Baby Pinpin makes her mark

We publish an extract of William Nicholson’s wonderful novel for young readers ‘The Wind Singer’ to celebrate parents’ protests against testing. It begins on the morning of Pinpin Hath’s first test. She is two years old, and must be accompanied by her sceptical family mother and father Ira and Hanno, and sister and brother Kestrel and Bowman.

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Bowman hugged her. As he cuddled her soft round body, he remembered. She was only two years old, too little to mind how well or badly she did, but from now till the day she died she would have a rating. That was what was making him sad.

This morning what made him sad wasn’t what Pinpin was feeling now, but what he knew she would feel one day. Now there were no worries in her sunny little heart. Yet from today, she would begin, at first only dimly, but later with sharp anxiety, to fear the future. For in Aramanth, life was measured out in tests. Every test brought with it the possibility of failure, and every test successfully passed led to the next, with its renewed possibility of failure. There was no escape from it, and no end. Just thinking about it made his heart almost burst with love for his little sister. He hugged her tight as tight, and kissed and kissed her merry cheeks…

The morning sun was low in the sky, and the high city walls cast a shadow over all Orange District, as the Hath family walked down the street to the Community Hall. Mr and Mrs Hath went in front, and Bowman and Kestrel came behind, with Pinpin between them holding a hand each. Other families with two-year-olds were making their way in the same direction, past the neat terraces of orange-painted houses. The Blesh family was ahead of them, and could be heard coaching their little boy as they went along.

‘One, two, three, four, who’s that at the door? Five, six, seven, eight, who’s that at the gate?’

As they came into the main square, Mrs Blesh turned and saw them. She gave the little wave she always gave, as if she was their special friend, and waited for Mrs Hath to catch her up.

‘Can you keep a secret?’ she said in a whisper. ‘If our little one does well enough today, we’ll move up to Scarlet… And did you hear? Our Rufy was second in his class yesterday afternoon.’ [Housing is allocated in the city according to the family’s combined points rating.]

At the entrance to the Community Hall, a lady Assistant Examiner sat checking names against a list. The Bleshes went first.

‘Is the little one clean?’ asked the Assistant Examiner. ‘Has he learned to control his bladder?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs Blesh. ‘He’s unusually advanced for his age.’

When it was Pinpin’s turn, the Assistant Examiner asked the same question.

‘Is she clean? Has she learned to control her bladder?’

Mr Hath looked at Mrs Hath. Bowman looked at Kestrel. Through their minds floated pictures of Pinpin’s puddles on the kitchen floor. But this was followed by a kind of convulsion of family pride, which they all felt at the same time.

‘Control her bladder, madam?’ said Mrs Hath with a bright smile. ‘My daughter can widdle in time to the National Anthem.’

The Assistant Examiner looked surprised, then checked the box marked CLEAN on her list…

A bell rang, and the big room fell quiet for the entrance of the Examiners. Ninety-seven desks, at each of which sat a two-year-old; behind each one, on benches, their paprents and siblings. The sudden silence awed the little ones, and there wasn’t so much as a cry.

The Examiners swept in, their scarlet gowns billowing, and stood on the podium in a single line of terrible magnificence. There were ten of them. At the centre was the tall figure of the Chief Examiner, Maslo Inch, the only one in the hall to wear the simple shining white garments of the highest rating.

‘Stand for the Oath of Dedication!’

Everyone stood, parents lifting little ones to their feet. Together they chanted the words all knew by heart.

‘I vow to strive harder, to reach higher, and in every way to seek to make tomorrow better than today. For love of my Emperor and for the glory of Aramanth!’

‘My friends,’ intoned the Chief Examiner, ‘what a special day this is, the first test day of your beloved child. How proud you must be to know that from today, your little son or daughter will have his or her own personal rating. How proud they will be, as they come to understand that by their own efforts they can contribute to your family rating.’ Here he raised a hand in friendly warning, and gave them all a grave look. ‘But never forget that the rating itself means nothing. All that matters is how you improve your rating. Better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today. That is the spirit that has made our city great.’

Pinpin’s turn comes. ‘Well now, show me a doggy. Where’s a doggy? A house then. Show me a little house. Let’s try some counting, shall we.’ But Pinpin says not a word, the examiner picks her up and, predictably, Pinpin makes her mark in her own way.  

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