Inextinguishable lights in China's ever progressive rural education
At 5am on a weekend, an old man comes to a rural classroom with a tile roof, and bends over a desk to prepare a bunch of handwriting worksheets for children.
After placing the worksheets neatly on each student's desk, he moves slowly toward the blackboard, his back bent with age. It usually takes him about one hour to write across the board with chalk, a job that a young teacher would finish in less than half an hour. The words and sentences he writes in careful strokes are to be taught in a full three-hour English class in the morning.
"He's so devoted that he never stops to drink water during the lengthy lectures," Yang Hongyan, a former student of the old teacher, recalled in a recent interview with China's state broadcaster CCTV.
I sometimes teach a graduate course on writing, so I know how difficult it is to give a three-hour lecture without a break, even for a young or middle-aged teacher. And to think that the old teacher gets up at early dawn to make his classroom welcoming for the students who only arrive much later.
For 23 years, 95-year-old Ye Lianping, a retired rural teacher, has spent most weekends teaching kids English, a subject in China's national college entrance examination, or gaokao. Most of his students are "left-behind" children, whose parents work in big cities all year round. As Ye has found out, many rural kids are poor at English partly due to a lack of good grassroots teachers.
Ye used to teach Chinese before he retired at the age of 63 in 1991. After a few years' adjustment to life in retirement, he decided to teach rural kids English, taking advantage of the English skill he learned while doing odd jobs at the United States embassy in Nanjing in the 1940s. He's especially good at spoken English.
"An apple is for you."
"He walked around the city to look for a warm room."
"B-e-s-i-d-e, b-e-f-o-r-e, b-e-h-i-n-d."
Each time I listen to him reading a sentence or a word clearly and loudly ― in videos recently released by Xinhua news agency and several other media outlets ― I feel his passion for the rural kids.
"I love the kids, but I don't spoil them," Ye said in an interview with CCTV. "Without love, you can't be a good teacher."
Teaching for free
For quite some time over the past two decades, weekend tutoring was a big business, but Ye has taught rural kids English for free since 2000, when he launched the "home for left-behind children" in Buchen Village, Anhui Province.
At first, he adapted his dilapidated house ― a bungalow built 30 years ago ― into a temporary classroom, where students would sit on small stools. As more and more students came, however, the village refurbished a school warehouse across the street from his home, creating a better classroom and a separate library.
Asked why he teaches for free, he retorted: "Does money matter? I have my pension, and that's enough for my life ― I don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke, I don't even eat snacks."
His younger sister, who is in her 80s, gave him a cotton shirt 60 years ago. He still wears it today, though it's already tattered. The pointer stick he uses in the classroom is made from a broken badminton racket. And for a long time, a bicycle was all he had for transportation. He even rode a bicycle to Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, a city 70 kilometers from his village.
Thus has the old man simplified his life. At the same time, he provides food and shelter for students who live far away. The above-mentioned Yang Hongyan, for example, once lived at Ye's home for three years to study English and other subjects. Ye and his wife took good care of the girl and turned down the offer by the girl's parents to cover some of her living costs.
When Yang was admitted by a city college in Anhui in 2003, her parents were working away from home. It was old Ye who accompanied her all the way to the college.
"When he was ready to go back, public transportation services were closed, and I learned later that he had slept under a bridge that night (to save lodging expenses)," Yang recalled in tears.
In 2012, Ye donated some of his savings to create an education fund for rural kids, along with the help of local society. So far, he has spent nearly all his savings ― about 300,000 yuan (US$42,000) ― to help rural students learn and grow.
"I hope I can breathe my last breath on the (class) podium, not in bed," Ye says. "How I hope I could live 20 more years!"
Ye is one of the country's 2.9 million rural teachers who, faced with the compulsory education need of 12 million "left-behind children," work as hard as they can despite a lack of material comfort. Certainly, rural teachers' pay will go up over time, but Ye's story reminds us that love matters more in education, especially in a rural environment.
Teaching with courage
In many ways, love is inseparable from courage. Without courage to sacrifice one's own interests for the benefit of others, one cannot be said to have love. While Ye courageously embraces simple living so that he can spend money on his students, Nong Jiagui, a middle-aged rural teacher, demonstrates courage and love in a different way.
Thirty-seven years ago, he became the first and only teacher to stay in a mountainous village where leprosy patients were treated in isolation. The village, which had no name then, was created in 1957 for effective treatment and containment of the disease.
According to the World Health Organization, leprosy predominantly affects the skin and peripheral nerves. Left untreated, the disease may cause progressive and permanent disabilities. The disease is transmitted through droplets from the nose and mouth, not through casual contact with a person who has leprosy like shaking hands or hugging, sharing meals or sitting next to each other. Moreover, patients stop transmitting the disease when they begin treatment.
But in 1986, many people in rural Yunnan Province, where the "leprosy village" was tucked away in a mountainous region, didn't quite understand the disease. When 19-year-old Nong was offered a chance to teach in that nameless village, about 10 kilometers from his own village, he hesitated.
"But I decided to stay as soon as I saw the earnest eyes of those little children, led by their disabled parents," Nong recalled in an interview with Xinhua news agency earlier this year. Moreover, local doctors told Nong that all the kids were healthy, and that he could wash his hands with alcohol to minimize the risk of transmission.
Despite lingering fears about the disease, Nong stayed. Every morning, he got up early to prepare breakfast for kids. After meal time, he would busily rotate between different classes, teaching maths, Chinese and science, among other subjects, because he was the only primary school teacher until 2020, when a young teacher good at English and certain other subjects joined him.
For Nong as well as for the whole "leprosy village," 1992 was a landmark year. Local medical authorities announced the end of leprosy and the village finally opened to the outside world. At the same time, Nong's pupils who had completed six years of compulsory primary education all graduated with excellent marks, far above those required for admission into urban high schools. His persistence paid off.
What if Nong had refused to settle in the "leprosy village" on day one? Where would those kids be today? Now, 37 years have passed, and Nong has enabled 110 village kids to receive higher education outside the mountainous village in the southwestern province. Many of his pupils have become teachers, police officers and public servants.
Ye humbly calls himself "at most a small firefly." But in the eyes of many, both he and Nong are inextinguishable lights in China's ever progressive rural education.