The master gowned and spectacled, precise,
Trying to rule by methods firm and kind
But always just a little bit behind
The latest villainy, the last device
From “Old Schooldays” ~ Banjo Patterson
Jemimah hadn’t been away even two whole weeks, but so much seemed changed. The first clue had been the scraps of white cotton she’d noticed along the roadside on their way home on Saturday, caught in the grassy ditches like tufts of wool snagged on a barbed wire fence. Angie had commented that the farmers north must have started picking earlier, but in such a casual way that it gave little hint to Jemimah of what was in store.
When she’d left, the cotton fields surrounding her cottage at Hart’s Desire had been lined with bushes bursting with fluffy cotton bolls - she returned Sunday afternoon to see the front fields stripped to desolate sticks and bare earth. On Monday morning she’d woken to the drone of the huge cotton pickers and understood why Mr Hart had dropped off to sleep during the service the evening before – and why no-one had woken him.
Jemimah, too, was exhausted well before the end of her first day back at school, but didn’t have the Harts’ excuse of weeks of working all hours to get the now-ready cotton picked as quickly as possible.
What did I do so wrong, she asked herself when the last student had finally been collected. After surviving her first school term, being familiar with the children and having established her routine, it should have been easy.
She slumped in her chair, propping her elbows on her messy desk and resting her chin in her hands and surveyed the chaos. Returning to her class after the holiday had been like returning to a jigsaw puzzle she’d thought she’d completed – only to find it scattered and with some of the crucial pieces missing.
Had she only imagined that she could cope with teaching?
A chuckle came from the doorway and Jemimah lifted her head to see Linda Armstrong smiling at her.
"So you're glad today's over too?" Linda walked in and, with a long sigh, dropped herself onto the top of a student's desk. “It doesn’t seem possible, but I think the start of Second Term gets harder to take every time.”
Jemimah sat straighter, relieved that the failures of the day weren’t uniquely hers. "Why? Is it always particularly . . . difficult?"
"Out here it is anyway, and for some weeks yet. Between the parents who are putting in long days on the cotton harvest and those that are driving out to do shifts at the gin at Gamby, there’s several kids that won’t be having regular routines while it’s all going on. And when things are lax at home, they’re naturally more unruly here. It all settles down eventually, but it's hard work until then."
Jemimah leaned forward as the more experienced teacher shared some practical suggestions for getting her class back into a semblance of order.
"So am I expecting too much from their behaviour?" she asked after Linda pointed out the futility of demanding too much from over-tired kids. "There are a handful of children who seem to have developed a new vocabulary over the holidays. I've been trying to pick them up on it each time, but am I better ignoring it for the moment?"
"No - swearing is one of the things I will not tolerate in this school. No exceptions." Linda smiled grimly, putting Jemimah in mind of the snippets she'd heard about the last teacher and her run-ins with the headmistress over her 'spicy' language in the staff room. "I'd guess a few of them have been spending time in the company of older children over the break, and think they'll try on a bit of their language. Maybe it’s time to send home a reminder about the school's standards and discipline policy. I'll go through it with the children again at assembly in the morning."
Jemimah had read through the document at the beginning of the year, and not had any problem implementing it, as the children had seemed not to require more than a small reminder when they transgressed any of the school rules. But today, everything had been different. There were a handful of boys that seemed older - and harder - than they had last term.
After Linda left, Jemimah pulled the guidelines for discipline out of her drawer and read through them again. Although Linda's empathy had been welcome, she was also under no illusions that Linda expected her to maintain the standards. Feeling the pressure of getting the kids back into line settling on her like a lead blanket, she blew out her breath, put the sheet to one side and pulled over the first of the piles of half-finished work. Between that and her incomplete notes from the chaotic day that needed writing up, she felt she’d be there for hours.
Jemimah glanced at the clock and wondered how far she could get by the time she and Jarrah usually went for a run. Or even if Jarrah would turn up - she hadn't made any firm arrangements, but had hoped that Jarrah would come. Jemimah felt the pressure of everything she needed to explain to her. But how will I know what to say?
