An echo from the old bark school
It was the first Monday after the holidays. The children had taken their seats in the Old Bark School, and the master called out the roll as usual:—
‘Arvie Aspinall.’ . . . ‘’Es, sir.’
‘David Cooper.’ . . . ‘Yes, sir.’
‘John Heegard.’ . . . ‘Yezzer.’
‘Joseph Swallow.’ . . ‘Yesser.’
‘James Bullock.’ . . . ‘Present.’
‘Frederick Swallow.’ . ‘Y’sir.’
‘James Nowlett.’ . . . (Chorus of ‘Absent.’)
‘Willam Atkins.’ . . (Chorus of ‘Absent.’)
‘Daniel Lyons.’ . . . ‘Perresent, sor-r-r.’
Dan was a young immigrant, just out from the sod, and rolled his ‘r’s’ like a cock-dove. His brogue was rich enough to make an Irishman laugh.
Bill was ‘wagging it.’ His own especial chum was of the opinion that Bill was sick. The master’s opinion did not coincide, so he penned a note to William’s parents, to be delivered by the model boy of the school.
‘Bertha Lambert.’ . . ‘Yes, ’air.’
‘May Carey.’ . . . . ‘Pesin’, sair.’
‘Rase Cooper.’ . . . . ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Janet Wild.’ . . . . ‘Y-y-yes, s-sir.’
‘Mary Wild.’ . . .
A solemn hush fell upon the school, and presently Janet Wild threw her arms out on the desk before her, let her face fall on them, and sobbed heart-brokenly. The master saw his mistake too late; he gave his head a little half-affirmative, half-negative movement, in that pathetic old way of his; rested his head on one hand, gazed sadly at the name, and sighed.
But the galoot of the school spoilt the pathos of it all, for, during the awed silence which followed the calling of the girl’s name, he suddenly brightened up — the first time he was ever observed to do so during school hours — and said, briskly and cheerfully:
‘Dead — sir!’
He hadn’t been able to answer a question correctly for several days.
‘Children,’ said the master gravely and sadly, ‘children, this is the first time I ever had to put ‘D’ to the name of one of my scholars. Poor Mary! she was one of my first pupils — came the first morning the school was opened. Children, I want you to be a little quieter to-day during play-hour, out of respect for the name of your dead schoolmate whom it has pleased the Almighty to take in her youth.’
‘Please, sir,’ asked the galoot, evidently encouraged by his fancied success, ‘please, sir, what does ‘D’ stand for?’
‘Damn you for a hass!’ snarled Jim Bullock between his teeth, giving the galoot a vicious dig in the side with his elbow.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 161-162
pathetic = something which evokes feelings of sadness or sorrow (may also refer to something which is considered inadequate, inferior, or beneath contempt)
sod = the phrase “the old sod” is a reference to “the old land”, being one’s native country, or the land where one’s family originated from; in an Australian context, “the old sod” commonly refers to Ireland, e.g.:
“An original anecdote”, The Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), 27 May 1839, p. 4
“Irish arithmetic”, The Empire (Sydney, NSW), 3 May 1851, p. 391
“The vices of the Irish”, The Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), 28 January 1854, p. 2
“The famine in Ireland”, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, NSW), 2 January 1880, p. 2
“The Old Sod”, The Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), 8 October 1892, p. 20
“More girls and lads leaving the Old Sod”, The Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW), 6 January 1900, p. 3
“Birthday honours in the Old Sod”, Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW), 7 July 1900, p. 20
“The Old Sod”, The Farmer and Settler (Sydney, NSW), 26 November 1909, p. 16
“A bit of the “Old Sod””, The Wodonga & Towong Sentinel (Vic.), 12 August 1910, p. 2
“International cuisine: Potato pie from the old sod”, The Canberra Times (Canberra, ACT), 13 March 1986, p. 7 of “The Good Times” supplement
wag = to not attend school without permission to do so; to skip school, to be truant (may also be used in other contexts, such as to wag wok, but primarily used regarding schooling)
[Editor: Changed “Dead-sir” to “Dead — sir”.]
Vernacular spelling in the original text: