This story is by Katherine Forster and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I parked my tiny Ford Anglia and manoeuvred my frame from behind the wheel. In early, as usual, to make sure my day ran smoothly, I strode to the school gate and swung it open. And stopped, mid step, foot raised. Frozen. Unsure how long I stood there, staring into the voluminous eyes of the Ruru. We watched each other. Then almost imperceptibly one eye closed. Next the other. Then one eye opened again. Winked, I was sure of it. A royal wink of approval!
How long had the bird been there? Since early that morning I guessed. In my mind’s eye I could see it eerily slicing through the cool dawn air, landing mid-way up the Tarata, where it now perched. Watchful. Regal. A royal sentinel.
Ruru, the New Zealand Owl, known also as the Morepork. A shy creature with large eyes which look almost luminous. A nocturnal bird. That a Morepork should choose the school’s Tarata, lemonwood tree, seemed to mean something.
“Mmmmm!” I said out loud, to nobody in particular. Mysterious! There were plenty of reasonably sized patches of bush nearby. Why didn’t it land there instead of on our lone Tarata?
I snapped out of my reverie when I heard the unmistakable wheeze of the elderly, but generally trusty, school bus. I ran to the bus park area. I knew this could spell trouble between Dawson and Stanley. Both boys for their Science Project, wanted to use the Ruru. I waited while the bus pulled in; the driver gave a friendly wave, and the students alighted.
“Morning, Miss,” drawled Dawson.
“Morning, Miss,” chirped his younger brother, Scott. The two brothers always greeted me cheerily, but within minutes would be locked in mortal combat.
“Good morning, boys,” I replied. “How’s Mum?” I knew their baby sister was due to arrive any day.
”Oh she’s just sitting around. She never does anything,” replied Dawson for both of them. If only they really knew! She worked like a trooper, washing, tidying, cleaning, ironing, cooking, planting, harvesting. By the time her boys arrived home, her feet were up, and she would be enjoying a well-earned rest. They assumed that was what their mum did all day. Rest! How they thought their clothes got washed and dried, and their meals arrived on the table, I do not know!
My thoughts returned to the present.
“Boys,” I whispered. “Please go through the school gate quietly. We have a visitor, should I say, a slumbering one. We don’t want to disturb her sleep.”
“Who is it?” they chorused.
“She’s a Ruru, “I explained. “Must have thought our Tarata was the ideal place to sleep the day away.”
“A Ruru? questioned Dawson. He paused. “But how do you know it’s a she? Could be a he!” His eyes were opened wide. The beginnings of a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Oh goody! I chose Ruru as my native bird to study for Science!”
“Shhhhhh,”I admonished. “You won’t have any bird to study if you carry on with that sort of voice. And don’t forget Stanley wanted to study the Ruru too. You may need to choose a different bird.”
“Sorry, Miss,” whispered Dawson, as he slunk, silently now, towards the gate. Other children followed the Pied Piper. Every so often Dawson turned back, his finger at his pursed lips.
I returned to the classroom through the side gate. I knew Dawson would keep the others quiet. I hoped he would ensure that Stanley got time to be at the front of the group, so he too could view the bird he had chosen for his study.
The bell rang at nine. The students lined up, and silently walked to their desks. After news, it was reading. There was a steady hum as the students got on with their assigned tasks. The only interruption to the first part of the school day was when little Emily shrieked! She’d found a walking stick crawling up the leg of her desk! Fortunately, Stanley, who loves invertebrates, insects and creepy crawlies of all kinds, came to her rescue, extricating the critter from her forearm where it had now climbed to. After that he’d gingerly carried it outside to the students’ raised garden. I watched from the window as he gently placed it on a tomato bush. Curious, I opened the window.
“Hey, Spike, careful now,” I could hear him saying. “I’ll come back and see you at break time!” I closed the window quickly before he looked up. He would be embarrassed if he knew I had heard. Who in their right mind talks to animals? Tiny ones at that!
Break time came and went. Everyone came back in right on the bell, and formed their reading buddy groups without fuss. The lunch bell came and went. The end of lunch bell rang. I walked to the door, ready to marshal the students in. Not a single student could be seen lining up on the weathered deck.
“Not good!” I mumbled, as I set off to find the students. Rounding the south east corner of the classroom I caught a glimpse of students at the boundary of the school wetland and the play area. It was a large group. As I approached them, I heard loud wails coming from the depths of a harakeke bush. I raced to the group, singled out Gina. She could always be relied on to give a truthful, if not verbose, account of events that had transpired.
“What happened? Who…who…who is in that harakeke bush?” I stammered, my breath coming in spurts.
