The Pieces of Silver
When, at five minutes to ten, the bell started to ring, a pall of silence settled over the noisy playfield.
Reluctantly games of cricket and pickups were abandoned; climbers came slithering down from the old tamarind tree on the school grounds or dropped quickly from its branches, making haste to clear their mouths of the green, acid fruit they had been enjoying.
The school of four hundred odd boys assembled in ranks across the pebbled playfield, waiting for inspection before they could file into the red-walled school. Some glanced apprehensively at their dusty, naked feet, while others tried feverishly to make their nails and hands presentable.
The teachers came from the school-room in a leisurely bunch, laughing and joking in quiet voices as they sauntered towards the boys.
The stout, pompous, acting Headmaster came to the window that opened off his platform on to the playfield, still making an unnecessary clangour with his bell, and looked sternly over the assembled rows of scholars. The smaller boys straightened and stiffened under his cold gaze.
As the teachers passed slowly along the ranks the boys turned their hands back and forth and grinned to show their teeth. A number of boys who failed to pass the teachers’ inspection of health were hailed out of the ranks and ordered in to the acting Head. There were three strokes with his cane of plaited tamarind stalks for unclean hands; four for improperly brushed teeth and six for an uncombed head.
After the inspection the boys filed quietly into school and to their different classes. When you could have heard a pin drop the schoolmaster, rapped out the order: “Shun!” The entire school of boys flung their hands to their foreheads and chanted: “Good morning to our teachers.”
The schoolmaster announced a hymn, and emitting an untrue, faltering note, invited the scholars to take it. The boys rendered a rich improvement of the sound, and when the schoolmaster flung his hand up and stamped his foot they tore full-throatily into the hymn.
At the conclusion of the hymn the boys sang Amen, bringing their hands up to their faces in an attitude of prayer. The schoolmaster submitted a long, impromptu supplication, rambling and ill-worded, at the end of which the boys said Amen once more. Again the schoolmaster ordered “‘Shun!” The boys came to attention, and school was ready to begin.
But this morning the schoolmaster did not order the school to be seated as was the normal custom after prayers. Instead he fixed the school with his cold eyes and said:
“Those who have brought contributions to Mr. Megahey’s purse will give them to their teachers.”
Hands delved into pockets, while, in the lower classes, a number of small, moist fists closed still more tightly over the pieces of silver which had been wrapped in paper and pressed carefully into their palms.
The teachers drew chairs and stools to their respective desks and sat down. Each produced a foolscap sheet on which were recorded the names of those of his class who had contributed to the purse for the retiring Head, Mr. Megahey.
No commendation seemed due to the donor of threepence. A sixpence was held up between the thumb and forefinger of the receiving teacher and displayed before the class, while the name of the boy who had presented it was repeated some half a dozen times. Still more ado was made of the bestower of a shilling. In addition to being patted on the shoulder and beamed on by his teacher, and basking in the envy of his class, he was sent up to be thanked by the acting Head who shook his hand heartily and showed the gleaming gold of his teeth, and who, with a grave gesture, bestowed upon him the fag-end of a stick of chalk with the injunction that it be not used about the school.
The receipt of the contributions was over, and the last boy bad returned to his seat. On the platform the acting Head cleared his throat for attention and said:
“Those who have contributed to our retiring Head’s purse will now sit. Those who have not will remain standing.”
When the scuffling tumult of a school of boys taking their seats had subsided, here and there about the school-room a scattered few stood with downcast eyes.
The acting Head was a squat jug of a man, fierce-eyed and unsmiling. He now sauntered along the edge of his platform and fixed, one after the other, each of the standing boys with a look of complete scorn. Then, mopping his brow, he ordered those who had brought no gifts to come up and mount the platform where the dozen of them were lined up.
Taking a stick of chalk he scrawled an X upon the forehead of each boy, to the huge delight of the rest of the school. When he had imprinted this symbol of shame upon the brow of each unhappy child, he turned to the laughing school, and holding his hand up to check the gusts of merriment, said, “Look! They bear the symbol of ingratitude!”…..