She clenched her jaw and continued sorting through the pile of maths worksheets. Already her lesson plan for tomorrow seemed unattainable - improbable in the light of her students’ lack of attention, but she felt too drained to figure out how to incorporate the suggestions Linda had made. It was all too hard.
A verse came into her mind: Having been saved by Christ's power do you now seek to go in on your own strength? She knew it was speaking about trying to 'be' a Christian by observing the law, but it reminded her of the things she and Michael had spoken so much about over the holidays.
If it was God's mighty power that had saved her, surely she could rely on His mighty power to carry her through from day to day. She hadn't thought of going to God for help - it was only a bad day after all - but no wonder it all felt too hard, trying to do everything in her own strength, not His.
She leaned forward, her head in her hands again, this time not in despair but in supplication, as she prayed to God about everything, Jarrah, her students, Linda - and the deep ache of loneliness in knowing that Michael was gone for who knew how long.
More verses came into her mind as she prayed: the Lord’s servant . . .will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand
. . . .he will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Many times their discussion about God's sovereignty had made her uncomfortable, but now the passages that had seemed so uncompromising were filling her with comfort. Her God was strong - and loving. He had given Christ to die for her - after that great a sacrifice, would he not carry her through every difficulty, no matter how trivial?
Jemimah finished up her prayer, thanking God for his promises and feeling reassured of His hand being with her. As she opened her eyes she was aware of a shadow flickering in the threshold of the door.
Her heart stilled until she glimpsed the edge of a familiar school skirt at one edge of the doorframe.
Jarrah's face appeared hesitantly inside the door. "I didn't know whether to come in or not. I thought, um. Are you okay?"
Jemimah looked at her, perplexed, then realised Jarrah must have seen her with her head in her hands. She nodded, smiling.
"Yes, I was just praying. I didn't hear you. Come on in." She waved her hands over the mess on her desk. "I started to feel quite overwhelmed, then remembered that I have a heavenly Father ready and able to help me with everything."
"Oh." Jarrah dumped her school bag on the floor, and sat awkwardly on the desk where Linda had made herself at home earlier.
The idea of praying about worries appeared entirely foreign to Jarrah, Jemimah noted with a sinking feeling. She'd been holding out hope that maybe Jarrah really had begun a relationship with Christ after all. But, she reminded herself, it was still in God's hands, and Jarrah had come to see her - and even earlier than usual.
"How are you going, Jarrah? I've been thinking of you a lot over the holidays." Jemimah nearly said 'praying for you' but didn't. "It's good to see you."
Jarrah shrugged. "It was alright, I guess. Better than school. You running this afternoon?"
So much for my next question about whether she'd read anything from the Bible over the holidays.
"Yes, as soon as I get through this. Have you got any homework?"
Jarrah shook her head. She got up and wandered over to Jemimah's table. "What have you got to do?"
"I'm marking these worksheets and sentences - usually I do them with the kids, but today . . .' her sentenced ended in a sigh. She wondered if perhaps Jarrah wasn’t going to wait around for her after all. "And then I was going to paste these worksheets into the exercise books."
The two sets of student's books looked like an even more insurmountable pile than ever. They'd probably take an hour on top of everything else. What if Jarrah wouldn’t want to wait that long? Maybe if she left them she could come in early and do them in the morning?
"Can I do them then?" Jarrah asked unexpectedly. "Gluing the sheets in? I reckon I could get them the right way up."
She flashed Jemimah a wary look, but her face relaxed when Jemimah smiled.
"Would you do that for me, Jarrah? That would be great!"
Jemimah gathered up the papers she was marking and moved the piles of books into their place in the centre of her desk.
"Here, Jarrah - you use the bigger desk," she offered and showed her where to stick the pages. "Usually I help the children stick them in, but after the second incident of naughtiness with the glue, I felt enough was enough."
