a position waiting for him, so he would think up something and say, “I’m going to be a Tuan Kumis [Mr. Moustache].” Similarly, graduates of K.W.S. would become road inspectors like Tuan Heron.
Law school was not held in high regard, for being a mester meant being a no-account unlicensed lawyer, a forked-tongued type, a dodger, and a rogue. People who were leaning in that direction did not need a real education, it was thought: the most schooling they needed was government primary school. So if someone asked what you were going to be after graduating from law school, you absolutely could not say you were going to be a mester . People would cast about for some more respectable analogy and
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say, for example, “I’ll be an attorney for a Tuan Controleur.” And of course people’s jaws would absolutely drop open: wasn’t the controleur virtually a demigod? People did not realize that there were post office controleurs, tax office controleurs, bus controleurs, accounting department controleurs, and so on. But the word “controleur” was in itself enough to signify a person’s rank, because for ignorant people it meant the same as “Dutchman.” And yes, it is true: my uncle did get a lot of respect wherever he went because he had a son who became a controleur (bus).
Schools that did not turn out civil servants (ambtenaars) were not accorded any respect. A child who said he was going to agricultural school in Java was inevitably told, “There’s no way you need to go to Java to learn how to use a hoe!” The same for vocational school; people stuck their noses up in the air and said, “Why go so far away? There’s a vocational school right here in Laguboti.” Nor did they want to know about business school because they said you did not need to study to know how to sell things. Didn’t lots of people sell merchandise at the market, despite not having gone to business school? All you needed was a bit of capital to start out with if you wanted to become a retailer or a merchant. So, to avoid this kind of talk, business school students said they were in “Bukkoning School,” which meant boekhouding [bookkeeping] school. People thought more of bookkeepers than merchants.
A friend who had also passed the exam and I went to report and register for MULO in Tarutung. In our district we rarely saw Dutch people (that is, white people), and if there did happen to be one around it was invariably a person of high rank. So “Dutch” was synonymous with “big tuan” (tuan besar ) as far as we were concerned. Not surprisingly, therefore, I felt a bit frightened at approaching the director of the MULO, especially since I had never spoken Dutch to a Dutchman. Back in school the teacher had instructed us in what we ought to say to the director. The sentences started with “Heb ik de eer . . .” (Do I have the honor [of addressing the director of] . . .) and so forth. I memorized these sentences and when we went to meet the director I was still muttering them to myself on the way, lest I forget them. It just so happened that the director was out taking a stroll in front of his house. We had already asked a neighbor if that was tuan director, but when I got near him I nevertheless blurted out, “Heb ik de eer . . .” and so on. When he responded that he was indeed the director, I just handed him my letter of application without saying a single word more. I totally forgot everything I had memorized so perfectly on the way there. Fortunately the director opened the letter right away and read it. Then he asked us into his house for a moment to write down our names and make the application formal. He said we would receive our official responses later on at home.
And indeed a month later we got word: we had been accepted.
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Toba is the region surrounding Lake Toba, but in common speech the word has come to mean “rude” or “rustic,” like the word uluan (upriver people). The Angkola, for instance, call all those who come from the north of them Toba, even if they happen to come from around Sibolga. And by the same token Sibolga people call Tarutung folk Toba. People from Silindung call people from the Lake Toba area “toba.” The real Toba people, of course, feel insulted and say, “If it weren’t for Toba, Silindung wouldn’t eat.” The Angkola say that the Toba are rough-mannered and greedy, and the Toba respond by saying that the Angkola are stingy. In Toba there is a funny story about the Angkola. It is said that when the Angkola make curried stew, they are so cheap that they just hang a slice of meat above the hearth so they can dip it into the pot for a second every time they boil up their vegetables, then pull it back up again.
Angkola parents did not allow their daughters to marry Toba boys. In fact, Silindung people would not let their young daughters to even socialize with Toba boys. The Toba boys who had just gotten into MULO in Tarutung were constantly teased by being called “toba.” Eventually all this changed, even in the matter of marriage. In fairness perhaps it should be mentioned that, by contrast, the Toba considered themselves superior to people from Humbang and Uluan, and from Samosir as well.
Anyone who has ever gone by car through Tapanuli from Pematang Siantar surely has noticed that there is nothing whatever along the road-sides except the rice fields and, way out in the middle of them, villages surrounded by clusters of bamboo; they look like green islets in a green sea. Fanning is, in fact, the sole means of livelihood for people there. Over toward Silindung there are a few other activities, such as rubber fanning and harvesting gum benzoin for making incense, but there is not even much of that. The area’s poverty is what has kept railroads out. But fanning alone eventually falls short of satisfying people’s needs. If a person has many sons he surely cannot divide his rice land into enough parcels for each one of them, so Toba people search for other means of support. People flock to Sidikalang and Kota Cane to open new farms and new villages. And that’s not all. Children with schooling migrate out beyond their home region to find jobs as clerks on the plantations or to become ambtenaars in the big city.
People in other communities often got jealous of the Toba because of this. In the Simelungun area, for instance, the Toba had come to be hated because they are the ones who look prosperous and who hold positions in offices. In East Sumatra people had begun to resent them, and indeed by that time Medan had become “Tapanuli City,” Tapanuli’s capital. The genuine Malays and the Simelunguns and the Karos (who are also Batak) get
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short shrift there and count for nothing. Disputes also break out frequently with Padang people. This is not surprising. Once there was a big dispute between West Sumatrans and Tapanuli people in East Sumatra, and no cars from West Sumatra were allowed to go through Tapanuli.
People say Lake Toba is a lovely lake, but the idea never really occurred to us. Maybe this was because we were so used to lovely scenery or because we were so thoroughly accustomed to playing in the lake. But there was another reason we paid no attention to the natural beauty of our land: we had no time for that sort of thing. After we got out of school, for instance, we were not allowed to go play but were told to fetch firewood or do some other task. “Now, don’t go thinking you can be like What’s-his-name. He’s a rich kid.” That’s what we’d always hear.
True enough: the fear of having an empty belly was what pushed people to work their hardest.
I gathered together everything I needed to take to MULO. I had bought three pairs of long pants (students at the Tarutung MULO did not normally wear shorts), two pairs of shoes, a towel, a handkerchief, a toothbrush, soap, and so on. I got most of these things from our own store—my dad had given up his jewelry shop and had gone into selling variety goods. I got all these things without him knowing it, of course. This was what I would set off with for Tarutung.
A week before I left, my father held a ceremonial banquet for me, to bless my departure and ask for my well-being and success at school. This was the second time such an occasion had been given for me. The first was when I was confirmed (marguru malua in Batak, aangenomen in Dutch) and thus became a full member of the church congregation. I did not particularly like these special meals, for not only did I have to pitch in and help serve the food, but I was also forced to sit there with everybody and listen while they gave speeches offering me advice. And to each of the thirty speeches of advice I had to respond with an expression of thanks. Well, the world often works backward. We exhaust ourselves serving guests food, yet we are also the ones who have to go and say thank you, too.
I had never been separated from my parents from the time I was small, so going to Tamtung frightened me a bit. How would people treat me at the place I was going to board? Living in Tarutung turned out to have its good points, however. Even though boarding costs were not very expensive, the MULO students were treated very well. You did not have to watch the landlord’s kids like you would if you were in Medan, or to do this or that around the house. Maybe this was because MULO students were well thought of.
