Snapshots from a Vocational High School

No. 7

Hi there:

As promised, here’s a second piece from vocational school teacher Zhang Qingyi.

A little context is called for here. It’s impossible to overstate how incredibly competitive and hierarchical the Chinese educational system is. You may have heard of the brutal university entrance exam, aka gaokao, but the race starts much earlier. At toddler age, Chinese children are thrown into a endless saga of academic drills and ranking exercises that lasts until graduate school—that is, if you make it that far. We got a taste of the immense pressure even primary students face in an earlier story.

The students that Zhang Qingyi oversees are at the margins of this big game, social outcasts who are often despised even by their own parents and teachers. In this heartwarming account, first published by The Livings on March 9 last year, Zhang tries to restore their humanity by lending an empathetic ear to their troubles.

Enjoy and stay healthy!

ML


My Students, the Senior High Rejects

By Zhang Qingyi

Credit: hxdbzxy on Shutterstock.

I live in a small city near Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang province, working as a teacher at a local vocational senior high school.

Vocational senior high schools are inferior to regular senior high schools, enrolling students weeded out by exams for regular senior high schools, students of lesser academic ability and pedigree. That’s why very few teachers at our school are willing to serve as homeroom teachers. A common refrain among teachers is that the paltry extra salary they receive for homeroom teacher duty doesn’t even cover the emotional damage incurred from the grief the students cause you.

A regular workday at our school requires teachers to arrive before 8 a.m., whereas homeroom teachers have to show up at 7:10 a.m. They need to oversee and inspect the cleaning of the classroom and surrounding areas and supervise early study hall. When all that is taken care of, they need to wait until after 8 a.m. to enter their office.

After the first four lessons in the morning, other teachers can nap freely on their office desks, while homeroom teachers need to keep watch over their classrooms and dorm rooms, reaching out to students who aren’t pro-active enough. Forget about a lunch break—an incident-free stretch is enough to count your blessings.

After the three periods in the afternoon, most teachers head straight home. Meanwhile, when everyone is packing up for the day, homeroom teachers start receiving calls from student affairs, parents and even students themselves. A stroke of bad luck could mean something going down in your class’ dorm room in the evening. It’s not uncommon for homeroom teachers to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night.

It’s just as one of my fellow homeroom teachers put it: “I don’t mind the physical exhaustion of being a homeroom teacher. What gets me the most is the emotional toll.” I couldn’t agree more.

1.

In 2008, I turned 30. That summer I was assigned by my school to become homeroom teacher for the first-year e-commerce class.

Summer vacation came to a close at the end of August. It was time for us teachers to report to work. I received a list of my 32 first years. The gender ratio was about equal. As for their senior high school entrance exam results, I could only describe them as catastrophic. Among my students was a boy named Wang Bin. His results stuck in my head immediately. Out of the five subjects tested, one paper set the full score at 160. Yet he only managed 98 marks—a double-digit result. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.

A teacher with homeroom duty experience glanced at my list. He also tapped a finger by the name Wang Bin. “Be careful. If this student isn’t mentally challenged, then he’s going to give you a handful!”

A few days before the freshmen arrived, I had to tidy up my classroom and take care of dorm assignments. I couldn’t indulge in a single free moment. With temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius, it was like working in a sauna. My clothes were drenched and my hair was getting a natural wash. One task followed another. When my clothes and hair finally dried, it wasn’t long before they became awash in sweat yet again. After several days of such torture, I had lost two or three pounds—all before a single student had showed up.

I finally made it to the day freshmen report to school. I arrived on campus before 7 a.m. After tying up loose ends, I entered my classroom at 8 a.m. sharp. Parents started arriving with their children in tow.

I collected tuition, assigned dorm rooms and chatted briefly with the parents. Everything was going to plan. Suddenly, a young man with his hair died blonde appeared before me. “Hey, pay up!” he blurted with a look of disdain on his face.

But instead of extending my hand for payment, I took in the scene first. Standing next to the young man was an earnest-looking middle-aged man. His face was heavily tanned and his hands were chewed up. I knew instantly he performed manual labor for a living. The older man smiled to me awkwardly as beads of sweat glided down his forehead. I figured the exertion came from carrying the luggage of the blonde boy.

I conclude they were father and son and that the son was of questionable pedigree. Also, it was obvious the father had lost control over of his son.

“Name?” I asked.

“Wang Bin.”

Bingo. I was immediately reminded of another pointer from another veteran teacher. When you’re a homeroom teacher at our school, you need to think of yourself as your students’ stepmom, especially in the early days of the term. You need to set plenty of rules and be very exacting. Only then will the class behave itself. Wang Bin provided prime fodder for rulemaking. It was also a good time to send a message to the other troublemakers in class.

I said without showing any emotion: “Your hairdo is against school policy. It needs to be black for you to enroll.”

“No way. I spent several hundred bucks on my hair. If I need to die it black again, I’d rather not go to school.” Wang Bin’s tone was defiant.

Before I could respond, Wang Bin’s father interjected: “Not going to school is out of the question. Out of the question!”