Jarrah laughed. "So your day was like that?"
"No, that was the good bit." Jemimah was amazed to find she could even chuckle about it now.
Apart from the occasional comment they worked in comfortable silence. Jarrah was just finishing the last of the second pile of books when Jemimah closed her completed program register.
"Wow, thanks. You're nearly done. Do you mind if I go and change while you finish off?"
Jarrah nodded, and Jemimah knew from her smile that her young friend had been pleased with being given that responsibility. She returned a few minutes later to find Jarrah ready and waiting for her, the books in neat piles on the corner of her table.
Jemimah locked the classroom behind them and walked toward the car with Jarrah. They hadn't talked at all about God or salvation or anything yet . . . and she feared their casual conversation might never flow that way. But Jarrah had been open about it the last time they talked, and Jemimah didn't want her fear of offending her or saying the wrong thing to keep her from sharing the Gospel with her again.
As she unlocked the boot to put their bags inside before they ran, she pointed to a small paper bag in the corner.
"I bought a complete Bible for you to keep for yourself," Jemimah told Jarrah. "I mustn't forget to give it to you when you get your school bag afterwards."
Jarrah's eyes flashed up momentarily, before she dropped her gaze to the ground. "Oh. You didn't have to do that."
"But I wanted to." Jemimah felt nervous, but ploughed on as she shut the boot. "It's through the Bible that God tells us about himself. And about ourselves too - and the problems with us - and what we need to do to-," she faltered.
‘What we need to do’ sounded like she was saying we could fix our problems, when it was only God who could deal with our sin problem, Jemimah argued with herself. But then what we did have to do was to repent and believe and obey Him . . . to turn to God to deal with our sin - there was a command for what what we had to do. Jemimah took a deep breath, silently asking God for wisdom. "Anyway, I really want you to understand what God has given us. We didn’t get much time to talk about it all before I went away."
Jarrah had begun to pick up the pace as they headed toward the edge of the school yard, and Jemimah fell in beside her.
Now that she was trying to talk about spiritual things, she felt again the awkwardness between them that she'd been aware of when she'd first noticed Jarrah at the classroom door that afternoon. It didn't make sense, it was just like at the beginning of the year, as though Jarrah hadn't been sure of her acceptance.
Where to start? Jemimah had thought about it over and over, but now nothing seemed appropriate to say.
"I did try reading your Bible. A bit." Jarrah didn't look across at Jemimah, keeping her eyes forward as she ran.
There was a long silence as the green-grey scrub swallowed them up, and then Jarrah said, "I thought, um, I thought it would be different. That everything would be different."
"Uh-huh." Jemimah didn't know what to say, so she thought she'd better just keep listening.
More silence, broken only by the rhythm of their feet, and then: "I guess I didn't do what you said right. I just want to be like you and your church friends, and believe in God and all that, but I didn't feel any different than I ever did."
Her frank words were at once a blow to Jemimah’s hopes, and a relief. At least she hadn’t given Jarrah false assurance that she was right with God if she wasn’t. She drew in a shaky breath.
“I’m sorry, Jarrah. I didn't do a very good job explaining to you about becoming a Christian, or even why it matters so much. I wondered if you'd mind letting me try again?”
Jarrah still didn't look around. "Yeah, okay."
Dear God, where do I begin? Jemimah prayed, swimming in her thoughts through the vast sea of teaching she been trying to navigate the last few weeks. Then she remembered what Michael had done for her. He'd just started at the beginning.
"You know about Adam and Eve?" Jemimah asked, wondering if she was going back way too far.
"Yeah. But that's just a story isn't? Like a myth or something?"
"They were the very first people God made."
"But the stuff in the Bible, that was before people knew about science and evolution and everything, wasn’t it?"
Not only did that question seem too big for Jemimah to handle right then and there, she feared trying to untangle it all would take them way off track. Suddenly she thought of another direction to answer it from.