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When I first moved to Tarutung I took room and board in the house of a relative who ran a coffee stall on the Pahae Road. It was sort of noisy there in the middle of the day, since people came in to drink their coffee. It was only at night after the stall had closed—about nine o’clock—that I could get to my studying. Of course this could not be allowed to continue became it was not good for my studies, so after living there for about three months I looked around for another arrangement.
It was not easy to find a place in Tarutung, especially since you had to find one that was cheap enough but also conducive to studying. Cheap and good could not be found quickly, quite unlike cheap and crummy, or expensive and good. Eventually I moved into the house of a veterinary assistant. There I was treated a bit better, but the atmosphere in the house was not very nice, for each evening we heard the man of the house getting angry at his wife and children, even though they had just been reading from the Bible.
From there I went to the house of the friend who had passed the exam with me back in Porsea, and I stayed there for the rest of the first year. They lived in Kampung [village] of Hutabagot, out in the middle of the rice paddies. When we went there from Tarutung we had to walk along the riverbank. It was covered in long grass, so when we walked there early in the morning our shoes would get wet from the dew on the grass. On rainy days the riverbank was full of mud and no matter how we watched where we walked every once in a while we would accidently step in some mud. Of course our shoes got dirty and we had to wipe them off with grass to get the mud off. And every morning we were forced to walk along a small ditch through the rice paddies. This ditch was soft and moist, so the bridges placed over it always sank into the mud. You could not just jump over the ditch, because of course our shoes would sink in the soggy mud. So we took off our shoes on one side and put them on again on the other. But because the water in which we washed our feet after crossing was so dirty (after all, it was muddy ditch water), our socks—or our shoes, if we were not wearing socks—got filthy.
I felt rather cooped up living there, for once we reached the kampung after school, it was difficult to leave again. Luckily the two of us were together every day, or else it would have been intolerable.
The pupils at MULO came from all corners of the Batak region, but the majority were from the area around Lake Toba and Silindung. Sometimes there was someone from South Tapanuli, but that was rare. Almost all of the students were Christian; after all the school was run by the mission. It was the most advanced school in Tapanuli, which was perhaps why the students considered themselves so special.
At first it was hard for me to follow what the teacher was saying in
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classes where he spoke Dutch, especially if he did not pronounce his words clearly. When I was asked something I usually just responded with ya or nee [yes or no]. But eventually this changed. Maybe because I did not study hard enough, my written assignments rarely even got average grades. A five, a five and a half, at the most a six minus, was what I was earning. But this did not bother me so much, because in other subjects I was not doing so poorly.
The subject that really appealed to me was math, and in fact I came to believe that I had a talent in it. Hadn’t my grades in lower school been good in arithmetic? For us kids and for the grownups in the village, the person who was best at figuring was the “expert.” No one else really measured up, even if they had a talent for languages or whatever. People said that if you were good with figures you could not easily be cheated.
At school I was the one everyone came to, to ask about algebra and geometry. As a result, I started to call myself [in Dutch] a wiskunstenaar , a math wizard. Nowadays I am not quite so sure where my talents lie; maybe I do not possess any at all. But I can guarantee that I am no mathematician. I was simply attracted to new things, and perhaps because the various kinds of math were new to me, I intuitively moved in that direction. Other explanations I shall not seek. Indeed, not many Indonesian children know what their talents are.
We did not usually speak Dutch at school. Wherever we were, we always used our mother tongue, even during class. So Dutch was used only when speaking to teachers. When we did try to speak Dutch among ourselves, we got teased. Someone would say something like, “You might as well toss your Dutch over there into the sewer.” Our teachers knew this, so they made a rule that whoever was reported to be speaking Batak would be fined 2 1/2 cents. But this policy failed, since none of us wanted to squeal on a friend. Indeed, we felt undeniably calmer and more confident using our mother tongue when we conversed. And this represented one victory for the Dutch in our area.
After three months in MULO we received our first report card. This report also noted how many foreign languages we were allowed to choose. Malay was counted as a foreign language. I chose German and Malay, because I had heard from my friends that there was not much demand for French speakers. German seemed to be the right language for us to take. After all, wasn’t all scientific literature written in German? That is what we thought then, anyway. But maybe we also chose it because our preachers were Germans, and so we were already a bit pro-German.
Our math teacher also taught us German. (German grammar is only good for mathematicians anyway!) Since my grades in German were good, I became increasingly certain that I had a talent for math.
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That first year I heard an “anecdote” at school. Not long ago there had been a Dutch teacher (he had since left the school) who read a “funny” story to his class. Much to his surprise he noticed that when he finished reading none of the students laughed. So he angrily asked one of them, “Why aren’t any of you laughing after hearing such a funny story?”
“Well, um . . . ,” answered the pupil, “we didn’t feel your story was very funny, actually.”
“What do you mean, not funny? You just don’t have a sense of humor.” But the student said that the story really was not funny. Finally the teacher said, “Well, in that case, you tell a story. Then I’ll be able to see what kind of sense of humor you have.”
So the pupil related a story—actually, he just shouted it—as follows: “Manase, Manase ditinkgir ho lubang ni hirik, hape lubang ni re” (Manase, Manase, you dug out a cricket hole, but unfortunately it was really a wasp home in a dung heap). There is a type of wasp that adores water buffalo or cow manure (in Dutch it is called a mestkever ). Normally it digs its hole in a pile of dry dung, and when you go to pick up the dung to use as fertilizer, you sometimes cannot tell whether this hole has been made by a cricket (which also likes to burrow in dung) or by a wasp. The story the student told is a kind of taunt in verse form commonly used to torment kids named Manase.
When the class heard the verse, they burst into paroxysms of laughter. The Dutch teacher, who did not speak Batak, was dumbfounded. He asked for a translation of the verse, but the mischievous student replied, “It really can’t be translated, Tuan. It wouldn’t be funny anymore in another language.” But the teacher kept insisting and finally the boy said, “Manase, Manase (the stress now falling on the na , not on the se as it had above), waar ben je?” (Where are you). The class burst into laughter once again.
His face reddening, the teacher said, “What’s so funny about the sentence ‘Manase, where are you?’ I don’t understand you people at all.” Maybe the Dutch really did not understand us.
Two incidents in school startled us. The first was that a level-two student pointed a knife at a teacher and threatened to kill him. The boy said he did not actually intend to stab the teacher but just to frighten him. People said that teacher was “sweet outside but a wolf inside.” I never had any firsthand experience of this teacher being sneaky. I was a bit afraid of him, but maybe that was only out of prejudice. Anyway, it turned out badly for this boy. He was expelled from school. Sometimes a small matter determines the whole course of your life.
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The other incident was that another child in level two was expelled because it was thought that he had insulted the statue of Tuan J. Nommensen, the German preacher who had first spread the Christian religion in Tapanuli. This statue had been erected in commemoration of his services to the Batak people (spreading religion was a service, it seemed). On the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, the statue was decorated with flowers and the Dutch flag (which, indeed, he had served, by helping to establish it in the Batak region). Three days later the incident in question occurred, though in retrospect it really did not amount to much of anything. Several students living in the dormitory were playing and they took the flowers and flags from around the statue. Possibly they thought that nothing would come of it, since the ceremony was long over, but a teacher saw everything (the statue stood in a little field out in front of the place where the teachers lived). After the matter was investigated it came out that one particular student was more or less the leader. He was described as the hoofddader [main culprit], alias the rebel-in-charge. He was expelled from school with a bad letter inserted in his file saying that he had been expelled by the director (at the time he was teaching our class) and that his report card had been ripped up in front of him. All wrongs had to be punished, especially wrongs perpetrated on the tuan preachers.
