Education Inequity: The Village in the Valley

“Basically, it’s kind of like this for teachers: Your scores suck, they move you to a less ideal situation. So, let’s say you end up at one of the top schools in the capital, but you can’t hang. They’ll put you just outside the city where the classes might be bigger, the kids might be tougher, and your life will just be generally more inconvenient. Let’s say you screw it up again. You can’t improve the scores at that school either. They’ll move you further out, to kids with fewer prospects, and you might be a bus ride or two away from the city. The process repeats itself, until you’re the only teacher in the little village at the crest of the mountain, where everyone speaks deep dialect, the kids will never ever leave, you’re getting some rice and a piece of hog fat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re two days down a rocky, windy, fog-shrouded, vomit-inducing mountain road from anything that resembles your old life.”

Kind of like the English professional soccer system, I thought.

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“Shit. So what happens when you screw it up at that school?”

“They just kill you. Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably get your wits about you and get yourself out. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just stay at that school forever.”

“So, essentially, if you’re a bad teacher, your punishment is to go teach where they need good teachers more than anything.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.”

“Man. That is fucked.”

“Such is the world we live in, no?”

I’m reclined under a bunch of palm trees in a tiny village in a valley. A mango tree peeks out from behind the palm fronds. Every once in a while a ripe green mango will thud to the ground. It’s sticky, sultry out here. The kind of hot that makes you think of porches and fans. Mr. Peng is about 5’1” with a frame of ample proportions. He’s got that kind of roly-poly physique that you can tell is a product of lifelong consumption of naturally delicious food—fresh mangoes, house-raised chickens, and lots and lots of rice. Mr. Peng’s largesse did not come from empty factory calories that maneuvered their way into all kinds of weird places and make the body look like some sort of depressed dumping ground for preservatives. He actually looks strikingly like the Buddha around his neck, but with a beautifully full head of black hair.

Mr. Peng and his wife are teachers at the middle school here in the village. They also run the local hotel, which is across a concrete parking lot from where we sit, eating fallen mangos, bayberries, and drinking some kind of mysterious booze that tastes like a mixture of nail polish remover, rice crispies, and urine. Or what I assume those things taste like. Mr. Peng’s family is obviously quite wealthy for this town. He shows me some pictures of his mother and father in-law on vacation in Singapore and France with one of those flag-waving tour groups. People here do not go to France.

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A nearby village across the Yangtze

Being a teacher in the village is backbreaking, he says. More than anything else, it’s the constant perception of hopelessness. Daily hopelessness mixed with long-term hopelessness. There are 1500 students at the middle school and 81 teachers. At first glance, that might not seem so crazy. We love the “student-teacher” ratio metric, and 18.5-1 isn’t all that bad. Keep in mind though, that “teacher” means a lot more than “teacher.” Responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom, in both a literal and abstract sense. These “teachers” are also security guards, administrators, and, ostensibly, parents. In that regard, 18.5-1 is actually insane.

Mr. Peng says his students are always fighting, “falling in love,” and smoking and drinking on campus. What can we do, he says. There aren’t enough of us. He consistently laments problems of space. The next morning, he takes me to the school.

“This is where the basketball court used to be.” He says, pointing to a pile of rocks and dust awaiting construction. “I can’t imagine there’s another middle school in all of Yunnan without a damn basketball court. How do you think that affects the kids? Why do you think they’re fighting and sneaking off with their girlfriends and boyfriends between periods and during class?” He looks at the rubble, slides a rock under his foot, and shakes his head. “But what can you do?”

The school is actually pretty peaceful, kind of pastoral. One might even call it serene. The plants are well manicured, and though there is that omnipresent construction of modern China, there aren’t really any big machines. Just a few guys in reed hats squatting around some craggy looking tools. It’s the weekend, after all. No one here but these workers and a few teachers assigned to “guard” the school until Monday. The buildings are stacked almost literally one on top of another.

Mr. Peng passes into the courtyard. “Last year when the education bureau came, the school picked a few teachers and told them what to say. The rest of us not to say anything. That was really difficult for me. But, they came back a few months ago and the school didn’t say anything. I took the chief aside to look at this passageway. It’s the only one that leads from the courtyard and the classrooms to the cafeteria.” He motions to a footpath between two buildings the width of maybe two-and-a-half average-sized doorways.

“1500 students.” That’s all he says and I understand. “And the chief was surprised, and a little shocked. But he really cared. A couple weeks later they made another passageway over on the other side. Everyone felt a lot more at ease after that.”

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Me and some students

We walk around the grounds. The school is nice, it really is. It doesn’t have that run-down one-room schoolhouse feel that one might want to associate with a “poor” school. Mr. Peng tells me that the situation is pretty awful for the students. Students spend three years to complete middle school in China. At the end there’s a test that decides whether they’ll go to the next level. Mr. Peng says that the amount of year three students is about half that of year one students. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means. Of that number, he says perhaps 40% will pass the test to go to high school. So, maybe a quarter of the ones that started will continue–to high school, that is.

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Gao Fu Cai with his pet goat

“English is the biggest problem.” English is historically given the same weight as Mandarin and math on both the high school and college entrance tests. There are very few countries that do this—treat foreign language like a core subject— and there are certainly a vast array of countries with infrastructure better suited to such a heavy emphasis on foreign language. For starters, the other language on the test—Mandarin—is more often than not basically a second or third language as it is. As I see it, the prominence of English is the single biggest flaw in the current system—the biggest contributor to inequity, but is, fortunately, slowly being changed. “Many of the kids just lie on the desks during class. What else can they do? They have to study English, but there is really no one to teach them. The English teachers, they work hard, but they don’t speak English. If they were here today—the kids—you’d be the first English speaker they’d ever met.”

Just think about that for a minute. That’s like trying to learn math from someone who doesn’t know the times tables. It’s not the teacher’s fault, though. They surely want nothing more than for someone to teach them how to speak better English. Compare and contrast with the big cities on the east side of the country, where there are armies of well-trained local teachers and plenty of foreigners ready to do the job. Mr. Peng said the highest English score at the Middle School last year was 82%. I cannot imagine what that kid did to get to 82%.

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There is an assumed inherent “fairness” in this system of standardized tests—in ours too. In any system with standardized testing. The wealthy kid in the city is getting the same questions as the poor farmer’s daughter. But, it’s not about the questions. The same question, of course, may mean very different things to you and I. The paths we take toward gaining proficiency to answer that question will certainly be wildly different. The test may not be designed to be unfair, but it will become unfair as time goes on. Same with the American system of loading up on extra-currics and being “well-rounded.” The system may not be designed to be unfair, but those with the ability and resources can make the system work for them. If tomorrow, by some glitch in the structure, the world’s most prestigious and lucrative job became car-washer, by the end of the next few decades, the next generation of car-washers would be, on the whole, minted from the upper reaches of society. It will always be that way unless the world really changes or something.

You can make your changes at the climax of the system. You can try to change the end results by changing the ­end result. But, frankly that is some stupid, stupid stuff. The end result is a framework for how best to prepare. You don’t level the playing field when the game is over, you know.

Education inequity is not something I think that much about. It doesn’t rule my life. I am a teacher at a school. I have to plan classes and grade homework. But, I do think about it sometimes. And, as a teacher, it is almost inconceivably sad.

I think that many people in positions of influence, wealth, privilege etc. hold, consciously or not, a feeling that those on the underside of the coin are somehow not entirely self-aware of their condition. This provides, again consciously or not, an alleviation of responsibility and guilt. This is super dangerous. It is the act of confusing disenfranchisement, voicelessness, and cyclical inequity with ignorance. And it is simply untrue. The moment where Mr. Peng was unable to talk about the problems at the Middle School was a rather in-your-face example of this. But, it’s all around. And the most voiceless in any society are kids. They are also the most impressionable, the most malleable. They are far and away the most prescient “return on investment.” If you want to change the flow of the cycle, school is really the only place to start. That is, of course, if you want to change it.

The strongest impression that I get whenever I think about inequality in education is pure and utter, purely, utterly pervasive faultlessness. It’s like a Syrian civilian whose bombed out house happened to be trapped in the middle of an ideological civil war or a poor Bangladeshi farmer whose home and livelihood has been washed away as an abstract upshot of far-off and endless industrial revolutions. There is nothing they can do. In fact, there is nothing they could do. It is not that they are not aware; it is that they are not allowed to speak. My students can study hard–that will improve their chances. It really will. Their situation is by no means hopeless. They can beat the odds. But there’s nothing they can do now about all the developmental landmines they’ll come across. Surely, that’s a responsibility that falls elsewhere.

“So that’s the school.” Mr. Peng notes as we leave through the gate. “What do you think?”

“Hard to say. I mean I understand everything you said. But, as a school, it looks nice.“

“It does look nice, doesn’t it.”

