The Day the Milkman Came Late
Posted by Emile Tubiana on July 6, 2010
The consequences of someone being late with his task.
The Day the Milkman Came Late
In September, autumnal breezes marked the end of summer vacation–and, much to our discontent, the end of three months of carefree existence. School benches were made ready to welcome us back. Our interim of freedom was over, and a school year with discipline lay ahead of us. It was sad and hard to start school again. Wartime had been erased from our memory; with the passing of time, wounds heal and the deepest painful feelings disappear.
We were happy at the sight of our new teacher, as she was very pretty; but soon her strictness made us forget her physical attractiveness. As for our Arabic teacher, a Muslim, he was overflowing with human kindness. Teaching for him was a game; he taught with humor and verve. He would tell us the stories from “a Thousand and One Nights”, which enchanted us. Our Arabic lessons were simply a joy.
Strange as it may sound, we lived in a predominatly Arab country but were unaware of its culture and literature. Our teacher filled this void with knowledge, and thanks to him we discovered a beautiful language and a fascinating civilization from ancient times. We regretted that our French teachers–who believed themselves to be the only upholders of the highest cultural values did not respect him. Actually the French, who settled down in increasing numbers in Tunisia, either as colons or in the administration, never seemed to believe that a Tunisian was entitled to certain rights within his own homeland.
There were always some matters which put me in difficulties, with regard to my teacher’s convictions. The question of unpolished shoes was one of them, and one that convinced me of the importance of the role each of us plays in our society. One morning, our teacher decided to focus on shoes and I was, of course, the first to be put on the spot.
– “Have you looked at your shoes?”
– “Yes, Madame.”
– “They are dirty. Did you polish them?”
– “No, Madame.”
I stiffened up when she asked me the reason for this oversight. As a punishment, I had to write, one hundred times, “My shoes are dirty.” And in order to confirm that statement, I decided to stop polishing my shoes–which elicited the same punishment. But I did not care. I was ahead of the game since I already had several sheets of paper filled with the line “My shoes are dirty.” My classmates felt panicky each time our teacher would inspect them. As for me, I would not budge because I knew in what state my shoes were. My classmates would make the tips of their shoes shine by using either the back of their socks, their hand or their clean handkerchief. All that did not help; they were punished just as I was. But for them the punishment was not the end of the story, since they had to explain to their mother the dirt on their handkerchief. In my case I did not carry one. In our large family there were never enough clean handkerchiefs at our disposal.
To tell the truth, I was not too proud of my stubbornness. What was the point of refusing to polish my shoes, and of having lines to write every day? Fortunately our teacher did not decide to use more drastic measures, such as calling a disciplinary committee or suspending me from school. Therefore one morning I decided to shine my shoes. My friends were going to be surprised and the teacher would be flabbergasted. Just the thought of it made me really happy! The milkman was late, and my mother usually forbade my leaving the house without first having my coffee and milk. What I feared, happened. After swallowing down my burning cup of milk and coffee, I ran to school–but I arrived late. While I was gently pushing the gate open the principal saw me, called my name and took me to his office. He was indulgent and just gave me a lecture. He was right, but was it my fault if the milkman was late? My argument was weak and I knew it. Time was moving along, and now I had to confront my teacher, this time with quite a substantial delay. She lashed out at me with a long list of reprimands, scolded me and sent to a corner–where I had to remain in a kneeling position, long after my friends had left school. In my mind I could visualize the stern interrogation of my father, wondering why I was so late returning home. Within a few hours I had found myself in trouble with the principal, my teacher and my father. My mother would also have been on the list, if I had disobeyed her. All this because of a milkman. He had put me in an embarrassing situation; moreover, he had deprived me of the pleasure I had anticipated feeling because of my polished shoes.
I had to come to grip with reality. However, a milkman is important. By delivering his milk with a small delay, he had squashed my day and my hopes. I realized that this incident was part of daily life, of the little details that can have dramatic consequences. Small causes can engender large effects. Whether man is directly or indirectly responsible for it, the result remains the same. If a streetcar is late, for one reason or another, its passengers, old and young, upon their arrival, will have to solve their problems. Some may be punished–or fired, in the case of an employee who has a tendency to be late. It is always embarrassing to enter a meeting after important decisions have already been made. The death or life of a person may depend upon the promptness of rescuers; what if a physician runs out of gas in the middle of the country while trying desperately to visit a patient who needs him urgently? Examples can be multiplied at length. No one is spared, from people on the top rung to people at the bottom of the ladder; and consequences can be serious.
We belong to a society in which, believe it or not, we all have a role to play. That role constitutes an indispensable part of the normal functioning of a community. Failure to assume one’s role would mean creating a critical situation for oneself and for others. It is therefore imperative to fill this role conscientiously.
I don’t intend to preach an ideology, since an ideology would force us to follow a movement, to become enslaved and lose our individuality. It would deprive us of our freedom of thought, and would perhaps become an obstacle on the path we have laid out for ourselves. However this path must not disturb our daily life, nor prevent us from doing our duty toward each other and society.
Copyright Emile M. Tubiana 2009 all rights reserved.