Frequently a hawker selling mandrek passed by the front of our school. He was a Bengali, and we called him the “komplet” peddler. His coconut cakes were always good and his mandrek was always hot. He was very careful when big bunches of students came crowding in around him all at once, but no matter how careful he was, there were always some who would cheat him. He apparently discovered this when, back home, he counted up his profits, and as a result he stopped coming by our school so often. We were forced to go over to his house, and there of course we could not play our little games with him.
A peanut vendor also often came by. Peanuts were just the right thing to perk us up. The ones this man sold were not very different from plain old fried peanuts, but they tasted incredibly, incomparably delicious. I doubt there are peanuts that good anywhere else. Many of us did not always have pocket money, so we would be forced to write out IOUs. Paying them was not as easy as eating the peanuts.
We were forbidden to smoke. If a boy was found smoking, all of his cigarettes were confiscated, so the majority of children smoked in secret. We smoked in back of the classroom, but the safest spot by far was on a tennis court about 100 meters from the school building. This tennis court was actually school property, but it was rarely used because tennis was a sport for rich kids. We also went out there if we had a lot to memorize, because it was quiet and the view of the Silindung Valley was very lovely. So the tennis court was converted into a smoker and a study hall.
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The world had changed a great deal in the past few years, but not the town of Tarutung. There were still MULO students with all their posturing and mannerisms; with swollen heads, as the Japanese say. They had nothing to do with the smaller kids, and only mixed with adults—indeed, many of them were already pretty much grown up themselves. I was seventeen years old when I entered the school and even though the rule was that no one over fifteen was allowed in, that was not an obstacle. Anything on paper can be adjusted, can’t it?
When I first entered MULO, I was not allowed to mix with students in level three. I used this same tactic myself, when I got to be in level three. Generally the lower classes were not allowed to mix with the higher classes. This was especially the case with level-zero kids, who were forever being teased by kids sticking their hands high up in the air and forming their fingers into a zero because, they said, this was the Goose Egg Class. (“Egg” in Batak is pira , but pira-pira means testicles, so the epithet Pira-Pira Class was an insult.)
Not surprisingly, many of us were quite big. A majority had gone to other schools before going to Dutch school (H.I.S.). And since we were already nearly grown up, many of us would go courting girls in the town’s neighborhoods.
Martandang was the only sort of socializing between young girls and boys that adat permitted. Girls usually slept at the house of an elderly grandparent or a widow. The boys would come over to shoot the breeze and get to know the girls. This form of socializing eventually disappeared, especially among “modern” youngsters, who preferred to write letters. (In fact, the reason parents gave for not sending their girls to school did have a certain logic: they said that girls went to school just to learn how to send love letters to boys.)
Since I did not want to get married just yet, I did not go tandang visiting, though friends had asked me to come along. Once, however, I did go menangi-nangi , at the urging of some friends (tangi means to listen in).
It had become the custom in Tarutung for MULO students to go for a stroll in the evenings between five and seven-thirty, to take a bit of air. The busiest thoroughfares, such as the Sibolga-Pematang Siantar Road, were full of MULO students making a lot of noise, laughing and joking, and jostling, pestering, and taunting each other as they walked along. When they entered a shop or a coffee stall things got rather dangerous for the owner. One of the popular snacks was a small, softish kind of sponge cake, two or three of which could be held in your hand and tossed into your mouth at once. It was possible to grab three or four of these cakes but claim you had only eaten one. Another tactic was to have one boy haggle over
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the price of a few cakes while the others were stuffing dozens of them into their pockets. But the funny thing was, it was these very shops and stalls where we did these kinds of things that seemed to be the most prosperous.
When a girl passed by the street, the boys invariably set to quarreling with each other. Some looked for a way to attract her attention; some were bold enough to follow her right into a shop pretending to buy something even though they just wanted to look at her. MULO kids did all sorts of things. Flowers always attract bees, it is true, but not in the way most people think, that is, with flowers existing for the benefit of bees. No, Nature has determined that bees exist for the benefit of flowers.
Like my friends, I attended church faithfully. Pearaja (the name of the place where Tarutung’s church was located) was not very far from town, only about one kilometer. The road went up a hill but we did not have bikes and always walked. We were not particularly pious or headed for careers as religious teachers; we went to church simply because it had gotten to be a habit. After all, since the time we were small we had been told that we had to attend church. That is just what you did on Sunday. And besides, for us guys going to church meant a chance to watch girls. In Pearaja, for instance, the young men (and thus the MULO students) sat in the upper balcony, while the girls sat off to the side, in front of the balcony. This arrangement was the very best way to get young men and girls to go to church.
I myself did not feel right if I did not go to church on Sunday. If you think about it, going to church was worthwhile. Didn’t we get a chance to gossip with friends? Couldn’t we get a look at all the new and pretty clothes, all in the very latest fashion, à la the year 2000?
Tarutung was only about sixty kilometers from where my family lived. Nevertheless, I rarely went home because the travel costs were so high (50 cents one way, so Rp. 1 round trip, and villagers could live for a month on this). Indeed, Tarutung seemed more prosperous than small towns such as Porsea. There was electricity, waterleiding [piped water], a movie theater, and so on. Half of the town was located in the Silindung Valley, and the other half was in the foothills above the valley. There were beautiful buildings on the mountain slopes, for example the MULO building, the government resthouse, the assistant resident’s house, the MULO teachers’ house, and so on. When we stood in the valley in the evening and looked to the west, toward the foot of the mountain, it was like seeing a Christmas tree because of all the electric lights shining in the night.
The town of Tarutung is cool, especially early in the morning from about four to seven, when it feels truly cold. The sun’s rays extend from the east
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and warm you up nicely at the foot of the mountain. If there were no lessons in the morning, we MULO students loved to sit on the school steps, studying and sunning ourselves. Indeed, of all the towns in North Tapanuli, Tarutung is the healthiest and most prosperous. Its residents certainly appear to be the best off. Perhaps that is because they became acquainted with the Christian religion before others did.
In level two I wanted to be in Section A, because my plan was to go straight to work after graduating from school. I told my father this, but after I explained the difference between Section A and B, he said, “You’d be very foolish to pick A. If you have permission to enter B, why not take the opportunity? We don’t know what the future holds; who knows, maybe a huge gold nugget will fall from the sky.” So I picked Section B.
When I started level two I moved into town. I lived in the house of a relative of ours who worked as a driver. The vehicle he drove carried goods such as rubber from Tarutung to Medan, so he rented a house to use as a warehouse. He also lived there. The house was located along an alley of shops, so it was built like a shop. There was one very large room (the merchandise room), then behind this there was a bedroom, and way in the back there was a kitchen, a washroom, a toilet, and so on. They stored the goods to be transported in the big room; among other things, there was a lot of rubber. Rubber does not have a pleasant odor, to say the least, especially when it is old. So I did not sleep in that big room. The house had an upper floor, and I slept up there on a rattan mat. Early in the morning and at night it was very cool, but in the middle of the day it was pretty hot and you could not sleep well then. If I got sleepy in the middle of the day I lay down below, but the smell of rubber would annoy me and I would just have to fight off my drowsiness. Eventually I got used to the rubber and could stand it even when it was really awful, so I was able to sleep on the ground floor.
