Fifth Grade Again!

Written by Pat Yang, translated by Xiaomei Li & Robin Tang

Zhuanjiao School in the Yellow Highlands

Lü-liang is among the poorest districts in Shanxi province. In the Japanese invasion era, it was an area where guerrillas fought fiercely against Japanese invaders. A famous movie called “Heroes of Lü-liang” was based on true stories of that era. Many villagers were killed by the Japanese troops, and some villages were burned down completely. The history of Lü-liang’s Shilou district was dated back some 5000 years ago. The discoveries of Shang Dynasty ruins lead to the belief that wide forests and thick green glass used to cover the area.

In 2003, Zigen started a long-term teaching assistance program in Shilou district. The first time I visited there was in 2004. It was late spring, but all I could see was mountains of yellow earth without a ray of green. Only at the corners of the cove houses where locals lived I saw some pink cherry blossoms. There were the cheerful colors of the spring. Farmers who lived up in the yellow highlands had to fetch water from the valleys. The trip would take more than an hour. Generations of farmers had fought hard to dig up every inch of farmable land in this very dry yellow earth. We were deeply touched by the locals’ spirits and persistence, and respect them highly for making a living despite of all the harsh conditions. Since then I visited Shilou often but I had not had the opportunity to visit the Zhuanjiao Village and the Zhuanjiao School until 2007. I accompanied Ms. Christine Choy, who was the director of film department at New York University, and the TV crews from Shanghai. Our mission was to make a documentary film about village education. I finally had the chance to visit the children and villagers at Zhuanjiao Village, especially the highly respectful village chief.

An 11-year-old Who Lived Away from His Parents

Wu Yunshan was an 11-year-old kid who lived in the Zhuanjiao Village. But because there was no fifth grade in the Zhuanjiao School, he had to ride a bus for more than an hour, or to walk 3 hours to get to the Central School for attending 5th grade. There were 8 kids with similar situations and they all had to live far away from their parents, homes, relatives in order to attend school. They only got to go home on weekends. To make matters worse, there was no dorm at Central School. Kids had to stay in local farming houses. Twenty kids were packed into two rooms. Meals were served twice a day with only cabbages and noodles. They got nowhere to go but to stay in school studying all day.

We visited the parents of Wu Yunshang. They were very worried about their son being far away. The boarding cost of 1200 RMB per year was a heavy burden on the family. Their two elder sons, aged 13 and 15, had to drop out of school before junior high and started working. They washed dishes, swept floors at restaurants, and sent all hard-earned money home. Getting a good education for Wu Yunshan was the biggest hope for the entire family.

The father Wu Qing hurt his back while he worked outside of the village, so he had to come back and farmed at home. Wu Qing was a talented man and an excellent singer of Shanxi folk songs. He sang all the time at work. In his lyrics the thousand-year-old yellow earth came alive:

Yellow Highlands Stretch, Thirty Miles Long. Yellow River Runs On, With no ends at Sight.

The School without 5th Grade and the Young Substitute Teacher

With yellow highlands in its back and Yellow River at its foot, the Zhuanjiao Village is an ancient town with a thousand years history. Across the Yellow River is the north Shaanxi province. Vast desolate lands are visible in both river banks. It was said that Mao Zedong’s famous poem “Snow” (Thousand Miles of Frozen Lands; Tens of Thousands of Snow Flakes) was written right here across the river, when the Long March army reached Shaanxi. There used to be 5th grade and junior high in the Zhuanjiao School. Junior high was stopped years ago. Later the 5th grade was cancelled due to program re-arrangements in the school system. As a result the Zhuanjiao School had only 1-4th grades, with over 30 students, and one female substitute teacher.

I was surprised to find out that this young teacher was one of the Zigen sponsored students. She became a substitute teacher after graduating from normal university. Her salary was only 150 RMB, a fifth of what a normal teacher would make. The village gave her 9 red date trees as complimentary. But the red date trees had poor harvest for 5 straight years and she could only live on her little income. She said to me: “I love the kids here dearly. I am very thankful to the village chief Mr. Wu. He has done all he can for the school. My salary is so low and the place is so remote. Many times I thought of giving up. But the kids and Mr. Wu kept me stay year after year.”

