Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
"SENSITIVITY!" CRIES DONNA. "That's what I want us to be about." She cocks her head slightly to one side and makes a down-pointing steeple with her hands at belly-level. We all stare at her, silent. It's too early in the morning to guess what she's up to. It's too much trouble to argue with her, and it's too cheeky of her to want us to stand round in a semi-circle for this meeting.
Donna puts a finger to her lips, as if we had broken into raucous, joyful clamour. Then she straightens up, raises the finger and looks around, bobbing her head emphatically at each person.
"I will be watching to see that all my staff's sensitivities develop favourably," she says. "I know!" Her eyes widen, not quite spontaneously. "Let's have a special greeting every week at assembly in one of our students' languages!" she cries. "Let's greet today's New People in ..." Donna turns to the ancillaries. "Where are they from? What do they speak?"
"Nine Mainland Chinese today," says Lily Li. "All country bumpkins, speaking very lousy Mandarin. And three Sudan Africa boys. Merap's not here, so we waiting for Central Interpreting to send us a Sudan Africa talker."
"Well then, you can give today's assembly greeting in Chinese, Lily."
Lily Li shakes her head. "Nothing doing extra from me," she says firmly. "I'll be saying 'Ni hao' too many times today, my tongue is already tired thinking about it."
"Perhaps you and I can have a little counselling session later on today,
"No way. Going to be too busy with the bumpkins," says Lily Li.
Donna shrugs. "Guess I'm the boss, so I need to make the hard decisions," she says. She puts a forefinger to her lips and waggles it, and her head, at each person around the room.
She chants. "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, catch a ... a ... tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, eeny, meeny, miney – and you're mo, Owen. Pick a language. Greet us in it."
Owen rubs his chin and chews his lips.
"Cymru am bith," he says at last. This is what Owen likes to shout when he is drunk and watching Wales chase a muddy ball to glory across a television screen. Cymru am bith! Wales forever! And fuck the rest!
"Thank you Owen. Thank you for your willing cooperation," says Donna. "Is that a Balkan tongue?"
"No," Owen growls.
"I can't remember us ever having any Welsh speaking students," says Winsome, frowning.
"Ah, but you never know when one might walk through that door and need the reassurance of a kind word, do you?" says Donna.
"These Sudanese, Lily," Ari shouts across the room. "Are they bumpkins too?" Lily shakes her head. "No, they're Baptists."
ASSEMBLY IS OUTSIDE in the quadrangle today, at Donna's insistence, even though the clouds are knotting themselves into greasy bundles above the trees at the edge of the playing fields.
The English Unit students usually sit at the back of the High School's assembly. Even though they don't understand much of what is going on, it introduces them to a ritual they'll have to be part of soon, and gives them a chance to get a good look at their High School peers, without being challenged,whaddyalookinatdickhead?
Donna doesn't think Unit students should be exposed to the crass brutality of the High School captain's plodding, polite address or have to cheer for sports wins, or listen to Principal Craig's harangues about "Rubbish In The Creek Bed".
"They don't need it. That is too Australian for them to cope with at this juncture," says Donna.
So now we have our own assembly, distant from native contamination.
Donna has told Paddy to set up a microphone on a lectern at the top of the steps that lead down to the quadrangle. She has done this at very short notice, and in an imperious tone of voice.
"She's brave, you have to give her that," says Owen, dryly.
Donna overhears part of this remark.
"Thank you, Owen, it's good to feel supported as team leader."
"Yes, I was beginning to feel isolated on that point," says Winsome.
"Oh, I'm supportive, too," enthuses Clomper, even though she was overheard at lunchtime telling Craig that she, Janet McClomb, thought that charm bracelets were not all that, you know, tasteful, and what did Craig think about this?
Ari and Owen stand to one side of the lectern. They have lists of tasks to be done, behaviour to be avoided, and students to be lauded. Horrible has been seconded to hand out translated sheets of what Ari and Owen hope Donna will give them a chance to say to the assembly.
I stand on the other, far side of Donna. I am holding a large, rolled-up poster.
Donna gazes over the rows of adolescents lounging and squatting on the ground below her. She says something into the microphone. Her voice comes out muffled at first, and then in a bellow, even though she has persuaded Paddy to stand by to help out if there are any problems with the PA system. She catches his eye now. He twiddles a few knobs.
Now no sound comes at all. Donna grasps the neck of the microphone in a stranglehold. The microphone whimpers. The students laugh. Ari attracts Paddy's attention, and bows his head, his hands together as if in prayer. Paddy grins and gives Ari the thumbs up. Paddy flicks a switch and signals to Donna to try again. She steps up to the microphone.
"Cymru am bith!" she shouts. "That's 'Hullo, how are you?' from Wales. Say it with me! Cymru am bith!"