The head of the household drove to Medan often; sometimes he did not come home for three days, so his wife (my father’s sister’s child) would often be left alone with her two small children. They were delighted that I had joined the household. In all the time I was in Tarutung, paying room and board to this family pleased me the most. Not because of the food or the bed and so on, absolutely not. I felt happy there because they considered me a member of the family. I felt as if I were in my own house.
When I went home over holidays my mother sometimes criticized me. She said I had gotten spoiled over there at What’s-her-name’s house (the family I boarded with), so apparently I couldn’t stand to be near her anymore. I just laughed to hear her say this, for I did not have any real reason to be derisive about the whole situation to her. It was true, in Tarutung I was spoiled, if that is the right word for it. When I left for school my food was all ready on the table and I just had to eat it. I never had to wash my
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own clothes, because there was a laundrywoman. My bed was made up every morning, my room swept out . . . I was treated like a tuan. But in my own house, with my father and mother, my meals were not regular (our meals weren’t at set times), I had to wash my own clothes, my bed was just a single thin rattan mat on the floor, and so on. In Tarutung I was used to an ambtenaar’s life, with my meals at regular intervals, my sleeping arrangements all orderly, a nice bathroom and toilet all provided—the latter being especially necessary.
From the “Rubber House” I moved to a better-looking place on Balehongstraat. This street name was known only to us MULO students. A German man lived on this street and because his name was hard to pronounce, he was just called Balehong. So the street got called that too. The house was about a kilometer from school, but this was no problem. We were used to walking.
At that time level two had no more than twenty-seven people, even though level one had parallel classes. Many level one students had to stay behind a grade, but there were also a number who could not afford to pay the tuition fees without taking a break.
Farmers did not, in fact, have much of an income. At the most Rp. 20 a month, which had to be divided up among the sons in the family. So it was very difficult to ask for additional allowance from home. My pocket money was only Rp. 2 a month, and I did not get this until after I sent in my list of all expenses, such as tuition, boarding costs, books, laundry, haircuts, and so on. My mother said that this Rp. 2 was already too much. Couldn’t I just wash my own clothes in the afternoons after school? I laughed, and my dad did too.
Sometimes it did occur to me to put one over on them. Why not do what other kids did and tell them, for example, that we needed to buy one book or another, or that the teacher had told us we had to go on an excursion someplace? But I did not have the heart to do that, and I would likely have been found out eventually anyway.
Several of the pupils in level two were girls. Our interactions were awkward, perhaps because we were no longer little children, but also because adat held that boys and girls did not customarily meet outside the martandang courtship places. Unless we needed something, we scarcely communicated; we just stared at each other.
One of our classmates apparently liked a certain girl. She did not have a very pretty face, but she was light-skinned and had a fresh complexion. Our friend was always trying to attract this girl’s attention. Every morning and at recess, after we had already gone in but before the teacher had en-
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tered the room, he was the very last one to come in. He sat on his bench, looking over at the girl. He had a wristwatch with big hands, and he made a show of raising his arm up to look at his watch, just to show that he had one; often he rolled up his shirt-sleeves too. This was love from afar, however (and maybe it wasn’t even love), because the girl paid absolutely no attention to him. Probably she did not even know he existed.
One day the teacher asked this girl to read aloud. Unfortunately for her, the reading selection included the word “cicak” [a small house lizard], and no matter what the teacher did this girl could not read it except as “sissak.” As a result, we nicknamed her Si Sissak. We quite regularly assigned nicknames to people—even teachers—in this manner. For example, we had a teacher called Gambier (because he smoked gambier cigarettes), another was called Bitch-Butcher (because he was fond of eating dog meat), and so on.
Not all that many girls in our area went to school, and even fewer to Dutch-language schools. A girl who graduated from MULO could certainly hope to marry, at the very least, a teacher’s school graduate or a MOSVIA graduate. Rarely did you see a girl from H.I.S. with a husband who was only an H.I.S. graduate himself, or a MULO girl married to a MULO boy. Often parents would have their daughters go to school with the sole purpose of securing a husband who would hold an official position.
In level two there was a friend of mine, a boy. His eyes were a bit crossed, but that was not why we always laughed when we were around him. He was [as they say in Dutch] a droog komiek , a dry wit, and all we had to do was look at him to be amused. He talked like a parent giving sage advice to little children as he rubbed his beard, and he was always searching for the odd word in his speech. Instead of “piglet” (anak babi , which was actually a taboo thing to say) he said “circus child” (anak ni sirkus ) and we would roll on the ground laughing. He also changed our teachers’ names in funny ways, like Tekken or Si Typist for Teekens [the teacher’s real name] and Mingka for Minkhorst, and so on.
Eventually we stopped feeling ill-at-ease and out of place in level one, and by level two we felt completely comfortable. By the time we got to level three, we felt like we were at the top of the heap.
There were not all that many of us left in level three, perhaps no more than twenty-six people. Each year we lost some students. Out of sixty people in level one only about twenty-five or so made it to level three. They said it was to protect the good name of the “renowned” MULO-Tarutung. And indeed it was a good school: no less than 75 percent of Tarutung students normally passed the annual MULO final exam; in my day it was 100 percent. The MULO-Tarutung was considered to be a cramming school for the exams, an idea that persisted. Middle school students did practice drills in night school in order to pass the entrance exams for high school
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or for normal school. In H.I.S., students were specially prepared for taking the exams for MULO or other schools. And in MULO it was the same thing. They valued tests more than a child’s character and turn of mind.
Our interactions with teachers were not very close, and in fact even interaction with other students was rare. In primary and middle school I was afraid of my teachers, a circumstance that did much to shape my disposition; I did not change appreciably in MULO, where to make matters worse there were Dutch teachers. We were disinclined to speak casually with them, especially since we were forced to speak Dutch, and none of them, for their part, made an effort to really engage their pupils. Maybe they just figured that they could keep drawing their government salaries whether their students liked them or not. The way we looked at it, teachers were not friends or figures to be loved; the majority of them were simply policemen or spies always on the lookout, counting our mistakes.
When I was in level three my father bought me a pair of soccer shoes. Maybe he thought I had grown up. The shoes were not very good ones; the toes got crushed easily and when they got wet the leather wrinkled up, so finally I was forced to buy some better ones.
Normally for the MULO soccer team the level three pupils were chosen first and only after that were students from other grades taken. But in my years there, not many in our class were interested in ball games and only three people were actually in training. The three of us were chosen to play, and I took the position of back. This was because no one wanted to be back; everyone wanted to play forward.
Once a year there was a soccer match in Tarutung to determine the Silindung championship. Our MULO had kept this trophy for several years running, but when I played back we were forced to surrender it to another team. In fact, that year the MULO soccer team was a team in name only.
One time on a holiday there was a soccer game between the MULO and the local military unit. People knew that this game would really be something; everyone in Tarutung knew that the MULO pupils did not get along very well with the military. There were often fights between the two groups. The soldiers saw themselves as “the Company’s men,” while the MULO students were totally pro-Tarutung. In such an atmosphere violence could easily break out. The soldiers were solidly built, but the MULO students were not exactly children. And the students had a way of moving around in large groups; who wouldn’t be brave, if there’s a lot of you?
