The Muhammadiyah school in Belitong island in Indonesia is just about ready to fall apart at the seams-- worse, the government officials looking to close the school down will be only too happy to do so. There are big gaping holes in the roof, animals saunter in and out of the classroom, the medical kit is sorely lacking; there aren’t even the requisite pictures of the nation’s leaders on the wall. Yet the school is blessed with two of the most devoted teachers any child could ask for: Bu Mus (who is herself young enough to be in middle school) and Pak Harfan. These two are determined to educate the 11 elementary school-aged children they have in their charge, and they manage to do so despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
The island of Belitong (also known as Belitung) is rich in natural resources. At the time that the story is set, the island’s tin ore is being mined heavily by a multinational corporation often referred to simply as PN. The company’s workers and their children are schooled in a much better school in their own gated community and author Andrea Hirata draws the lines of class distinctions here pretty well, if sometimes with too broad a stroke.
The mostly autobiographical story narrated by one of the students, Ikal, essentially tracks the fate of these kids, the teachers and the school as they together face seemingly insurmountable obstacles with good cheer and perseverance. The reader cheers for the class as they participate in a local dance competition and in a trivia contest against the richer PN school. Mixed into the plot are tastes of first adolescent romance, as well as a look at the economics of the island, its various residents, and local folklore.
Translated from the Indonesian language (the book was a bestseller in Indonesia), the prose is straightforward and without frills. One wonders if this was intentional (it is narrated by a man reminiscing about his childhood, after all) or if it’s a byproduct of the translation. Readers looking for more descriptions of place might be a tad disappointed—the book sets its sights on the children and marches linearly in time very efficiently.
Where the book does win is in painting a touching portrait of the underdog, and it is also based on realistic outcomes. In the end, as much as the teachers and the students rally together, some circumstances are simply beyond their control. “We were brought to our knees by education’s strongest, cruelest, most merciless and hardest-to-fight invisible enemy. It gnawed away at the students, teachers, and even the education system itself. That enemy was materialism,” Ikal recalls. The book mercifully steers clear of contrived cliches. Of course, not all is lost in the end. What the teachers impart to the students is immeasurable, and they are all grateful for it.
“The poor Pak Harfan and Bu Mus had given me the most beautiful childhood, friendships, and rich souls, something priceless. Perhaps I am mistaken, but in my opinion, this is actually the breath of education and the soul of an institution called a school,” Ikal says. No child left behind? In his debut novel, Andrea Hirata shows us what the implied mission in that phrase is really all about.