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Melissa Chin

Sally glanced around the room. The other students were gazing blankly ahead,  past the teacher droning on in the background, through the walls of the classroom and off into the far distance. She looked at each face in turn, curious as to what they could be thinking as they absently waved their paper fans. But one thing was obvious; no one was listening to the teacher.

There was a sudden silence at the front of the room. Sally faced forward again, expecting trouble. For why else would Mr Smith stop talking? But he was only draining a glass of water and touching a handkerchief to his forehead. It was too hot, she supposed, even for a teacher. Not hot enough to stay home, but just bearable if a fan was on full blast. Sally turned back to the other students to guess at another person’s thoughts – and stopped.

Her vision lay in a path to the desk in the corner. The one that always seemed smaller and darker than the rest although the room was perfectly square. People didn’t appear to notice it very much, but Sally knew, as did all the students, who it was that sat there.

He had been discussed, when he first came, but it wasn’t long before people lost interest. There were rumours surrounding him: he hadn’t spoken much, not even trying to make friends. And his eyes, his eyes were an unusual black: the pitch black of a cold room with no windows and a tightly sealed door.

Sally disagreed with this description. It was more like the black of a starless night, far away from city lights. Besides, she had seen those eyes in the sun: there was a hint of brown within. The moon was there somewhere, hidden behind the clouds. He wasn’t just an empty shell.

She studied him as she had with the others, but couldn’t help noticing the differences. The brown skin and black hair, both darker than anyone else’s in the class, though not by much. He was – what was the name? – a half-caste, that was it, a half-caste Aborigine. Half white and half Aboriginal. Either way, his name, Wantimi, isolated him from the others even more. It meant rain, he’d said when asked, but no one knew the background behind it.

Of course, Sally knew all the stories about Aborigines, as did the other students. They had all gone through the same boring ‘Australia’ unit every year. All the tales from the time Captain Cook set off in 1768, right up to the present day treatment of Australia’s natives.

It didn’t change anything, knowing the whole lot. It didn’t stop the way people acted towards him, though many probably forgot he even existed. Some were racist and had insulted or taunted him, but he had been silent through it all, never saying a word. It unnerved them, his silence and the way he kept himself distant from them all. So they stopped early on and left him alone.

There shouldn’t have been such a difference, between them and him. Looking at him now, Sally thought he seemed as bored as the rest of them. There was an invisible haze around him, as if he really were in another world. Gradually, a thought arose from the depths of Sally’s mind. The lesson going on in the background was about Australia. Wantimi was an Aborigine. Why wasn’t he interested in the lesson?

She sat there for a while, phrasing the question in different ways. This one sounded like an insult, that one racist. She didn’t want to offend him if she found the courage to ask. But it soon occurred to Sally that maybe she was being slightly racist herself, for she wouldn’t have worried this much if it were anyone else. She almost didn’t go through with it. What would the others think if they saw her being friendly to him? Embarrassing rumours would arise, and that would be the end of her school life.

However, her curiosity was too intense and she fought a losing battle against it. Her mother had always said that her nosiness, as she called it, would get Sally in trouble. It was hard for her to resist, and eventually, pausing to check that no one was watching, Sally passed a scribbled note to the opposite desk.

Wantimi looked up in obvious surprise, and then his eyes focused on the fold of paper. He hesitated before opening it, those black eyes darting up to Sally’s face, suspicion in their depths. She couldn’t help looking away, and found herself staring at her classmates instead.

They were restless, but – she sighed with relief – there was no evidence of what she had done on their faces. Shame suddenly bloomed in Sally’s mind. What was she doing? She was acting as if she had committed a crime, with the feeling that everyone knew what she had done, that guilty feeling which was accompanied by a queasy sensation in the stomach.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the scrape of paper sliding across the desk, and she looked down to find her original piece, folded as it had been, before her hands. The note read:


How boring is this lesson? I bet no one’s listening at all.