One time a violent fight broke out, and our school director was forced
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to come in with his pistol and referee. We were punished by not being allowed to walk together or gather in groups larger than two people, and each group had to stay twenty meters away from all the others. It lasted for two weeks. We were not brave enough to break the rules, because we had been threatened with being expelled from school if we did. And we students were ready and willing to endure any and all punishments just so that we were not expelled from school.
Anyway, for this game with the military, the director and our teachers came to watch. Their komandan [commander] came too. Back at school our director had warned us that if anyone started to play rough he would be punished according to the nature of his offense. We promised not to turn the match into a fist fight.
We knew that the military types were not particularly good at soccer, and we were convinced that we were going to win. The playing field was muddy at the time, but the game went on anyway. I played left back, which was really easy. All I had to do was kick the ball, because there were people out in front of me who would cover me. The game was not rough at first but rather fors , or vigorous. They tried as hard as they could to beat us but were unsuccessful, and they trailed 2-0. They could not accomplish anything. The ball only went halfway across the field. When the ball came in from mid field, we were ready and waiting to intercept it and kick it back. The right field could just doze because the ball never got near them. This shook them up, maybe. One time the ball did come in from the center, and two of us were exactly the same distance from it. My opponent ran after it to kick it toward our goal; I ran after it to kick it back toward center field. The two of us got to the ball at almost the same time. Without a moment’s thought he kicked as hard as he could with the idea of kicking me and the ball at the same time. But I made glancing contact with the tip of my shoe at the same time that I jumped to the left, at precisely the right time. His long leg kicked the air and almost got me in the rear end. But the air felt no pain—he was the one who was moaning.
We were invited by the Sibolga soccer league to play against the MULO in Padang Sidempuan. The expenses for our meals and overnight lodging were paid by the league, and we had only to pay for the round-trip auto costs. We left Tarutung about nine in the morning along with several girls, since there was also going to be a basketball game. We made all kinds of noise, laughing and joking, singing, and so on. At Adian Koting we stopped a while to eat. This spot was famous for its food. Doubtless this was a good place to eat, as people said, but not so much because the cooking was good, but because the cool air whetted your appetite.
At kilometer ten we paused for a moment because the view of Sibolga Bay was lovely from there. This bay was protected by Mursala Island from
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the large waves of the Indian Ocean. Appropriately enough the bay was traditionally called tapian na uli (beautiful bathing place). This became the name of all the Bataklands, Tapanuli.
The lineup of games had been scheduled beforehand. Tarutung would play Padang Sidempuan first, then a combination of players from the two schools would play the Sibolga soccer league. The next day a basketball game would also be held, between the Tarutung and Padang Sidempuan MULOs.
I played back again. My position as back was safe, certainly, because no one else wanted it. The game got underway. It was fast paced and enthusiastic. There were a number of spectators. Tarutung took the lead by racking up a goal, but a response to that came not long afterward, so the score was 1-1. We were all young, and whenever young men play games you see some serious-minded playing. Each team tried its best to win. The reputations of our schools were at stake, weren’t they? Things continued this way until half-time, with Tarutung succeeding in making one more goal. The score was 2-1.
After a break the players started in again. The pace of play was the same, but eventually it became obvious that Tarutung was yielding. Maybe it was because the weather was too hot; they seemed tired. Even so, they still managed to set down one more goal, making the score 3-1. Because they thought they had already won, the play became indolent. Maybe Tarutung thought that Padang Sidempuan would not do anything about their defeat. But Padang Sidempuan soon succeeded in changing the score to 3-2, and five minutes before the final whistle sounded they racked up another goal, bringing it to 3-3. Padang Sidempuan’s playing actually had been far better and more disciplined than ours and they only failed to win outright because of the simple bad luck that we happened to take the lead first. Probably if we had played a quarter hour more we would have gone back to Tarutung in defeat.
We were not so lucky in basketball, suffering a 1-0 loss. And the combination teams match with Sibolga was not to our advantage. The fact was that they had more experience in sports than we did.
When I was still in link school, I was the one to help my father watch our store. As store clerk, I served the customers. H.I.S. kids from Narumonda often came there to buy something or other, and they often mixed Dutch words into their sentences as they chatted with their friends. They were always doing this, without even being aware of it; it had become a habit. But this habit was a real annoyance to me, a cinder in my eye, for I suspected that they only wanted to show that they were going to a Dutch school.
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Maybe it was because I attended a school that also taught Dutch but was apparently not considered to be on quite the same level as theirs.
When they came to our store I really perked up my ears to listen to their Dutch, but not with the intention of learning anything from them. I wanted to know whether they were saying something nasty about me. I thought that if I heard something I would lash out and kick them straightaway. After I became a MULO student I continued to play this game. During the quarter break and the long vacation I still helped my dad, and since I was wearing my usual clothes no one suspected that I was not just the store clerk. Luckily I never did hear them say anything bad. Jealousy and envy can truly make people do things they should not.
When I was in level three in MULO, several girls arrived as new pupils. They were not as shy as the other ones, maybe because they thought themselves modern. I do not remember exactly how, but I made friends with these girls. Maybe it was predestined; we cannot always say why a boy and girl fall in love, can we? Perhaps before we met one another there was a tie between us we simply could not see, a tie that bound us to one another. For instance, a common focus of attention, a common favorite thing, or something of that sort. Getting to know one another was thus only a matter of tightening the tie.
But I can recall—I can almost see it before my eyes—one particular day: we were having recess, and I was walking along down below the school along the main road. I saw several of the girls standing up above me. Playfully I lifted my hand and waved at them, certain that they would not wave back at me, for after all, where is there a Batak girl who waves her hand at a young fellow she does not know? Imagine my surprise when I saw them wave back. I was surprised and very pleased indeed to see that but was not entirely sure they were waving at me. Maybe they were waving at someone else. So I tried it again and I laughed happily. After that we got to know each other right away and became friends.
People said that one of the girls in level one was really pretty (I did not think so, but maybe I did not yet know how to gauge prettiness). To me she was like any girl, with a nose, eyes, ears, hair, and so on. My friend said this girl was the Arab type. She lived in a private dorm on Naheong Street. Her eyes were large, which was thought to make her especially attractive. I was afraid to look at her. Every afternoon after this girl got home from school lots of MULO students would amble along Naheong Street. Joking and jostling with each other loudly to attract this girl’s attention, they glanced up at the upper story of the house where this girl lived, but they did not catch even a glimpse of her. All this happened every evening. Naheong Street became the hub of town for MULO students. They never gave up.
With some girls—that is, five gifts from level one and one girl from level
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three—we six boys formed a club of sorts. Wherever we went, on a picnic, for instance, we went together. One time we went picnicking to Siatas Barita. We had such a good time on the way there that we were not aware that we had arrived. Indeed, when we went on picnics with girls we did not particularly care where we were supposed to be going; the important thing was being together.
We did not tell each other what was in our hearts. But we made guesses and could tell that this person liked this other person. The big word—”love” (sinta , we said)—we were not yet brave enough to pronounce to each other. Only two couples had their names linked together, among them me and one of the girls. The other couple, it was said, had already agreed to spend their lives together. To tell the truth there was not anything in my heart for this girl acquaintance of mine (she probably felt the same way). Even so, the two of us would always join in when the others laughed at us, teasing us as being future husband and wife. We took part in the joke, and it got to the point that we wore ourselves out laughing whenever we all got together. It brought us all closer together. Don’t people drift apart if there isn’t something interesting and fun to talk about? Talking about our studies would just have bored us, especially because we were in different grades.