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Old People and Young People

I’m sitting casually on the steps to the speaking platform/flagpole at Sanzhuang. It’s a clear, bright blue day as always. On the step above me is Zhang Jin Wei, a sixth grader who I taught as a fifth grader. Zhang Jin Wei’s body’s too big for him, but he’s too young for his age. He has a lego-head-shaped-head—and a haircut that almost makes you think he might be balding, even though you know it’s biologically out of the question. He’s profoundly awkward—a characteristic alive and well in each and every sixth grader, past, present, and future. He talks in spurts, his speech moving not in step with neural synapses, but the rapid thump of his circulatory system. In short, he’s a kid. But, Zhang Jin Wei is also a profoundly smart kid. In a class dominated by intelligent and focused girls, he’s the only boy that even cracks the top ten.

He seems to search for an out of our conversation before it even begins.

“Zhang Jin Wei, did you have any problems with your research?” I’m asking about our CORE project. It’s his third year with the project.

For anyone who might not know, CORE is an uncertain acronym, but the generally accepted iteration is Community, Outreach, Rediscovery and Engagement. It’s a project started five years ago by Teach for China fellows in the Heqing region. The goal is to connect kids with their homes in new ways and try to lead them toward thinking about how to improve their villages without sacrificing the things they love about their villages. Over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of RMB and given winning teams a chance to go to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. This year, the theme is Old and New. Students were asked to go into their towns and compare old and new methods of doing things and think about what the development has meant. For example, a washboard vs. a washing machine or traditional Chinese medicine vs. modern “Western” medicine.

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Zhang Jin Wei dances around my question.

“Well, there was, I mean, there was one, there was one time we couldn’t get information.”

“That’s normal. What happened? Maybe I can give you some resources.”

“Well it was during the interview. We had to interview people, right?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t find anyone? You can always find someone. They don’t have to be an expert.”

“No, not like that. We, we, found a guy. This old guy in the village who knew about Chinese medicine.”

“That’s a good one!”

“Well, not really.” He struggles through a laugh. “We went to his house, you know, on Sunday afternoon. And we knocked on the door and opened the gate. ‘What is it? Who are you?’ he said. And we told him that, you know, we were there to interview him like we planned the other day. He said OK, he remembered. He said that he just wanted to finish watching a history soap opera and he would come speak with us. He said he’d be done 马上 (ma shang).”

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马上 (ma shang) is the most deceptively deployed word in Heqing, and I’m led to imagine other parts of China, too. The word literally means “On a horse’s back.” It apparently originates from the Warring States Periods of Ancient China. A messenger approached one kingdom’s general with news that one of its strongholds was under attack. The general, who had been doing training exercises with his troops, replied 马上 (ma shang), implying that he and his men would not leave their horses’ backs, but proceed immediately to battle. Or something like that. 马上 (ma shang), of course, implies immediacy. ‘I’m on the horse. Let’s do this thing.’ But, it’s usually used like this: ‘Sure, I’m on a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. I’m just going to hang out on the horse for a little while.’ The most flagrant abusers of 马上(ma shang), are, of course, 面包车 (mian bao che) drivers. These guys drive van cabs. 马上(ma shang) is their natural, knee-jerk reaction to the question, “When are we leaving?” or “Are we there yet?” or “Where are we going?”

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Zhang Jin Wei continues, “Well. We waited like 30 minutes at his door and we went in to check if his show had finished.”

“Were you nervous?”

“A little, yeah. But, we waited 30 minutes. I thought he was probably sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the news. We asked if we could do the interview. He said 马上 (ma shang). He just wanted to finish watching the news and he would come find us. He told us to go outside. Then, like 15 minutes later we checked again—because he didn’t come out. This time he wasn’t even watching the news! He was watching a show about 象棋 (xiang chee—‘chess’)! And Zhang Run Jing asked him if he could do the interview and he said maybe now is not a good time. He was going to go take a nap and we should go away because he had to take a nap.”

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Naptime, bitches. 

“Wow! That’s difficult. Doesn’t sound like fun. What did you do?”

“Well. We decided that there are three places to get information: Old people, books, and computers. And Zhang Run Jing, he has a computer. So, we just looked up the answers online. We found them pretty 马上 (ma shang).”

Over-Resourced: Why People are Always more Important than Things

The first time I realized teaching might be hard: Four of five minutes in to my first class. It was a beautiful September morning. I took my PE class down to the basketball court. I hadn’t intended to teach PE, but the school compelled me to. The night before, I decided I’d teach them how to play knockout—a favorite (and simple) childhood game. Sanzhuang had a pretty nice basketball court—which has since become an absurdly nice basketball court. We had basketballs. The weather was nice. What a perfect moment for throwing orange spheres into orange rings. But, by the time I’d assembled all of my students in a long, wending procession starting at the foul line, I became aware of a problem. I had no idea how to teach the game. Especially not in Mandarin. The students awkwardly rocketed balls off the backboard for about a minute before I told them to just do what they wished with the rest of PE class. Some of the boys continued tossing around basketballs, but most kids just sat on benches doing nothing.

