A pot of herbal medicine sizzling on the stove filled the small classroom with its strong odor as Chen Yushu tutored his students in arithmetics and writing.
It was Saturday, but Chen and the children were working all the same. "I was hospitalized for a whole month last year and have to make up for their losses on weekends," said Chen.
He stewed his medicine on the classroom stove because his family were on a very tight budget -- a heart attack last November hospitalized him for one month and cost 5,000 yuan (US$625). To prevent further attacks of his coronary heart disease he had to spend 3,000 yuan (US$375) a year on medicine.
Chen has little saving though his monthly salary rose to 1,100 yuan (US$137) last year, nearly three times as much as what he made in 2003. The family live in a ramshackle house in Chicheng county of Zhangjiakou, north China's Hebei Province. It was a legacy from his grandfather and was at least 70 years old, but the family cannot afford to build a new one.
The Changgou Elementary School where he teaches has only five students this year. Chen tutors the children in the morning and afternoon, and helps his wife on the cropland before and after each school session.
At 48, Chen looks at least 10 years older. 32 years of teaching and toiling in the fields on the sideline turned his looking older than others of his age.
As a teacher he knows well enough that education can change a child's fate, but the hard fact of life has also told him that not everyone can afford college education. His own son, a straight-A student, dropped out of high school at 16 to find a job in Beijing, knowing his family could not support him through college anyway.
Chen is not the only one-man campaigner who works to ensure basic education to school-age children in China's rural areas. Local farmers respect them as "intellectuals," though they spend as lengthy hours in the fields. But to the rural children, Chen and other peasant-teachers are like "catchers in the rye," or guardians trying to lead them out of ignorance.
"Not One Less"
About 35 kilometers from Chicheng's town seat is Shuiquan village, a place that is not found even on the county map. The village became famous in 1999 after Chinese director Zhang Yimou produced a film there.
In the award-winning film Not One Less, Zhang portrayed a temporary school teacher who exerted her utmost to keep each of her students at school.
The real-life model of the heroine of the film is Li Xiangping, the only teacher at Shuiquan Elementary School for the past 28 years. The school has six students in one classroom, including first and second graders and two preschoolers.
"As a teacher you cannot take the job light-heartedly even if there's only one student," said Li, who has worked out and carefully followed detailed teaching plans for each student and has not asked for leave even once in 28 years.
The school doesn't have a cent of working capital. It gets free coal supply from the county's education authority, but Li has to pay about 100 yuan (US$12.5) of trucking fee out of his own pocket every winter.
But his students are much luckier because the school has received some donations after Zhang's film made it famous. They have textbooks and basic sports facilities, he said. "Children in the neighboring Lichanggou village have never even seen a soccer. For them, sports mean just playing hide-and-seek."
"I have a dream"
Li said his biggest dream is for his students to have computer classes. "The newspapers said we're in an 'information age' but the kids have never seen a computer."
Chen Yushu's dream is even simpler: He just hopes that someone would fix the classroom doors and windows so the children will suffer less in winter. "I often manage to stuff the cracks with waste wood and cardboard, because the school cannot afford to hire a carpenter."
Hebei Province has at least 3,000 rural teachers like them who run a miniature, poorly equipped school all alone to protect local children from dropping out.
Their schools will eventually be merged into bigger ones following the efforts of the Ministry of Education to integrate and formalize rural education, but they will be remembered forever as they lead rural children out of ignorance.
(Xinhua News Agency April 5, 2006)