Books open new chapter for rural students

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Students read donated books at the Central Primary School, Ruyi county, Hunan. [Photo/China Daily] 

Many students from these rural schools used to perform badly in regional or local academic rankings. Now, some have risen in scholastic achievement and have been admitted to top regional secondary schools. Leung's contribution has not been lost on parents, either. They take pride in the children's achievements, and some even donate money to the program to help it expand.

Leung, now 58 and approaching retirement, has always wanted the program to move faster, and can barely contain his impatience. "The school year is quite short for a child. I'm pressed for time to make them aware of the benefits of reading," he said.

A dream blossoms

Leung was headmaster at San Wui Commercial Society School, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, from 1997 until 2007. Then, after 10 years in the job, he resigned and set off for Hunan to visit an acquaintance, a headmaster from Changsha, the capital of Hunan, he had met during an exchange activity in Hong Kong.

They made a chance visit to the school in Shaoshan, which had about 100 students. The classrooms were crudely equipped; the chairs were unstable and the desks were pockmarked with holes. "It was a mess," Leung recalled.

Even worse, lessons seemed to consist of teachers standing at the front of the class and speaking, while students took notes when instructed or gazed out of the window, daydreaming.

"There was no vigor or fun in the classroom," Leung said. During recess, he noticed that some children were barefoot. When he asked why, the headmaster told him, "Because they are rural children."

The children shied away from Leung, but three girls stared at him with what struck him as vacant grins. "Their stares were empty, even though they looked as happy as children in big cities. I couldn't see hope for the future in their eyes," he recalled.

Many other rural schools were much the same. They had no libraries. Some claimed they had, but when Leung checked, he found the doors locked and the scant book collections covered with dust as though they hadn't been touched for years. Moreover, the books were an eclectic mix that appeared to have been collected at random, with the majority unsuitable for elementary students.

He felt obliged to act. "For children, the first 10 years is the golden time for learning and development. A span of 10 years defines a generation. We can't afford to let a generation fail because of poor education," he said.

Before leaving the school in Shaoshan, Leung promised the headmaster, "I will return before Chinese New Year and help you build a new library."

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