When we gathered on Sundays at a girl’s house, we never once discussed important things. Joking and laughing was the task before us. But then, who goes to a girl’s house to spout philosophy? Even though we did not discuss anything important, we were quite ready and able to sit there together for hours and hours. Perhaps our common interests had developed into a common sympathy for one another. After socializing with these girls I underwent a kind of change, deep down. I was no longer as dirty as I used to be, and as much as I could manage it I tried to keep my clothes clean. I watched my friends do the same thing. From this perspective, socializing with girls did have its uses. Might it be that a girl can alter a young man’s character?
My girlfriend was not particularly good at riding a bicycle. Actually I had never seen her on a bike, but one Sunday we took a notion to ride to a spot outside town. When we checked with others about it, no one mentioned they might have a problem. Early in the morning when it was time to depart I saw my girlfriend and her friend standing there with their bikes, but when I asked them to ride alongside us, they said we should just go on ahead and they would follow. I was taken aback to hear this, but we went on ahead anyhow. There were three of us boys, and two girls. When we reached the outskirts of town we waited for them, but when they got
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near us one of the girls got down off her bike and said, “If you don’t go first, we won’t come after you.” We were forced once more to bike on ahead. But finally we could not stand going on ahead like that. What is the use of riding bikes if the only companion you get is the wind? So we waited for them again, and the girls had to give in and ride along with us.
We were on a major road and automobiles came along frequently, but at that particular time there was no traffic. The edge of the road was grassy, and then there was a drainage ditch running its full length, bordering an expanse of rice paddies. We were able to bicycle along without a problem. I rode in back and the girls were in front of us. Suddenly I saw my girlfriend’s bike veer off into the grass. I thought she must be playing around, for we kids often did such crazy things. But then she cried out, “Ee eeee!” and a moment later she fell into the drainage ditch and her bike went off into the rice paddy. At the moment it happened I was busy talking to another friend so I did not see exactly how she had fallen, but we stopped right away. I put my bicycle down at the side of the road and ran over to her, pulling her out of the muck.
According to adat young men were not allowed to touch a girl’s body, so when I went to pull her out of the drainage ditch like that I was a bit hesitant and worried, but I screwed up my courage anyway. After all, I did not want to leave her lying there in the muck just because of adat.
My pants got muddy too, and my shoes. So did the pants and shoes of my friend who pitched in to help me with her. After she was rescued, we were able to laugh about the whole thing; even the girl joined in and laughed uproariously. After all, isn’t it better to laugh about something than to cry over it? We washed out our shoes and pants so it would not be too obvious that one of us had fallen off. It was lucky the accident had happened when there was little traffic, so no one or almost no one had seen it.
We were quite far from town, so it would have been a waste not to just continue on and finish our trip. We were not worded about our clothes, since they would dry out in the sun. One of my friends pulled the girl’s bike along and I let her ride sidesaddle behind me. In this way we continued our trip, laughing about the unexpected occurrence. We promised not to tell anyone about the incident; it would be our secret. Actually, we did not have the courage to discuss it, for we did not want people to dub our trip a “fiasco.”
The six of us were always together. And wherever young men hang around, girls are a topic of conversation. Maybe girls do the same thing with boys. We talked about the MULO girls or the H.I.S. girls, with a great deal of
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side commentary. One person would say that such and such a girl was ugly and black, but someone else would defend her by saying she had a nice smile, and so on and so forth. None of us boys had the same opinion about any of them.
A social unit sometimes leads to the development of smaller twosomes, threesomes, and so on. And in much the same way our group spawned several breakaway bunches. We split apart not because of fights but because of girls. Cherchez la femme.
One Sunday after church a friend of mine and I got our bikes and went off to find someone to shoot the breeze with. We happened to run into three girls we knew, on two bikes. We asked where they were going and if we could accompany them, but they snapped that they were not going anywhere at all. We just stood there watching, and finally they went off to the house of one of them. We got back on our bikes and went looking for some friend or other. Not long afterward we ran into the three girls again, and once more we asked them where they were going. We got the same answer. We thought, There’s no point at all to riding our bikes, because we’re not going to run into a friend anyway. But several minutes after this we saw these three girls once again, going down our street and heading out of town. We were flabbergasted. These girls had never refused us permission to accompany them before. So why this time? So we grabbed our bikes and followed them. For the third time they snapped that we were not to follow them, and we felt insulted and went home. We vowed never to speak to them again. After all, an insult had to be responded to.
At the time we had absolutely no idea of what was going on, but two months later, after we all were getting along again, we found out that the girls had been distancing themselves from us on purpose. They had been warned by the Zuster [the Sister] who supervised their dorm that they would be expelled if they were seen associating with boys. The Sister was a German; maybe boys and girls were allowed to see each other only in Germany.
The next day, when we were standing around in front of the building before going into school, the three gifts passed us and one of them said hello, but we refused to answer. I was even greeted twice, but I stood there like a statue. We studiously ignored (or, as we say, sanding -ed) each other for two months. But no one except the members of our club knew anything about the matter then, and we never told any outsiders about it later. Around other people we behaved normally but simply did not address each other, so no one else knew.
Two of the five girls chose to be in our clique. This was simply out of mutual sympathy, and because of it our group of six boys was split. Three joined our party, while the other three formed a group with the remaining
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three girls. In this way, with all this sanding -ing, we discovered our different interests and sympathies. We learned that this particular friend had his heart set on this particular girl, and that friend had his heart set on that girl. Out of every misfortune comes some good.
To be subject to sanding —to be given the silent treatment—was hurtful, especially if those who did it to you have been close friends before. The first day was really hard to take. Without being aware of it, you sometimes wanted to speak to the person being sanding -ed, and then you realized that you were supposed to be giving that person the silent treatment. I thought it would be preferable to be soundly beaten than to be treated like this. You would be paid less attention to than the wind; to your friends you were nothing but a vacuum, dead space. Then, even though no one is angry at you for a long time and they want to be on good terms again, no one wants to make the first move. Neither side says hello for fear they will not get a reply, and so, ashamed and shy, they keep sanding -ing each other for months on end.
Fortunately we took a trip to Sibolga. Even though we were still snubbing each other, I was unable to keep my distance from the girls I was supposed to be ignoring. I sat next to them in the car, and because there were no other friends to talk to I was forced to speak to them. I was embarrassed at first; it was like talking to a stranger. Apparently they had wanted to get back on good terms with us for a long time, so since I started things off our conversation eventually got easier. We were back on good terms again and our club flourished.
The final exams were near. Usually we went home at the end of each quarter and during our long vacation, but this time, during the third-quarter break, none of us in level three went home. We had to study for the coming exams.
We were very frightened of the finals. We believed that they or the diploma we expected to get after them would have great significance for our future lives. To succeed in this exam meant that you would also succeed in life. Our estimation of our worth was measured with a diploma. Diplomas = us.
We had heard many stories about these final exams from pupils who had graduated. Some said that So-and-so was the smartest, but he turned out to be the one who did not pass. By contrast, What’s-his-face had never studied, but he did fine. Someone else related that he had begun to review his lessons six months before the final exams and that was why he had passed. The final exams were all luck, it was said.
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I began to open my books one month before the exam. To tell the truth, I was not particularly afraid of the finals. Nevertheless, every so often doubts would come to me. I knew that I was not strong in either languages or electives, but I only used my time to review the latter. Math I did not dare to avoid at all.