“It’s Dawson,” she said. “He put Stanley’s walking stick in Marissa’s gumboot, and now the insect has gone….disappeared….Dawson has been crying ever since, and won’t come out, even though Stanley has said he has forgiven him, and that his Spike will turn up somewhere. Some of the other kids have been chasing him around the school, calling him a killer….a dumb idiot who kills poor defenceless creatures….although we don’t know if the insect died. Marissa did put her foot in the gumboot, but when she took it out again there didn’t seem to be any signs of a squished bug!” The words came out in a rush, a stream that gushed and didn’t want to be stopped.
“Thanks, Gina,” I said. “Right everyone back to class,” I said in my teacher’s voice, “Sammi, you’re in charge! Make sure everyone gets on with their spelling exercises for today, and then goes on to handwriting.”
The group dispersed, somewhat reluctantly, and headed back to class. I clambered over the fence, the top barbed wire tearing at my flesh. I jumped down on to the damp, uneven bog, already one shoe covered in sludge, and reluctant to come out of its oozy hole. I extricated my shoe and carefully walked to the harakeke bush, choosing carefully the patches of grass that were raised and dry.
The wails had stopped. In their place was a succession of sobs that erupted at uneven intervals.
Dawson’s face was blotchy and red. He sat on a dry patch of grass immediately behind the harakeke bush.
“What’s the problem, Dawson?” I asked kindly. I felt for this boy. He always seemed to be getting into scrapes.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sobbing ceased.
A raspy voice whispered, “Everyone was looking at Stanley’s walking stick. No one wanted to look at my Ruru! Everyone wanted to be Stanley’s friend……nobody wanted to be my friend…..even my brother….. that…that traitor! No one likes me! Dad’s left home, and I just know it was because of me. I’m always doing the wrong thing at home. Mum doesn’t have any time for me….she’s always talking about the baby that is coming any day, and wondering how she is going to cope with Dad gone…And now nobody at school likes me. I’m just a nothing…..can’t do anything right! No one cares!” Dawson burst into tears again, this time with renewed vigour.
I gave him time to calm down, just sat down beside him with my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t pull away. After the tears had turned into sobs they finally subsided until there was only the occasional hiccup.
“People care about you.”
”But you’re the teacher, you’re meant to care about us. No one else does,” he whined.
“Your mum does,” I said. “The other day at Book Club, she talked about how she cares for you boys. Since your dad went she finds it hard. She wants to go down to the creek with you and catch eels. But she’s just too tired.
“She’s always tired.”
She’s meant to be on bed rest,” I told him. “The doctor is worried about her.”
I paused, letting my words sink in.
“So she does care about me,” Dawson said wistfully. “I thought she was ignoring me on purpose, that I just wasn’t good enough!”
“No, Dawson. Your Mum loves you and so does your Dad. He’s just got stuff going on in his life, and is trying to get himself sorted before he comes back to you and your…..”
Dawson erupted. “How do you know all this?”
I replied slowly. ‘You’ve forgotten that your mum and I are very good friends and that we meet every Thursday after school when you boys are with Mr Daily at soccer practice. She told me about your dad. She’s hoping it will all work out for you as a family.”
“But the school kids don’t like me!” wailed Dawson.
“Of course they do. They just happened to be more interested in Stanley’s walking stick insect. They had a good look at your Ruru earlier.”
“What shall I do then?”
“What do you think you should do, Dawson?” I paused. “You’ll know what the right thing to do is. Take your time. When you’re ready, come back into class.”
I walked briskly back to the class. Pippa was leaning over passing a note to James, and Kate was prodding Mikey with the Big Book pointer. Both stopped as I entered, and resumed their work.
Several minutes later, Dawson tiptoed into the room. His hands were cupped, and he was walking purposefully towards the middle school desks. He stopped at Stanley’s desk, placed a slightly animated stick on the younger boy’s desk, bent down and whispered in Stanley’s ear.
“Sorry man. Found him on a coat hook. Must have climbed up before Marissa put on her boots. And Stanley……..you have Ruru as your topic. I’ll do something else….and sorry, man….I was …….”
“An egg,” interrupted Stanley. He didn’t speak for a while. “But thanks, man for finding Spike. After another pause he added, “Meet me at the trampoline at break!”
I saw Dawson’s face light up. The red tear stained face was transformed into the face of a runner who had just won the biggest race!
“Sure thing,” whispered Dawson as he tiptoed to his desk, sat down, and got out his Spelling book.
The rest of the school day passed uneventfully. At four o’clock, the bus had left, and I had completed my prep for the next day. I approached the school gate. Yes, the Ruru was still in that tree, the leaves of the lemonwood rustling slightly in the afternoon breeze.
I turned away from the bird and began to go out the gate. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the slightest movement. I was sure that the Ruru had just winked at me. He would keep the events of the day under his feathered cap, and would return the next morning, of that I was sure. But……. at the end of the day it would be Dawson who would get the regal wink.