"But God has always known everything . . . and he made sure that what was written in the Bible was right, even though it was written thousands of years ago." Jemimah hadn’t realised how much she'd taken for granted that Jarrah would already know - but how could she if no-one had taught her about the Bible? "The Bible says the first people that God made were Adam and Eve - and that He gave them the right to look after and enjoy the whole of the world he'd made, except for just one tree."
In short snatches as they ran, Jemimah explained how God had given Adam and Eve a clear command – everything was theirs to enjoy if they would just obey God’s command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but if they did eat of it, they would surely die. Then Satan, in the form of a snake, had tempted them to doubt God’s word that he would punish them with death if they disobeyed, and further challenged them to doubt that God had made that commandment with their best good in mind.
They were passing the halfway point of the run now but Jemimah barely noticed, continuing on to explain that rather than obeying the God who had made them and given them everything they needed, Adam and Eve doubted his love and goodness and believed the word of Satan instead – and chose to rebel against God and to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because it looked delicious and Satan had promised that it would make them as wise as God. They weren’t content to be God’s beloved people – they wanted to be equal to God, to be their own ruler.
Jemimah realised they’d jogged through the playground without stopping, and were now on the second lap. Jarrah wasn’t really saying much, but she was letting Jemimah continue, which she took as a positive sign. After all, Jarrah could have stopped after the first lap if she’d wanted.
“And immediately after they sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve began to suffer the consequences of God’s promised punishment. They -”
“I thought the forbidden fruit was – um – sex?” Jarrah interrupted.
Jemimah had thought her cheeks couldn’t feel any hotter than they already did from the pace they were running, but she was wrong. She knew what Jarrah meant though, it did seem that the world at large equated the concept of forbidden fruit with the temptation of illicit relationships.
“No – the forbidden fruit was literally just fruit. The actual fruit they had been forbidden to eat.”
“Oh. So it was just an apple.”
“No – it wasn’t an apple.” Jemimah worried that they’d now gone so far off course with the story of Genesis that they’d never get back toward the Gospel. “We don’t know what it was like exactly – just that it looked appetising.”
“Seems a lot of trouble over just a piece of fruit, though?”
Jemimah drew in a few deep breaths before trying to answer. “It wasn’t just about the fruit. It was about not obeying God. About rebelling against his rules. Thinking they knew better than him. Following Satan’s promptings rather than God’s clear commands. And their rebellion and disobedience turned them from being friends with God to being his enemies.”
They were nearing the end of the course now, and Jemimah felt almost desperate to draw what she was saying to a conclusion that would make some sense to Jarrah.
“Just like God had warned them, their disobedience brought death. Straight away there was a separation between them and God. That’s what the Bible calls spiritual death. And they began to die physically, too.”
It was getting harder to get enough breath for more than a few words at a time now. “The Bible explains that - - because we’re the direct descendants of Adam and Eve - - we’ve inherited their spiritual death. And by nature -- we continue to listen to Satan’s lies -- and rebel - - against God’s commands. That’s why God had to send a Saviour - - because of our sin - - and rebellion - - we couldn’t get right - - with Him - - on our own.”
They’d reached the car, and Jemimah leant forward onto the boot and tried catch her breath, hoping Jarrah might ask more about why they needed Jesus – and that she wouldn’t collapse before she’d had a chance to answer!
"You didn't even slow up at all on the second lap!" Jarrah remarked, pacing slowly and shaking out her hands and feet as she did. "You must have been practicing."
Jemimah nodded, feeling the heat of exertion on her face. She’d been so absorbed with trying to explain to Jarrah, she’d run as hard as she’d talked. If it hadn’t been for the extra long runs over the holidays she was sure she’d be in a heap on the ground by now!
"Yes,” she replied as soon as she was able. ”I ran -- everyday at home. I was worried - - that if I didn't - - I mightn't be able to do it - - when I came back."