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Basketball Court

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Assembling the basketball court

The school I work at is far from short on resources. Read that again. We may be located in one of the poorer parts of Asia, the students themselves may not come from propitious beginnings, nor is there any semblance of a service economy. Agriculture is still the unchallenged reality for most everyone. Those who do not ascribe to that reality will almost certainly leave. But, the school is different. We have a… deep breath, brand new basketball court—the nicest in the county. Deeper breath… there’s a just laid 100-meter strip, a PE room with all the stuff you’d expect to find in the American iteration, plus some swords and a lot more shuttlecocks, a room full of like, 30 computers, a to-the-touch whiteboard and speakers in each classroom, plenty of printers, a spotless and stocked cafeteria, a high-quality security system with 16 color cameras, a slew of drums and trumpets, a campus environment that looks more like a botanical hyper-Zen garden than a school, an art room with easels, Wi-Fi everywhere, a washer machine, and a fully outfitted experiment room—beakers, sinks, Bunsen burners.

Well, that last one is only hearsay. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it’s ever actually been open. Here’s the thing: Almost none of this means anything. If you sat Ben Franklin—widely considered intelligent by scholars—down in a room with a switched off laptop and a stable Internet connection and said go, what would happen? Probably not much. If you put 10-year-old LeBron on a court with a ball and said go, what would happen? If you threw a youthful Pierre and Marie into a room full of radioactive shit (shit: to be read as a synonym for things), beakers, and Bunsen burners, what would happen? Probably something less than ideal. If you put a bunch of super-intelligent, highly trained and motivated men in suits in a roomful of screens, tickers, and phones, what would happen? Well… never mind.

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Radioactive disaster

At first thought, one may be tempted to conceive their image of a rural school with an eye on things. Ruddy-faced kids wearing tattered up clothes. Scuffed chalkboards. Bowls full of nothing more than rice and watery broth. Maybe some roosters clucking somewhere. And, for some reason, always early morning fog. And, one wouldn’t be wrong. There are thousands of schools that fit that formula. And, I suppose that’s where paradigms are made. But, Sanzhuang isn’t one of them.

There are advantages to nice things. First, they look nice. They make for a comfortable environment and win approval from visitors. Second, they add to GDP. Sure, it’s true in a macro sense, but microeconomically speaking, local businesses are getting money and jobs are being created. And everybody loves jobs. I don’t mean that business thing in a cynical way here, but perhaps you can read between the lines and see how it might be a problem. Third, in many cases if you don’t have them—things, you can’t do stuff that you’d like to do. And, in most cases, they will at the very least “improve the experience” above things of less nice quality.

But, things don’t mean anything, especially to a school, if no one knows how to use them. This is not a gripe against my school. What Principal Yang has pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. The renovation undertook at Sanzhaung since I arrived in summer 2013 is stunning. What’s more, it’s not like Principal Yang or our administrators really have a choice. All these things are way, way, way easier to acquire than people who know how to use them. But, an Olympic swimming pool won’t do you much good if you don’t have a guy on the side telling the kids not to inhale under the surface.

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100-meter strip

The reason I think this might be hard to grasp, at first thought, is that the two notions tend to go hand in hand. MIT probably has really great things and really high-paid expert types. Your local CC probably doesn’t. And all the way down the line to preschool. Reasons for this: quality people are attracted to quality things and quality paychecks and in a weird way, vice-versa. People generally stay in or near the communities in which they were raised. But, now I find myself in a strange situation. We (really, truly) have everything we need and more. Education spending in Heqing County makes education spending in the States, in proportion, look like a sad joke. But, no one knows what to do with it all.

When I was a kid, our (public) school had an art teacher, a PE teacher, a music teacher, a separate guy for band, a computer teacher, a speech coach, a whole Special Ed staff, a teacher for “gifted” students, a school nurse, a science teacher, and a group of administrators whose job description certainly did not include time in front of a class. If you are a teacher at Sanzhuang, you are literally expected to be all of those things (plus surrogate parent). Yes, I have seen teachers help students administer IV drips.

