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School daze never cease to amaze
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School's out and a Beijing teenager sheds his blue-and-white tracksuit uniform jacket, dons an apricot vest, and strategically dips his gangster hat below one eye. The student slips on fingerless Micheal Jackson-style leather gloves and snaps up a cigarette from his buddy.

Some of the teenagers are tall, 6-feet plus, and smoking has obviously not stunted their growth. They flick their Jay Chou-style fringes and play it too cool for school.

My apartment overlooks a school courtyard but what's most interesting is the transformation that happens after the final class bell sounds. Inside the grounds there is order, discipline and clockwork routine. Outside, free spirits rise. Boys and girls mingle and sweethearts pair off. This is taboo on school grounds. Groups stand at bus stops in afternoon fading light, but have no intention of catching the bus. Messengers, mostly girls, run to and fro the clans relaying information about who likes whom.

As the game of Chinese whispers becomes louder, a bicycle cuts through and the pretty passenger riding sidesaddle on the back of her boyfriend's bike, waves to her friend. They both giggle. The 16-year-old girl sits gracefully and weaves between a street fruit seller and a taxi picking up a fare. The school girl holds her boyfriend's jacket. She doesn't need to hold on for balance; she's been riding like this before she could walk. It's just a good excuse because there is never a public display of affection.

I have seen China's future and the kids are all right.

When I first saw the school in action, I saw the China clich - mass exercises, national anthems, flag-raising ceremonies. It was the China I thought I knew, but the more I watched, the more the myths were shattered. The mass group became individuals, and their lives unfolded.

The beginning of their school day is my musical alarm clock. Upbeat music is pumped through the loud speakers, charging students with inspiration, and about 1,000 kids line up in orderly fashion for morning exercises. Arm stretches, neck rolls, two steps forward, two steps back, arms out, in, up, down. A teacher shouts through a loud speaker: "Yi er san si wu liu (1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6)." Simultaneous movements of 2,000 waving arms and flashes of blue and white uniforms paint a busy picture. Some teenagers are more enthusiastic than others. Most students try their best. Often, the school plays the national anthem and performs a flag-raising ceremony. Students honored with the task practice after school. Hurling the flag just before it is raised requires a certain knack.

Lunch breaks are a buzz of activity. Every boy plays basketball and some teachers join in. Girls sit in small groups and chat. Some girls walk arm-in-arm and often laugh. There are no loners, and boys and girls never socialize in the school grounds, but I reckon notes are discretely exchanged. The final bell sounds again, and the words of Cat Stevens ring through my memory.

"When we had imaginings, and we had all kinds of things, and we laughed and needed love, yes I do. Oh, don't you remember the days of the old schoolyard?"

(China Daily November 1, 2007)

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