High-Interest Loans and Secretary Wu

Secretary Wu was the head of Zhuanjiao Village, as well as the Party Secretary. The thing that made him the happiest was the education of the village’s children. But the schoolhouse had fallen into disrepair and was practically a hazard – the windows had no glass, there was no teacher’s room, and the ground was covered with water. Secretary Wu had two great hopes: first, to improve basic teaching conditions, and second, to see the school become able to teach the fifth grade.

“Because we don’t teach the fifth grade, children have to travel a great distance to a central school to attend it, and many parents have had to move away from the village – more than 30 at this point. As a result, the student body is withering, and a village that has neither a school nor children does not have life.” To repair the classroom, Secretary Wu borrowed money everywhere with high interest, but could not pay back. Debt collectors came by his house frequently. He received a visit from one impatient collector during one of my short conversations with him. With her eyes full of tears, his wife told me, “He does everything for this school. Our child gave me 200 yuan to see a doctor, he ‘stole’ the money to buy glass for the school. My whole body is sick to the point where I can’t go out and find work or support myself.”

While living in Secretary Wu’s cave home beside the Yellow River, I noticed a photograph of a young man on the wall that appeared to have been recently hung. Only later did I learn that it was Secretary Wu’s younger brother, who had died only three months before. He had been buried alive while digging gravel; he was only 30.

Sitting on the banks of the Yellow River one day, Secretary Wu said to me, “Our lives here are very sad – for nearly fifty years we haven’t had a harvest of red dates. Education is the foundation. In this age of technology, everything requires education. It is like raising a mighty building without laying a strong foundation; you have nothing. At the very least we must have a fifth grade. If children can at least graduate from the fifth grade before going to the central school, their parents will not have to worry.” Looking at his face, weary from hardship but with eyes sparkling with intelligence, I saw that he was truly the one to lead the rebuilding of Zhuanjiao Village.

They Had No Other Choice

Parents who had moved to live near the central school so that their children could study told me, “School fees require money, renting a room requires money, every single thing requires money. At least at home we can plant, but here we can’t do anything. Without money, we can only get further into debt.” The five families I interviewed were all in debt. The fathers were unable to find safe work and could only turn to the coal mines. They understood the danger clearly – they knew they might pay with their lives – but for their children to study, they had no other choice.

Back in Zhuanjiao Village, in his cave home on the loess plateau, I interviewed Wang Yong, a villager. His elderly mother sat on her straw beds, straining to listen to our conversation as she repaired shoes. When I asked him what he considered to be the happiest and saddest things in the world, he responded, “The happiest things are my three sons, whom I have watched grow up swimming and studying here beside the Yellow River. But the saddest things are also these three children, because I can’t send them to middle school.”

Finally Gets a Fifth Grade

These villagers – living on the hardscrabble earth for countless generations with their faces to the Yellow River and their backs to the loess plateau – desired above all else for their children to have an education and through that education to break free from poverty. For Secretary Wu and the villagers, that meant having a school that could teach the fifth grade. Without the fifth grade, the parents of fourth- and third-graders would have to move away, and Zhuanjiao Village’s school would be unable to support itself.

Without a school, there would be no children, and without children, Zhuanjiao Village would lose its very soul. After leaving Zhuanjiao Village, I received a phone call and letter from Secretary Wu asking if Zigen would support them in creating a fifth grade. After discussions with Zou Junyuan, principal for 20 schools, and extensive conversations with the Ministry of Education, I understood that a school must do the following to have a fifth grade: first, it must add three teachers; second, it must raise wages; and third, it must add classrooms. If a school could do these three basic things, it could teach the fifth grade. The Zigen Board agreed to help Zhuanjiao Village with its needs.

In 2008, when I next returned to Zhuanjiao, the school not only restored the fifth grade, also had 6th grade. The student body had doubled, classes on rural culture had been added to the curriculum, and folk dance and choir groups had been started. In fact, Wu Yunshan’s father was the folk dance teacher; the school loved his liveliness. Wu Yunshan himself had returned to Zhuanjiao Village and had completed the fifth grade.

Epilogue

Fifth Grade Again was completed in 2008 and shown on Shanghai television, as well as many universities and communities in the United States and China. It brought to life Zhuanjiao Village’s natural beauty, as well as its villagers, students, and teachers, and left its mark in the hearts of many. Unfortunately, after leaving home for the county capital to attend middle school, like so many other students Wu Yunshan stopped school in the eighth grade to follow his older brother into the destiny of a working child.