Chapter 4

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.[1]

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[2] 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,


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[3] 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!”[4] 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?


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 .[5] )

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


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.



Me and Toba





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