Sally, you must be really bored if you’re writing to me. I know what you think of me, I can see it in your face, and everyone else’s.

Sally sat in stunned silence at his reply. She hadn’t known what to expect but it wasn’t this. Wantimi was so bitter, so full of anger, and no one knew. No one could comprehend what was going through his mind because he kept it all hidden, all locked away behind his silence.

Sally knew what that could lead to. There were so many stories about people who struck out violently from pent up rage. They ended up in prison, locked away for a few years or a whole lifetime, depending on the injury or the death they had caused. Either that, or they took drugs and alcohol. Both ruined their lives and hurt the people around them.

Suddenly, Sally was overcome with the determination to prevent that from happening to Wantimi, so she wrote back:

Don’t be stupid! Sure, there’s some people who don’t like you, but that’s the way life is. There’ll always be someone out there who doesn’t but there’re plenty who do, or at least, will. You can’t please everyone, you know.

Well, Sally thought, she had tried being nice and he had just blown it back in her face. It made her angry, that he seemed to believe that no one saw how he was treated and that all white people were alike. The thoughts bubbled rapidly through her mind, things she could say to him, how, in his own way, he was a little racist too.

It seemed an age before his reply came, but eventually, a new fold of paper was tossed across the gap between their desks. She opened it to see a mess of angry scribble down the page.

It was only then that Sally became aware of the stony silence in the classroom. Once again, she turned, but there was something about this silence that filled her with unease. Ever so slowly, she lifted her gaze to the front of the room, and there the teacher stood, glaring coldly at Sally and Wantimi.

The other students were also staring, fully awake in anticipation of the storm that would soon erupt. It seemed that Mr. Smith did care about some things after all. It was a delicate situation and Sally looked down in submission. The silence stretched on unbearably, but glancing up once more, she found she could breathe again. The teacher had shifted his glare to Wantimi who was – Sally caught her breath for a second time – boldly staring back.

The focus of the students’ attention swivelled back and forth between the Aboriginal and Mr. Smith. It was soon noted that the teacher’s face was becoming an interesting shade of red. A bomb has a certain time limit marked by a clock face or some other means in which it counts down the seconds until it expires and blows up. Mr Smith was thought of, at this moment in time, in much the same way, the darkening colour of his face used as an indication of how much time was left before the explosion.

It wasn’t very long.

Sally gazed anxiously at Wantimi, and found that she wasn’t particularly surprised at what she saw there. He seemed to know exactly was he was doing, what he was getting himself into. The teacher chose that moment to break the silence. The bomb exploded.

‘How dare you!’ Mr. Smith screamed. ‘How dare you pass notes in my class! Get up, you stupid boy! Do you hear? Stand up!’

Wantimi rose slowly to his feet and mouthed, ‘It’s okay,’ to Sally’s worried expression, though she thought there had been a slight tremor in his hands. Wantimi retrieved his letter from Sally’s desk, for he had understood the teacher more than any of the other students in the room. Mr. Smith took one look at Wantimi’s scribbled hand and then demanded that he read out the letter in front of the class.

Wantimi began and Sally heard the passion in his voice, the flood of real emotions breaking through the walls of his mind, it was the most anyone had heard him say and it astonished them. It stripped them of their pride and laid them bare to shame of how they had treated him, for his letter to Sally had been about everything that had happened in his life so far, all the times he had been ignored and insulted. Every time he was transferred to another family, or another school all because of the trouble he brought just by being black, not even fully black, and every single time the same things happened.

Finally, Wantimi came to and end and Sally thought she saw weary triumph in his eyes. The class was released from his grip, although not fully. The students settled themselves once more, but with a new respect for this boy who had affected them so deeply. None of them met his eyes, all looking away in shame at anything but him.

Wantimi stood tall at the front of his class and smiled for the first time in many years. He had finally managed to cleanse his mind of the mixed emotions, the anger and the hurt. His story had finally been told.

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