A dribble of chorus follows her.
"Once more and all together!" she tries again.
The students open and shut their mouths; generating sounds, though nothing resembling any language on earth.
Donna looks down to where the new students are seated at the very front of the audience with Lily Li.
"Join in! We love you!" Donna yells at the newcomers. The microphone screeches in reply. The Africans giggle and the rural Chinese look at Lily Li and at the kids behind them for clues to what is going on.
Lily says something to them in Mandarin. The kids look dubious.
"Say it again!" Donna punches the air. The audience half mumbles, half silently mouths its way through Owen's Rugby shout. Their words are swept away in a sudden rush of wind across the quadrangle; the Moreton Bay fig leaves on the far side of the Science block smack together, and the microphone stand wobbles. Donna pauses, flushed and breathless, and wags a finger at the audience. The girls in the audience pay close attention to the finger, checking out her manicure.
"I can see I will have to get your teachers to show you how to greet one another from the heart" says Donna. "I have a lot of love in my heart."
The breeze picks up a strand of Donna's pale streaked hair and plasters it firmly, diagonally across her forehead.
I'VE BEEN STANDING just behind Donna, rocking from foot to foot, waiting my turn. Now I seize my opportunity, while Donna is concentrating on unsticking the hair from her forehead and trying not to get it tangled in her charm bracelet. I make a grab for the microphone.
Donna steps in front of me, holding out one arm to block the microphone. "And because of how I feel about you all," says Donna sideways to the audience, "I have some special advice to give you today."
"Is this about Dangerous Shoes?" I ask. "Because I'm doing Dangerous Shoes. Stella asked me to."
"I'm in charge here," hisses Donna.
"Stella is responsible for Safety and Hygiene," I say.
"So why has she inconvenienced me by taking an in-service today?"
Stella is giving a talk to new teaching graduates on "Issues of Safety in the Playground, a Migrant Educator's Perspective."
"I should have been asked to do that," says Donna. She picks up a plastic shopping bag at her feet and holds it up. There is a takeaway food shop logo on the bag.
"There's something rather wonderful in here," she says to the audience, her tone intimate and teasing. She takes a stack of thirty centimetre square cardboard sheets from the bag. She places the stack gently, reverently, on the lectern; the microphone pops loudly.
The audience is getting restless now; it's picking at invisible lint on its clothes, examining the clasps of its school bags, making tiny plaits in the hair of the person sitting in front of it. One of Ari's Thai girls is weaving a thin strip of sky blue felt into Sharmilla's thick pigtail.
"Now," Donna clasps her hands together at chest height. "Every morning, as soon as you get up, I want you to remember this." She takes a deep breath.
I quickly step forward.
"Excuse me," I say. "Before you start on whatever this is, I have to do Dangerous Shoes; Stella said so."
"I think that can wait."
"No it can't. They're losing concentration."
"They'll get it back when they hear what I have to say," says Donna sweetly.
"Right," I say, and step back, as Donna leans forward again.
"Try to stay awake!" I bark at the audience. The microphone shudders with the force of my voice.
"Thank you, Ms Hamilton," says Donna, surprised, and not knowing a declaration of war when she hears it. She turns to the audience and rotates her wrists in a winding motion.
"I want us all to remember, every morning, to say to ourselves, 'I must start the day with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart." She waits, leaving room for applause. None comes. Then Owen starts a slow handclap; the audience takes up his cue.
I am standing directly behind Donna now. She cannot see me. I unroll the poster I'm carrying. It is a picture of a shoe with a fashionably thick sole. There is a blood-red slash across the shoe and the heading: A Dangerous
Shoe. I hold the poster up high.
The audience applause increases, and speeds up.
Donna claps too, oblivious to the poster. "Good! Good!" she cries. "Now I want twelve people ... that's ten plus two ... twelve people to come up here and help me."
Nobody moves except to crane around to see who is wearing Dangerous Shoes, to compare them to their own and the one on the poster which I'm now rolling up.
Donna looks around at the staff; she fails to catch anyone's eye. She turns to me. "Ms Hamilton, will you choose twelve volunteers for me?"
"What for, exactly?" I say, softly enough for the microphone not to pick it up.
Donna hesitates, hearing at last the sword sliding from its scabbard, but ignoring the close rumble of thunder behind the curdled clouds above.
She turns back to the audience.
"I know!" she says brightly, over-feigning serendipity. "The new people can help me, our twelve lovely new students ... Ms Li, help them up here."
The nine Chinese and three Africans stand in a row on the concrete platform. The Chinese are rigid with the effort of willing themselves invisible; the Africans are grinning nervously and, being brothers, start hitting each other.
"Quit it, you guys," I growl at them; and they do, even though I am a woman and they're not sure what the words mean.