After a few more minutes, she opened up the car boot, and retrieved her water bottle for a welcome drink. Jarrah pulled out her school bag and took a drink from her own flask. They drank in silence and then after Jemimah returned her bottle to the boot, she pulled out the Bible she’d bought for Jarrah and handed it her. She was torn between not wanting to feel like she was pushing, and wanting to explain everything all at once, but watched quietly while Jarrah took it out of the bag.
"It's pretty, thank you," Jarrah mumbled, looking at the rose tapestry cover. Jemimah had agonised whether to get something small and plain, but had ended up selecting the one she'd pick for herself, but now wondered if she’d made the wrong choice.
"May I?" Jemimah held out her hand for it, and opened it to the first chapter of Genesis. "This is the part I was just telling you about. ‘In the beginning.’" She slid a ribbon bookmark into the page, closed it up and returned it to Jarrah. "If you wanted to, you could read those first few chapters."
Jarrah nodded, but Jemimah couldn’t tell if she was really interested or just being polite.
They parted with the usual "See you tomorrow", leaving Jemimah as she watched Jarrah walk out the school grounds. What she really wanted was to have been able to spell out the gospel clearly and point by point the way Michael had done with her.
But by the end of their run the following afternoon they still hadn't got any further than Adam and Eve and the first few chapters of Genesis, and at the Tuesday night Bible study Jemimah expressed her feeling of inadequacy as she mentioned her conversations with Jarrah as a request for prayer.
"Ah, but there is no one right point to start, Jemimah," Pastor Turnbull countered, "Spending time discussing Genesis is a perfectly legitimate place to start explaining the Gospel - especially if your friend has had limited exposure to the Bible. The Gospel isn't just in the New Testament, it’s in every part of Scripture. In Genesis 3:15 we have the protoevangel – the first promise that God would send a Saviour. And do you remember the encounter Philip had with the Ethiopian eunuch? The Ethiopian had been reading from the prophet Isaiah, and complained - like many people do when reading the Old Testament - that he couldn't understand it. So Philip showed him Christ in that passage, and the Ethiopian was saved, and insisted on Philip baptising him right there and then. "
A middle aged cattle farmer leaned forward in his chair. "And I read the other night in a biography of the English preacher, Charles Spurgeon , that when he was visiting a new building in which he was to preach, he tested the acoustics by calling out “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world!” and a tradesman who was working out of sight up in the rafters heard his words and was convicted to the heart of his sin. He only knew peace again when he’d come to Christ as his Saviour.”
Pastor Turnbull nodded. "Yes, accounts like that seem almost incredible to our limited understanding, but the Holy Spirit doesn't limit Himself to one or two passages of Scripture or fancy oratories to call people to Him. The whole of the Bible is inspired and useful for teaching about God , and that’s why it's so important to know it well and to use it. It can be tempting to replace the words of the Bible with analogies or little stories that seem more palatable to us. But the Scripture is the Living Word, described in Hebrews as being sharper than a double edged sword – and we should simply use that sword faithfully and trust in the power of God’s revelation."
Pastor Turnbull’s words made her feel a little better about her efforts to witness to Jarrah, and after the meeting when Jemimah was helping Nan carrying coffee cups through to the kitchen, he caught up with her again.
“Now, lassie, it's been on my mind that with everything else going on these last few months we've never got back to talking about Church membership."
Jemimah caught her lip in between her teeth, wishing the remark didn't make her feel so nervous. More than ever she was aware of how far short she fell of understanding the Bible.
“You've had a bit more exposure to our church and what we stand for than when you first arrived. And after your discussions with Michael I think you're probably a lot clearer about where we may differ in some ways from your church back home.”
Jemimah nodded slowly. "Yes, I do see the differences more clearly now. And the things that are different here do seem to be in line with the Bible - but I still feel such a long way from understanding it all."
Pastor Turnbull patted her shoulder. "Coming into church membership is not about passing a theological test, just making sure that as far as we both understand the Biblical issues, we're able to walk along in harmony and work together, and believe as far as our understanding goes that we can hold to the same truths of the Bible.
