The school day in Xiaojiao Middle School started at 5:30 am, when the students rushed up and down the stairs, the hallway abuzz with activity. By 5:50, all the classes lined up on the dirt tracks around a big concrete-paved basketball court. At 6:00, a teacher said some simple morning greetings through the loudspeaker and the morning run began. My classmates and I, the week-long volunteer teachers, formed a four times seven formation and joined in the rectangle formations of other Xiaojiao classes in the run, occasionally chanting “one, two, three, four” (yi, er, san, si) as students from all over China did whenever they ran in groups. Sometimes the wind would blow the sands into our eyes, and every time we came near the restroom we had to hold our breaths for a few seconds while running.
The run would last 10 to 15 minutes before the students entered their classrooms for the morning reading period. Such a reading period is common in Chinese schools. Students would read aloud Chinese and even some English passages to help memorize them. However, in China, due to the emphasis on collectivism, students often read in unison, and listening to the students of Xiaojiao read their passages was extremely painful, for the kids read in intentionally protracted voices. They were clearly not thinking about the meaning of what they were reading; they were simply trying to follow along. I recalled having read like that only when I was in first and second grade of elementary school, but here, even in ninth grade, students constantly employed such inefficient study methods. The struggle of the morning reading period was only the tip of the iceberg.
It was in Xiaojiao Middle School that I, a student from one of the best high schools in Beijing, realized how students could actually struggle with basics in subjects like Chinese and math. Most students’ Chinese compositions were a horror to read. It was difficult to imagine any writing that was more drab, clichéd, and, above all, soulless than the writings of the Xiaojiao students (I saw similar writings a year later when I visited another school in rural Hebei Province.) The students were not writing about their own thoughts; they were merely trying to copy a dogmatic format that did not belong to them, and, what was worse, most of them were poor copycats. It was not just a creativity or imagination problem; instead, they did not seem to possess the language to assist them in independent thinking.
Tutoring students in Xiaojiao was radically different from helping my classmates in Beijing because of how much they were not taught. To explain a simple math problem, I often had to spend most of my time explaining extremely basic concepts, which the students struggled to understand, and a brief look at the grade report of the students confirmed the vacuum in their knowledge. Decent scores that fell within the Chinese A range (around 85% to 90%) were quite few, and many students were battling to get a passing grade (60%). Only 10% of the students would be able to attend a high school through the province-wide High School Entrance Examination, a junior version of the Gaokao (The College Entrance Examination). Most of the other students would try finding work in the cities, not just because they did not learn enough to score well in the tests, but also because, for them and their families, earning money, with its short run benefits, was more important than receiving more education, which only promised a slight chance at long term success.
Despite the desperate situations in the school, the presence of the school itself was nothing short of a miracle. Just a few years ago some school leaders had had to go door to door within the radius the school’s coverage area and try their best to convince rural families that education mattered. In rural China, such schools often cover a large radius, and going door to door in that mountainous region must have been difficult to manage. Because of the terrain, most of the students lived in the school’s dormitories, their homes far away. 700 were crammed into a building designed for 400. They had the chance to go home only once every other week, and the trip home often involved walking on a narrow two-lane mountain road with coal-carrying trucks roaring by. Even inside the schoolyard, students could hear the passing of trains transporting coal every five to ten minutes. Sadly, it was easier to imagine the boys eventually driving the coal trucks than staying in school.
Besides living in the dorms of Xiaojiao Middle School and observing life in the school, I also spent a good part of the week teaching in Xiaojiao Elementary School, which was a fifteen minutes’ walk away, on a dirt road littered with trash and sheep dung. While the environment was quite decent for a rural school (at least each boarding student had one bed), the school was severely understaffed. Most teachers had to teach multiple subjects, which meant that many of them taught subjects they were not familiar with. In the fifth grade class that I taught, the English teacher, a young, dark-skinned woman in her 20s, was a math major in college, and despite her devotion to the class, she couldn’t really teach English. She listened to my first English class, in which I taught English pronunciation and some basic vocabulary. At some points, a number of students would turn back and look at their own teacher, suggesting a contradiction between our teachings. I felt tense because the last thing I wanted to do during that short week was make the students lose faith in their own teachers, but such clashes were unavoidable when the teacher did not even know the past tense and past participle of the verb “draw” or the correct pronunciations of simple words, and struggled with the listening exercises in the textbook. In the second and third English classes I taught, the English teacher did not sit at the back, and everyone was relieved. The students were enthusiastic to learn from a Beijing high school student who had actually studied in America before, and I taught with a passion that I had never known existed in me. I doubt that the knowledge they gained would stick for long, and maybe the time would have been better spent preparing them for the next test. Yet I think the experience was beneficial, to the students and to me. I think it is crucial, and highly commendable, that people invest time and effort in teaching these children, and being there to guide them. Staying with the children required much sacrifice, for the young teachers had to forgo their personal lives and opportunities for better pay.
In China, many students like me go on such volunteer teaching trips, and such trips often change the way we view Chinese society, but to varying degrees. Most people would go back to the cities thinking there’s nothing we can do. As of now, they are probably right.
Coming up next: Part III, on the reasons for desperation
Yifu Dong ’17 is in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.