Lily Li stands at one end of the line murmuring soothingly to the Chinese in Mandarin, but the breeze steals her words away and takes them to the Africans.
At the other end of the line Donna is giving out the cardboard squares.
"Hold them to your hearts," she says. "Don't show the writing on them yet.
"No! Don't turn them around! Keep the blank side towards the audience!"
She turns and barks at Lily Li "Tell them Ms Li!"
Lily swears quietly in Mandarin. "I don't think they're enjoying this," she says.
"They will when you explain what's happening," Donna retorts.
"I don't know what's happening," says Ms Lily Li, who was brought up to never answer back.
Donna purses her lips and hands out the last three cardboard squares to the Sudanese boys, who immediately put them on their heads, where they balance perfectly. The audience giggles. The boys do a little jig, the squares stay in place, the audience applauds.
Donna looks around for help. "Biiiiiff ..." she smiles.
"Nope," I say, smiling.
"You'll have to wait for the guy from Casual Interpreting if you want to tell them to take the cardboard off their heads," says Owen.
"I wish people would be there when they're wanted," Donna whines, and turns back to the audience. "Today I want us all to admire the excellent posture of the peoples of the African continent!" she yells.
The audience applauds; the Sudanese jig in a circle and snap their fingers.
Donna signals to the audience to cut the applause. It trails off. "Keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart," she demands.
The audience stares at her.
Ari steps forward. He cups his hands around his mouth. "Copy the lady talk," he says.
Ah ... Donna repeats herself. The audience drones, "Keeeba smallerernalups unna summa hunnert."
ALL AT ONCE, the audience looks more alert; I have unrolled the poster again. This time I show them the other side of it. There are two sketches on it. One is of a girl wearing Dangerous Shoes and standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Underneath it is a picture of the same girl, still wearing her Dangerous Shoes, but now lying at the bottom of the stairs with her limbs jutting out at odd angles, a jagged bone protruding from one leg and her head resting in a pool of scarlet blood. The audience shudders deliciously; those wearing dangerous shoes blush.
Donna conducts the chanting audience; she seems pleased by their sudden, renewed enthusiasm.
I roll up the poster. Just in time, as Donna reaches the end of the chant and turns to the new students.
"Now, flip your squares!" She claps her hands, once, dramatically.
The new students look at her blankly.
I step closer behind Donna's shoulder.
"Please don't do this to them," I say quietly,
"Flip their fucking squares?" says Ari to Owen. "For all they know, she could be telling them to confess their failure to meet this season's production quota and choose their own correct punishment."
Lily Li says something in rapid Mandarin to the nearest students. They turn over the squares they are holding. A few dark spots start to appear on the cardboard as large isolated raindrops fall across the quadrangle.
Each square has a single word written on it. Those that can be seen read ON YOUR AND LIPS SONG AND IN A YOUR HEART. The Africans turn over their own squares, so that they now read KEEP SMILE A. The audience looks at the words, frowns, and moves its lips silently.
Some of the new Chinese are weeping. AND's square tilts sideways as he raises a hand to rub away tears. YOUR is shaking violently. LIPS, the littlest guy, has lowered his square to hip level to hide the spreading wet stain on the front of his trousers.
Lily Li gabbles urgently to them. She is telling them that they are not in trouble, they are not being made examples of; they have not offended the local cadres, they will not be sent back in disgrace to their villages. She says they should take no notice of this woman who crows like the rooster that struts the yard in the morning but that flavours the cooking pot at night.
She does not tell them that the other students will give them hell until they unlearn their provincial fashion sense, though she does advise them to turn their baseball cap peaks to the back.
A squall of wind blows the few drops of rain in horizontal streaks across the cardboard squares before snatching SMILE, A and KEEP from the heads of the Sudanese. KEEP swoops giddily about, then plops to the asphalt.
SMILE and A are grabbed back by their owners, but then spun expertly, like Frisbees, thrumming over the heads of the audience to the far side of the quadrangle.
The audience squeals with pleasure. The Chinese take heart and throw their own squares. A fleet of cardboard UFOs is brought to earth by a quick mortar round of rain, as the audience scrambles to its feet and rushes indoors.
"I've decided that's all for today," Donna calls after them. She turns to me.
"I am so sorry, Elizabeth," she says. "We didn't seem to have time for the Dangerous Shoes issue, did we?"
A couple of Ari's Korean girls sidle over to him. They seem nervous and are holding hands to share courage.
"Mr Ari, please sir, tell what the song is? We have to learn this heartsong with our lips?" says one of them.
"This a song about how to be good? We not to sing this song when wear the shoes?" the other asks.
"Nah," says Ari. "Just keep working on your verbs, sweeties."