And if there are any areas of our teachings that you’re not sure you can hold with good conscience, it might be time to start working through those, too. It's good to have a period of settling in, and I thought it wise to give you some time to experience some of the differences first hand rather than try to explain them all to you upfront, but it's important not to leave things indefinitely without committing yourself to a local church.”
He smiled at Jemimah, a twinkle in his eye as he added, “I think you’re aware our people already consider you as one of theirs."
The reassurance that Pastor Turnbull, who knew her failings better than nearly anyone, wanted to encourage her toward membership in the church made her feel good. She already knew the warmth and love of the church in looking out for her, and wanted to make the commitment that she was willing and prepared to work with them and do the same for them.
“Yes, I do - and I’m very grateful for that. I would like to apply for membership if that’s okay.”
He nodded, and stepped back as Jack stuck his head around the doorway.
"You just about ready to go, Miss Sparky? I'll follow you home, make sure no Yowies get you."
Pastor Turnbull excused himself, and Jemimah nodded in reply to Jack’s question. "I'll just say goodbye to Angie, if that’s okay?"
Angie had refused Jack’s offer to them both for a lift to the Bible study when they'd passed him on their way home for tea at Jemimah's cottage, but as much as Jemimah respected – and shared - Angie's desire not to be subject to an extra half hour or so of Jack’s teasing, she still preferred not to be driving alone at night.
Jack was waiting in his ute, engine running, when Jemimah came outside a few minutes later. Times like this, when Jack was acting like a real gentleman, made her feel rather mean-spirited for her wariness of him. She walked over to his window to thank him, but he shrugged. "Don't waste your thanks on me, Mum made me promise to offer. Kills me to drive so slowly behind your little tin can."
Jemimah sighed. She should have seen that coming.
"Hey, Sparky?” he called as she turned away. “Jamie reckons you're coming spotlighting on Friday night."
"Ye-e-es?" she turned back warily.
"Do you know what spotlighting is?"
Jemimah thought of the vague explanation Jamie had given her and considered bluffing her way through an answer, then discounted it.
"No, not exactly."
Jack threw back his head, his laughter muffled as his car window scrolled upwards.
"Why? What is spotlighting?" Jemimah tapped on the closed window.
Jack cupped his hand to his ear and mouthed, "Sorry, can't hear you!"
Jemimah stepped back as he put the car into gear, and climbed into her much maligned Datsun. She stewed over his comment all the way home, then pulled up on the road in front of him just before the shared driveway. He swung round her, and she thought he was going to drive straight on but he pulled up a couple of car lengths ahead of her.
He didn’t reverse to close the gap, but sat waiting in his idling vehicle. As Jemimah got out of her car and walked toward his ute, she shuddered at the menacing shadows that loomed on either side of the road and asked herself if she was mad.
Thankfully Jack wound down his window when she reached his door.
"What exactly IS spotlighting, Jack?"
All Jemimah got for her trouble was the annoyance of reigniting his smouldering laughter.
"Ah, knew Jamie couldn't have told you much for you to agree to it." He wiped his moist eyes with the back of his hand. "You're too much of a pink-n-fluffy city girl. But no, Jamie's so infatuated with you he thinks you've got the guts to be a country girl. I'd better prepare him for the disappointment of you pulling out."
"No, you won't. I'm not pulling out of anything. You're just trying to bait me again, and I'm not biting any more." Jemimah felt pleased with the iron in her voice. He had to be joking, after all Marlene had been spotlighting. "I'll be there on Saturday night."
In the glow of the headlights it looked like he smirked before tipping an imaginary hat at her as he drove off, taking the corner wide and disappearing at speed into his driveway.
Without Jack's powerful driving lights the road was suddenly very dark and, hating herself for her nervousness, Jemimah sprinted back to her car and locked herself inside. But not before she had checked the back seat through the windows to make sure something had not climbed inside while she hadn't been looking.
And for once, she wasn’t even glad that Jack wasn’t around to witness her foolishness.
© R. L. Brown 2010