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computers

Oh, and in addition to the above responsibilities, you’ll have to teach one or two of math, Chinese, and English. And those are the only classes that actually matter. But, still do your best with the music, and the Special Ed, and the needles. I mean, can you comprehend the burden that would be required to even remotely execute the wearing of all of those hats?

And this is the genesis of unfairness in education. It’s really not a tangible resource gap—although in some situations it truly might be—, the resource gap is demonstrably easier to bridge. It’s a people gap. Again, there are reasons for this. The school’s location might be part of it. It’s in a historically poor area. The teachers it recruits will likely be from the area and have limited education. Those who do make it out, will probably teach in the city somewhere. But, that’s a lame excuse, because I frankly do not see much difference in ability and motivation between the teachers at Sanzhuang and the ones in Sherman, CT. They are both excellent.

At the end of the day, it’s a lack of specialization, training, people, and all the stuff that goes into giving those people what they need to succeed—the intangible stuff, that is. There was a teacher at our school last year named (surprise, surprise) Mr. Yang. He was 28-years-old—the youngest local teacher. He was a talented singer and usually sang the national anthem at all of our school events. Mr. Yang was an incessant complainer. From the day he arrived, it seemed like he always had something to be pissed off about. His third-grade class did poorly—worst in the school. We were friends. One day, I was in the passenger’s seat of his car, driving to a wedding. He seemed typically peeved. I told him, seriously:

“Dude, you’re kind of a downer sometimes.”

“What? Me? Come on?” He chuckled, agreeing.

“Do you not like Sanzhuang?”

“Not so much.”

“Why? It’s a great school? Beautiful, comfortable.”

“They tricked me! That’s why.”

“Who?”

“The school. They didn’t say I was going to be a homeroom teacher teaching English and Chinese and all the other stuff. They said I was going to be a music teacher, specifically and only a music teacher.”

“Really? That’s what you thought you were going to be?”

“Yeah, of course! That’s what I’m trained to do. And now I’m a homeroom teacher and I get to sing the damn national anthem sometimes.”

This is not the school’s fault, mind you. They needed someone to teach Chinese and English to 35 nine-year-olds. Mr. Yang, for his part, is now at a different school—still teaching all the other stuff.

Nowhere is this people problem more glaring than in the discipline of English—a mandatory subject for all pupils in the People’s Republic. English learning begins at Grade 3 here. A majority of local English teachers teach the subject like this: They take a tape, put it in a tape recorder, let it play, and tell the kids to repeat after it. Whether you do this on a tape recorder, a CD player, or through an HD digital recording—that is to say, regardless of what things you have—the effect is, as it were, 差不多 (more or less). On the day I arrived in Sanzhuang, I had this exchange with the local English teacher.

“How are you?”

“Oh, sorry. My English is not good. We can use Mandarin, please.”

She was trained to be an English teacher, and though she is a vastly superior teacher to me, she cannot speak English. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to do long division without actually knowing how to do it yourself? Then, even if you did know it, not being trained to teach it—like me in my first PE class.

I reieterate. This is not our fault. There are only so many hats one can throw on before they start sliding off of each other. That teacher is now a Chinese teacher, by the way.

Recently, my Principal has been dropping some hints, saying things like “Don’t forget that this will always be your school,” or more blatantly, “When you get rich, you gonna hook us up or what?” or less optimistically for me, “How about that friend of yours, the boss, speak to him lately?” He asked about the boss so many times, that I finally fibbed,

“Yeah. I did. He said he had visited many schools in Heqing and there were many that need much more attention than ours. If anything, he said maybe he would give some cash for training.”

“Oh. Ok.” Said my Principal. “Maybe he could help out with the multipurpose room instead?”

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The locked experiment room… I admit, my investigative journalism ability is poor.

There is a point, and it occurs very early on, when the need for well-trained specialists outstrips the marginal need for things. This happens shortly after a school accumulates enough food, pencils, and paper (real problems for thousands of schools). What’s happened at my school is interesting. It’s gone from being superficially under-resourced to superficially over-resourced, yet ostensibly, nothing has changed. It’s given me the opportunity to witness the point firsthand. Math and Chinese scores are still very high. My English class still does fine. The Wi-Fi is nice. The block called “science” on the schedule is still generally regarded as a good chance to review Chinese vocabulary.

There is no solution contained in this ramble—sorry… But, my point is that the problem holding students back and ratcheting up education gaps will usually not be a resource problem—as attractive, comprehendible, and fixable with fat stacks of as that problem may seem. The problem will almost always be the people one—the one that is much, much harder to address. Perhaps we can see more recognition of that reality.

Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.

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        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.

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             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.

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