The girls directed their attention to our exams as well as their own. They asked us when the exams would be held. Had we started to study? Sometimes if we had been shooting the breeze for too long they reminded us that we should go home to study, but we always had one excuse or another. For instance, we were too fired to study or had gotten dizzy and headachy, so we needed a break.
Four in our group were in level three, three boys and a girl. We reminded each other that we had to really study, for if we failed the exams people would say that our friendship was the problem. Among our sort of people, especially our parents, school and girls were thought not to mix; in fact, school was considered to compete with girl chasing.
The closer the exams got the less desire I had to study and my body felt weak and tired. Privately I decided to study until one in the morning—well, at least midnight—but it remained a plan rather than reality, for usually I was sleepy at ten. I would go to bed and promise myself to get up later at four in the morning. But mornings in Tarutung were exceedingly cold, and this goal too remained just a goal. As the Bible says, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
We level three students were given permission to stay home to study, and each day I confronted my books. I felt as if my life had stopped. All other work, playing ball, taking walks, and so on ceased. I lived for my “sacred” texts. But every time I finished studying a book I had doubts about whether or not I really knew it thoroughly. Not once could I truly say that I had the book down pat. This feeling of dissatisfaction tormented me constantly. Finally, I got so fed up that I just left my books firmly shut and said to myself, If you don’t pass it, so be it. Maybe that’s just fate. Just so long as you really try, you can’t fault yourself and regret the outcome.
But a moment later an inner voice would interrupt me, Have you really tried hard? There’s “really” and “really,” you know, differing in degree. There’s half really, quarter really, twenty-fifth really, and so on. Which really is your really?
Finally I could study no more. I could not stuff one more thing into my packed brain. I determined simply to take whatever might come, not caring whether I passed or not. Doing well would be fine, not doing well would be fate. Maybe I lacked faith in my strengths, in my abilities.
For two days before the exams I didn’t touch another book. I had no desire to even so much as look at a book. My friends were still studying
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away. That night and the following night I tried to think over all the material, reviewing what I had studied, but my brain had just gone numb. I could think no more.
People say if you are about to take an exam it is not good to go to sleep too late the night before; they say you should try not to stay up later than ten. I went to bed at 9:30 the night before, but no matter how much I tried to close my eyes I could not fall asleep before midnight. I was nervous in the face of the next day’s exam.
Whenever I was about to leave on a long trip I had no appetite. It was just the same when I was about to take an exam. Perhaps there was a connection between going on a trip and exams. When I awoke very early the next morning I was extremely anxious and constantly asked myself what the exam would be like. That morning I dressed more neatly than usual. I was turned out all prim and proper just as if I had been going off to church. I gathered together everything I needed for the exam: pens, pencils, erasers, compass, ruler, triangle, and so on. With these weapons I departed for the exam hall.
At the scene of the exam all was in readiness. The seats had been placed far apart so that no one could do “cooperative work.” Folio paper and lined paper had been placed on the desks.
Normally each morning there was a bell telling us to come in, and before entering we gathered in the hall. After singing one or two verses from the book of Christian hymns and praying to Almighty God (led by a teacher), we were given our mail. Fancy Dutch terms of address on the envelopes such as Aan den Edelgeboren Heer [To the noble master] always made us laugh out loud and made our teacher angry. He said we should still be addressed as simply jonge heer [young master].
On exam day we level three students did not have to wait in the hallway but were allowed to go straight into the examination room. We took our places, kept quiet, and found ourselves closely watched by the teachers.
The questions were passed around. We sharpened our wits and strained our heads answering the problems set in front of us. Some were easy, but some had to be thought about until sweat and tears poured down. We had all vowed not to leave the examination hall before the bell rang, so that others would not get anxious or panicky. But even so some students left early. Perhaps the sage advice of my teacher—” In an exam there are no friends, only opponents”—was true.
After we were tested on one subject we gathered in groups to exchange opinions on that exam and find out whether our answers were right or not. In these exchanges some people were actors. They were ashamed to say that their answer was wrong.
In level three there was a boy who was a good sort. He was always kind
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to his friends, a faithful churchgoer and diligent student, and so on. People said he had read many of Rutherford’s books. I was not aware of what the content of these books was and only knew that the teachers forbade us to read them. After this student read these books he appeared to change. He no longer went to church regularly, and when people asked him why, he answered that people could go to church in their hearts. “Your heart is your church,” he said. He did not even want to take the final exams, and it was only because of pressure from the director that he sat there with us in the examination room. But on the first day he did not answer the exam questions. Calmly he drew a picture of a mountain with a bright sun shining out from behind it. On the second day he was nowhere to be seen. The sun must indeed have shone in his heart, for our self-worth does not depend solely upon diplomas, but upon our inner selves. We all thought he had had a nervous breakdown from reading too many Rutherford books. But maybe he was laughing at us in his heart. Happy is he who can defy the world because of his conviction. Isn’t it from such persons that we get the great men, such as Buddha, Muhammad, Christ, Luther, and so on? For this it takes courage, and not the sort of courage coming from wielding weapons but the courage that issues from within oneself. And we do not meet very many of these people in this transitory world.
The written exam was over and we knew the results. All of us were permitted to proceed and take the oral exam, even though there were two or three students who had almost no hope of getting through it with even an average grade. The oral exam was to be given in Dutch and English. I realized all too well that I was not very fluent in these two languages, so I tried to compensate for it by knowing the grammar well. Maybe I could still manage a score of 6, no matter what.
We went back to working ourselves to the bone studying for the oral exam. We were divided into several groups. Each day about five people would be examined, so the others had to wait their turns. The results would be made known the same day as a person’s exam, and those who passed would be given their diplomas, so by the second and third days we ran into friends who had completed all their requirements.
I had already sent a letter home saying I had passed the first part of the exam but that I still had to take the oral exam on such and such a day, at such and such an hour. I also said that they should not be concerned about me, since the way I figured it, I would pass. This conviction of mine was not really genuine. I still had doubts about my work, but to assure my
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parents that all was well, I could not do other than what I did.
Before the oral exam began I was told to go into a certain small room. There I was shown the lesson I was to be tested on. I was allowed to read it two or three times in order to answer questions about it. The same for English.
When I was called inside the main examination hall, I did not know how long I stayed there. I had absolutely no sense of time, perhaps because all my attention was concentrated on the examiner’s questions. Only when I was given a sign that time was up did I know that I had sat for the exam for a full hour. But I felt as if I had only been in the examination room for five minutes. An hour spent working goes faster than an hour spent waiting.
Nor did I know whether the answers I had given were good ones or not. Feelings of doubt still troubled me: Would I fail or would I pass? Our names were called. The diplomas were awarded. I had passed. Doubts disappeared. My hand trembled as I took the letter giving me life. Now, this was a piece of paper I must store away carefully, said the director. But I did not value this diploma very much anymore, now that it was in my hands. It had been more valuable to me before I had it.
One of the girls I knew was crying after she came out of the examination room. She had no idea whether or not she had given acceptable answers, but she was convinced that there was no way she could not fail. We cheered her up, so she would not be so pessimistis , for after all, the results were not actually known yet and it was not certain that she had failed. But we were not really convinced by our own words. Imagine how delighted she was, how she wiped away her tears, when she heard that she had passed. The child we had feared had disappeared came to life again.
