BATAK MEN “STORY TELLER”
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.