Chapter 17: The Dead Albatross

Waikanae School was big, with lots of teachers. My teacher was Mr X. I was in the same room as Francie.

Mr X was not Mr Allen. We had a spelling test out of 25. "Who got 25 out of 25?" asked Mr X. "24? 23? 22?" And down he went, all the way to 10. I got 11. By 10 everyone had put their hand up, except for one.

"Who got 9?" he asked. "8? 7? 6? 5? 4? 3? 2? 1?"

"Who got... NONE?"

Francie put her hand in the air.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" laughed the class. And later in Home Cooking Class, when Francie made some fudge balls, Mr X told the class that they looked like sheep droppings. I didn't like Mr Kaye.


I didn't like Waikanae School. It was not Springhill. When the Church of England minister came, we were sent outside because we were Catholics. That never happened at Springhill. The minister never came in the first place.

For one term I wandered the school grounds, in a place where territories and friendships had been established since the age of five, and the life cycles and habitats of the gecko and peripatus were neither known nor cared about. A boy called Wayne spoke to me, but he was not my friend because I did not know how to make new ones.


Now one day, while walking the beach -

a silent stretch of sand, a twitching sponge, a shell, an abstract log with sand-worn spars projecting into the rising breeze

- I found a dead albatross. It was not long dead. Its great wings were tipped with black; its huge beak was hooked; its silver feathers perfect. A single wing stretched taller than my height. After years of wandering oceans there and back, I'd found it in its stormless, final place. I lay it down and left it. Somehow it would be wrong to cut off its wing and dry it or pluck a feather as a trophy.

"I found an albatross today," was all I said at tea.

(How I would like to fly, far, far, like a bird on the wing, over the sea, away from school where nothing was wondrous any more and the hardest things were not nine times seven but who would bully me at playtime).

And then it happened. There, on the teacher's desk in the morning, wrapped in paper, was the dead albatross.

"Look what Andrea found!" exclaimed the teacher.

"Andrea!" gasped the class. "Andrea found an albatross!"

"I've measured its wings and it's eight foot six," cried Andrea. "I found it on the beach! It's mine, mine, mine!"

And Andrea's friends clucked like mothering hens and the boys strutted like cocks and the teacher crowed.


(But I found it first. I left it on the beach).

And they plucked its wings, for each was a feather in Andrea's cap, and they plucked its tail and heart and dumped it.

"I saw it on the beach, sir," I said. "Yesterday".

The class stared.

"Then why didn't you bring it to school?" said Mr X. "Liar!"

And I wasn't given a feather because I could have got all the feathers I wanted myself, yesterday, on the beach yesterday in that stormless place.

Later, everyone had to give a talk on something. We were on a roster. I chose to speak on sea shells, so brought my shell collection to school in boxes in the boot of the car.

"Today I'm going to talk about only the shells on Waikanae beach. This is a tuatua. Everyone calls it a pipi, but this is a pipi".

And I went into scallops and mactras and slipper shells and top shells and tiger shells and limpets and cockles and mussels alive-alive-o.

"AND," said I, "I know the names of them all off by heart".

Andrea could eat humble pie after that. My tiny periwinkle shells had made her albatross look like a sparrow. And Wayne, who wasn't my friend because I didn't know how to find one, offered to carry the boxes of sea shells out to the car.

"No", I said in my fear. For I trusted no one, and did not realize that such kindness was a request for friendship.

Soon my time finished at that school, and summer began. Next year I would go to another school.

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