Apparently my father was not satisfied with the tone of my letter. Perhaps a small flutter in his heart said that my letter was not communicating what I really thought. Concerned, he departed for Tarutung to look into my affairs. But there was nothing left for him to do except hear the news that I had passed. He invited me and two friends of mine to go eat pork stew, a sign of his delight. From there we went back to my boarding house, where he heard that I had not paid the bill for my meals yet. He was not mad at me, however, and simply paid the bill after asking me what I had done with that money—and receiving the answer that I had spent it on miscellaneous expenses.
Everything had a beginning and an end, and the time came for us to leave Tarutung. We exchanged pictures with the girls and promised one another that we would write no matter where we might be living. As the saying goes, far from sight but never far from the heart. But that is just theory, for we only wrote two or three times. It is human nature to direct your attention to what is nearby, not to what is distant.
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I still did not know where I was going to continue my studies. From the director I had gotten some information about a few schools on the island of Java. Once I asked my father where I should go, but he replied that maybe I should not continue my schooling at all. Nevertheless, I sent letters to two schools applying for admission, although I did this halfheartedly.
We had a two-month vacation. Whether or not I would be on vacation forever (that is, not going on in school) I did not know, but whatever the case I was determined to have a good time. I did not want to just stay home for those two months. I wanted to have some fun at a few of our relatives’ houses in Sibolga, Pematang Siantar, Tinjauan, and so on. And since I was taking these trips, I was not around my dad very much.
The new school year was to begin in two weeks. Unexpectedly, my father sent a letter to me in Tinjauan, saying that a letter had come for me from Jakarta. He also asked what was happening with my school plans. Had I sent in a down payment to a school?
I went home and told my father that I had not sent in application forms to any school anywhere. He got angry at me. He said I was an ignorant child, intent on merely traveling around and having fun, forgetting all about school, and so on. But when I answered that he himself had told me I would not be going to school anymore, he replied that he had just been joking. He told me to write a letter of application immediately, and if I was not admitted he would box my ears.
I just laughed. I opened the letter from Jakarta. I was not admitted to that school. So now what was the plan? A response to my other letter had not come yet, and if I was not accepted to that school, what then? I related all this to my father and said that I would wait for a response for one or two more days. Only if the answer was no would I send out another letter.
But the next day he was already pressuring me, asking if I had gotten a response to my letter yet. Finally I said, “All right, give me five rupiah and I’ll send a telegram to the director of the school and prepay a reply. Today, or at the latest tomorrow, I’ll get an answer.” He gave me the money. Luckily the next day the news came that I would be accepted at the school, which started on August 1. I was delighted and so was my father, but he still nagged me. Indeed, he was never satisfied with me. If my score was a six he wanted a seven, and if it was a seven he wanted an eight, and if it was an eight he wanted a nine. There is never any satisfaction in this world.
My departure day was set. I would leave from Laguboti, from our village, not from Porsea, because we had the most family there. We would just stop awhile in Porsea on the way. Many of our relatives came to escort me to the auto. They grabbed my hand to shake it but slipped me a fifty-cent piece or a whole rupiah that they had hidden in their palms. So every
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time I shook someone’s hand I stuck my hand into my pocket afterward, to stash away what I had in my palm. In that manner, I hauled in a lot that day.
The same thing happened in Porsea. My mother called me over and then she kissed me. This is the only time I remember her ever kissing me. Because I had never been kissed, and also because I was already pretty big, I felt rather embarrassed. I had never been that close to my mother, except perhaps when I was a baby.
My father took me to Belawan. He had already bought the ticket, and as I was about to board the ship he gave me thirty rupiah. He said it would be enough money to live on for a while in Jakarta. I pretended to be astonished and said, “But how could Rp. 30 be enough to go to Jakarta with?” But he answered that I had received a lot of money from relatives. Indeed, I was just pretending to be upset, because I actually had about thirty-five rupiah more in my pocket.
We claimed our spots on the deck. I had already set out my rattan mat and suitcase, and I went down to protect my spot so that no one else would take it. I saw many school friends and so did not feel too lonely.
The ship’s whistle blew twice, and my father got off the ship. The quay canes were freed and the gangplank pulled up as well. The ship started to move. At first it moved away from the dock very slowly, but soon it was headed out to sea. We all ran to the railing to say good-bye to friends or relatives left behind. Imagine how crowded and exciting it all was then! Handkerchiefs were pulled out and waved and waved. Even my dad took his handkerchief out of his pocket to wave good-bye to me. I was standing right next to the railing, pulled up straight like a soldier saluting as his commandant passed by. Just as I had been surprised at my mother kissing me, I was surprised again to see my father waving to me. He had never once been so intiem with me before. But he was also feeling the fact that he had never been close to me. He held his handkerchief in his hand a long time, as if he did not know what to do with it. Then he waved at me, slowly at first, and awkwardly, and then in a more normal fashion like all the other people. Could he do any different?
I did not want to bid good-bye to my father in such an old-fashioned way. Calmly, I looked at him down below. Finally I just could not hold back my heart, which was full of feeling, and one tear fell and then another. I was embarrassed to be shedding those tears. I did not want to be weak and soft like a girl, so I bit my lip and forgot my tears in the pain.
My father was still waving at me from below. But I was not waving back at him, so he stopped and held his handkerchief in his fist. I felt sorry for
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him, because even though he had never shown his love for me, I knew that I was his favorite child. He probably thought that this day was the moment (who knew if it might be the last opportunity?) to show his love for me. Could my father see my tears?
We got farther out, and the more time passed the smaller the people on the dock became. Even though many on the boat had started to leave their places, I still stood at the rail. I wanted to show my father that I too felt sad at being separated from him, not by waving my handkerchief or my hand at him but by standing straight and tall and looking at him calmly. Could he perhaps understand that I loved him?
The dinner bell sounded, but not many of us went to get some food. We were still full from what we had eaten ashore. And we were still too tired and too full of feelings to be able to put rice into our mouths.
It was the end of July near the beginning of the new school term, and the Belawan-Tanjung Priok ship was packed with students going off to Java. They were the victims of educational politics, which had concentrated the schools on the island of Java. Because there were so many students, we did not feel lonesome on board ship. In fact, this crossing became a fond memory. Most of the students were from North Tapanuli, heading toward a variety of schools scattered between Jakarta and Surabaya; not a single school had been overlooked.
It was noisy on deck. After all, these were youngsters. Because of all the racket many of the second-class passengers thrust out their heads and gawked at us. The young people were all singing to the accompaniment of guitars or ankle bells, and when they got bored singing someone else would come along and haul out some jokes. They made a never-ending racket until it was time to go to sleep.
The moon shone brightly. Most of the students snored away, tired from the day’s noisy fun. But a friend of mine and I still had no desire to sleep, and we crept up to the top deck to take in a cool breeze and gaze at the shining moon. My friend had also been a student at the MULO in Tarutung. He was one class ahead of me but had not passed the final exam and was forced to repeat level three in Kotaraja. We ran into each other on the ship, for he was also going to Java to continue his schooling.
As we looked at the bright, clear moon, our hearts were full remembering the village and the family members we had left behind, remembering school and friends there on the other shore. We told stories about our lives in the times now past. I also told him about my plans for when I got to Java. He did the same thing. But one question we were not able to answer. Would we ever return safely to our homelands carrying the degrees we hoped for? Human beings can only make plans; it is God who determines the outcome.
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