Ou Lanying's parents deserted her when she was only four months old. She has been living with her grandparents for the past 13 years. When Dai Chaowei first saw her, she barely spoke a word and never smiled. As her junior-high schoolteacher, Dai took her under his wings. Her ice-cold disposition has thawed a bit since, and she confides in him regularly.
Kong Qi is luckier. The 16-year-old gets three calls a week from her parents, who work in Guangdong Province. But the last time he saw them was in 2003. He too is being brought up by his grandmother.
Ou and Kong are among 278 students at Shantian School whose parents don't live with them because they have to earn their livelihood in job-rich provinces far away from home. They add up to one third of all students at Shantian, which has primary school and junior high school both. And if you count those with one parent, the ratio is a whopping 62 percent.
With the nationwide migrant population reaching 150 million, the number of so-called left-behind children has touched 20 million. In the absence of parental guidance, they tend to become problem children, thirsting for love and complicating the awkwardness of the age.
Shantian School, situated in a hilly farmland in Liuyang, about two hours east of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, had to face two big problems during the 2003-04 semester. First, a kid was killed outside the campus, possibly in a gang-related shooting. And then a girl who got pregnant committed suicide by drinking poison.
Alarmed, the school sent all its teachers to survey every student and his or her family. None of the parents of those involved in the above or other incidents were staying with them. "We didn't start with the noble intention of solving the issue of left-behind children. We just wanted to make our lives a little easier by ensuring kids would no longer be involved with bad elements," said Dai, who has been a galvanizing force behind a "pseudo-family program" intended to find a solution.
The school was allocated 2 million yuan (US$267,112) to build dormitories for the left-behind children. Rent is free; the only charge is for the meals. But boarding didn't prove to the panacea it was meant to be. "We could watch over them for five days of a week. But the school security was nullified when they joined their bad friends outside during the weekend. It was a case of five plus two equals zero," explains Dai.
What they need is not only a safe environment, but also parental love. In lieu of that, what's the next best thing? Thus was born the "Love Program" under which teachers would take on some of the responsibilities of guardians and recreate a family structure. "When we started the pilot program, the term 'left-behind children' was not yet in the press. They were simply called 'children of migrant workers'," says Dai.
Teachers are encouraged to volunteer as guardians to substitute for parents, and students can choose who they want as "head of the household". The pick-and-match process is a two-way affair. Though popular teachers get more applicants, on the whole people get who they want and nobody is assigned to a "family" he or she is not comfortable with.
There are 41 teachers in the program, and each has at least three students as his/her ward. "With a group of four, you can play cards," jokes Dai. Playing games of almost any kind-cards, ping-pong, badminton or any sports-is encouraged. "These children need attention. Many of them don't have much impression of their parents. They tend to be introverts, aloof and ignorant of the proper ways of expressing themselves, and sometimes use extreme means to get attention."
The first thing a guardian does is to take a group photograph of the new family. Most teachers have brought their spouses into the program to make it look more like a real family environment. Since older children leave for senior high school and new ones arrive, the "family" size fluctuates from semester to semester, but the teachers have a complete file on every kid under their care, with every small step of progress duly recorded and encouraged.
The school guardians get some training, and they have specific guidelines: among the musts is providing each ward at least one talk a week, one evaluation a quarter, one party every semester, and one birthday celebration every year.
When Wu Xinren took Kong Qi out to a nearby city to celebrate his 16th birthday and bought him a jacket, the boy was in tears: "It was the first present any grown-up had ever given me." Once, Wu and his wife had taken as many as eight children under their guardianship.
The "Love Program" is not supposed to replace parental love, but to bring left-behind children and their estranged parents together. The most important requirement for a guardian is to call up parents of every child once a month, speak to them and let the kids talk to them, too. The school provides free telephone service for this purpose.
Kong Qi's parents have always sent back money to support him financially, but until the regular phone calls from their school their relationship had been tenuous. Now they have installed a phone at home.
Given the need for better jobs and higher income, parents do not have much choice but to suffer long separation from their children. But with the "pressure" from the school guardians, many of them have realized the importance of bonding with their children - at least through modern communication tools.
"The teachers are not our relatives, yet they give our children unconditional love. Why can't we do more?" many of them ask. Kong used to hate his parents, says one teacher. But now he understands their dilemma and wishes they would be back and reunite as one happy family.
The program has not only brought parents and left-behind children closer, but also injected a sense of responsibility into society as a whole. Businesses have chipped in; college students befriend the youngsters via Internet video. After losing 1,000 yuan in a mahjong game, a middle-class Changsha woman "adopted" a girl from the school and takes her out every golden week. "It is much more meaningful to spend 1,000 yuan this way," she says.
"Our teachers have given so much to these children. They have taken the burden upon themselves to look after them, even though it's the job of the government and the responsibility of us all," said Liu Xu, Party secretary of Chunkou Town, where Shantian School is located.
Chunkou, with a population of 62,000, has about 10,000 of its inhabitants working away from home who have left behind 2,000 underage children. The town has 3,000 hectares of rice paddies and 13,000 hectares of hilly land. It's predominantly a farmers' community, with only 30-40 small factories. People from the town migrate to work mostly in the leather garment or interior furbishing sector. Some of them are seasonal workers who stay home during periods of slack.
Liu, who was a teacher before moving to public service, says bluntly: "If we can create more jobs closer home, many of our farmers wouldn't need to go so far to earn a living and their children wouldn't have to live like orphans. Of course, we cannot completely do away with labor export, but we should work to minimize it."
Liu calls the school guardians "temporary parents" who fill the hole created by the country's urbanization trend. But eventually the entire society should help solve the problem.
Another good news is that the crime rate in her town dropped 20-30 percent last year. Not a single case of juvenile delinquency was reported, she says.
Shantian School teachers sacrifice their free time and give love and attention to the children in need, but what do they get in return? Not a pay raise, but "the immense satisfaction that we've done something good during the growing years of these youngsters, something that could be life-altering", says Dai.
Dai, who gave mooncakes and apples to Ou Lanying and her grandmother, is still worried about her. "We are doing all we can, but we're unable to help financially," he says, although he raised money to pay for Ou's tuition. "But when she enters senior high school, I won't be able to raise it any more because it would be much higher than the current 1,000 yuan a year."
Dai, however, has the satisfaction of bringing Ou out of her shell. She has even called him "dad" at times. In fact, this has happened with all the teacher-guardians.
"Breast-feeding is best for infants," as a local official told the teachers, "but if you can't have it, milk is the best substitute. What you give is milk."
The milk of love, sipped by a thirsty mouth, can be a magic potion.
(China Daily October 29, 2007)