Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
On the eve
... He [Leandro] thought about all this as he was travelling along the road collecting cans of cream. Davidsons, Mailers, Lynches on the left, the Balias family on the right. Finally, he reached Butchers Creek school and turned to the right along the Gadaloff road, across the Balias Creek bridge. That school had quite a story.
In 1913 with other neighbours Leandro helped to build it: Ara’s son, Hector, was nearly four and was going to start schooling soon. The first teacher was John Tait, a grey-bearded gentleman of sixty, who had evidently received a good education in his younger years. Since then he had been fossicking and mining; he was one of the discoverers of tungsten. He was a nice chap to have a yarn with around the fire, and when Leandro called at his camp nearby they sometimes did this. His usual meal was damper with billy tea. Leandro enjoyed it, unlike the school inspector, McKenna, who was shocked when Tait treated him with a generous piece of his damper during an inspection visit.
Well, damper, it was the last straw. But what was one to say about the teacher’s dress, complained McKenna to Nicholas Illin one day. (Nicholas’s block was next-door to the school and in this god-forsaken corner it was a pleasure for the inspector to converse with an educated man, who, when he ran out of English words, would lapse into French, German or Latin and Greek.) On one visit, related McKenna, Mr Tait had on rough boots, no collar, a coloured shirt and old coat with several holes in it. On another visit he was without a coat with his shirtsleeves unbuttoned, his pants dirty, and his boots had not been cleaned for weeks. Added to this, Mr Tait did not know how to do the paperwork and did not teach drills to the pupils. Nicholas would attempt to object that the main thing was the teacher’s ideas, his aspiration — as a Russian poet said, to ‘sow what is wise, what is good, what is true’ — rather than his dress, and that Mr Tait did not get a fair chance as all the children were engaged in dairying and therefore they came very late to school. Each morning and evening they had to milk around a dozen cows. Finally, McKenna had to take the side of the parents, who demanded that the Education Department dismiss this miner-‘gentleman’ and send them a lady teacher instead.
Several lady teachers came in succession, but none of them improved the situation. The first, Gertrude Irving, applied to resign as soon as she arrived: ‘I cannot content myself to live in the bush, and this place is so very far out. Teaching in these outlandish places is far too lonely a life for a young girl.’ After this failure the parents’ committee appealed for ‘a female teacher with bush experience’ and promised ‘to supply her with a horse and a saddle’. Mary Moroney took this ‘tempting’ offer but was unable to endure it for long and resigned in early 1917. Finally came Hanna Bennett, a lady in a desperate situation; she had left her husband and by herself was raising her three children, working as a teacher. She settled in at the Fletchers’ hut next to the Illins and they felt sympathetic towards the determination of this overstrung and lonely woman.
A new school was under construction to replace the first, provisional one. All seemed fine, and at last, Nicholas hoped, these bush children had a teacher, but suddenly tension began to build between Mrs Bennett and William Fletcher’s family. The tension turned into hostilities and open confrontation, which gradually involved the whole community of nearby farmers and finally the schoolchildren. Mrs Bennett moved into the old school-house, suffering constant abuse from the neighbours, probably the Fletchers. She hit back disclosing the ‘filth’ in the school among the rough children of these rough farmers. She saw it where it was and where it was not: she saw it in the older boys’ secret society, which included the Russian children, where there certainly was ‘filth’; she saw ‘filth’ in the children’s awareness of sexual relations, as they all assisted their fathers with animals; dirty words covered slates and books; even in the seemingly innocent game of hide-and-seek behind a log Mrs Bennett discovered misconduct between one of the Russian boys and a local girl, and Leila Prochoroff was interrogated as the main witness. The hostilities in the ill-fated bush school finally involved Constable Pike, Inspector McKenna and the Education Department in Brisbane.
Hector brought news home every day about the development of events. This tiny school that symbolised for Nicholas the English aspiration for knowledge was sinking in the mire of human hatred and Russian children had somehow become involved; probably they were having to pay for the Russian revolution, which was gaining pace. Then, while pruning the trees in his young orchard, Nicholas was struck by a simple idea for stopping the squabble, not with the help of police or the school inspector, but by himself with the help of the Chekhovian cherry orchard. However rough the surrounding folk were, it could not be that they, and especially the children, would not return good for good. And so he came to school. Seventy years later Edgar Short would write about that day:
‘Mr Illin, a very cultured old gentleman with a long white beard, who spoke several languages ... established a peach garden, and one of my best memories of Butchers Creek school is the whole school being invited to his orchard when the peaches were ripe and being told to eat our fill, which we sure did.’
What was sweeter — a peach or an encounter with generosity, a generosity which came not from wealth but from the heart? For these bush children, little slaves of the milking routine, surrounded by the prose of life alone, this was their first discovery of another level of human relations and, maybe, of the irrational Russian soul. For Nicholas himself it was a tribute to his ailing motherland, where former followers of Chekhov had now split into the Whites and the Reds, flooding the cherry orchards with torrents of blood ...
Nikifor Homenko, who always had his feet on the ground, interpreted Nicholas’s message in his own way and, free of charge, erected a four-wire fence with water-gum posts around the school.5...