“If you want to study here, that’s fine, but you need to follow school rules. Our policy is black hair only. If you want to keep your hairdo, then you won’t be able to study here.” I held my ground.

“I never wanted to study…” Wang Bin started to panic.

“Shut it! Not studying is out of the question. Out of the question!” I figured Wang Bin’s father wasn’t the most articulate man. He simply kept repeating the same phrase.

“Sure, but you need come back after you fix your hair.” I refused to budge.

“Get your hair fixed,” Wang Bin’s father commanded, grabbing him by the edge of his shirt at the same time. “Don’t touch me! Unless you want a beating!” Wang Bin bellowed as he glared at his father.”

The chatter in the classroom died down, captivated by the spectacle of a son threatening to beat his father in broad daylight. Father and son became the center of attention.

I was about to intervene with an eye toward easing the tense atmosphere, but it was too late. Slap! Wang Bin’s father swung away at his son’s face. Before I could react, Wang Bin blurted: “Your motherfucker! Laying your hands on me?” He followed up with a punch in his father’s face.

Father and son became entangled. I stood to one side, utterly stunned. Usually father and son work together—yet here was father and son going at each other. And this was my first day as homeroom teacher.

In light of the fight, I thought Wang Bin wouldn’t show his face at our school again. Lo and behold, on the third day of class, his father dragged him to school again. This time Wang Bin sported a black crew cut.

I knew I had solid ground to refuse to enroll Wang Bin, but I was moved by his father’s earnest expression and his almost begging gaze. I signed Wang Bin up, but given his “prior,” I asked him to sign a probation agreement. If he was caught fighting at school again, he would be expelled immediately.

His father agreed. Back in my office, a fellow teacher tapped me on the shoulder and said with a smile: “The road is long and the path to enlightenment weary. There’s still a long way to go. Hunker down with your spiritual practice!”

2.

As expected, Wang Bin did indeed get into trouble less then a week into his first term.

The school organized an “Orientation Cup” basketball tournament for freshmen. Wang Bin was the first to sign up. Only then did I find out that he was a good player in junior high and almost made the school team. I seized the opportunity to nudge him along: “Since you’re so good, then mobilize the other students who are signed up for practice sessions in the basketball court when you’re free.” He readily agreed.

Yet during the very first practice session he got into an argument with a few second-year students, which soon escalated into a fistfight. By the time I had arrived, other teacher had gotten the situation under control. Wang Bin’s face was already covered with battle wounds, a scar here and a bruise there. One of the second years stuffed his nose with toilet paper.

I genuinely wanted to charge toward Wang Bin, grab him by the collar and yell: “Don’t you want to study? Is this how you study?” Then it struck me that he was such a lost cause that whatever I said wouldn’t do the trick. Only one thing nagged at me—his father’s honest, resigned gaze. So I secretly cursed to myself instead. How did such an honest man produce such a scumbag son?

I took Wang Bin to the student affairs office and started the conversation with the teacher in charge. “This student and I signed an agreement before school started. He is to be expelled if he gets into another fight.”

“What deal?” Teacher Wang was confused.

“On enrollment day, he and his dad faced off in broad daylight.”

“Oh, that was you!” Teacher Wang said as he glanced at Wang Bin. “In that case, there’s not much to say. I’ll defer to your homeroom teacher.”

I led Wang Bin out of student affairs and headed to my office. To my surprise, when we arrived at the office, the other members of the basketball team were lined up at the entrance.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Teacher Zhang, you can’t expel Wang Bin.”

“Teacher Zhang, he did it for us.”

They proceeded to launch into a lengthy spiel in defense of Wang Bin.

The boys from the basketball team told me that when they were practicing just now, a few second years forced them to give up their court on account of their seniority. My students didn’t want to cause trouble, so they relented. But out of spite, one of the boys blurted on the way out: “Bullying freshmen—what, you think you’re a gangster boss or something?” One of the second years threw a basketball at him in retaliation. After trading a few verbal jabs, Wang Bin made a move. The others sought help from a teacher immediately.

It dawned on me then that I had handled Wang Bin’s situation too crudely. But he did get into a fight and the agreement he signed was clear, after all. I was at a loss, so I stalled for time. “What about the wounds on your face? Why don’t you take Wang Bin to the clinic first? Let’s talk about this later.”

After the boys left, I thought hard and decided to give Wang Bin another chance.

I told myself that even though Wang Bin made a mistake, he was evolving, albeit in baby steps. But small improvements led to large leaps. I should give him time to change.

As the sun set, I tracked down Wang Bin at the basketball court.

I told him that I wouldn’t expel him but that no matter what, fighting was wrong. Due to the circumstances of this fight, I decided to give him another chance.

“I think you really have changed.”

“How so?” he asked.

“I can see it in your eyes. There’s less anger, more peace and sincerity.”

“Wow, Teacher Zhang, that’s too deep. I’m not sure I understand,” Wang Bin said with an exaggerated laugh.

I knew he got the message. To lighten the mood, I joked: “Why did you come back? Did you have a duel with your dad at home again and he won?”

He shook his head. “It’s my grandma.”

Wang Bin said his paternal grandmother was in her 70s. When she found out that he wanted to drop out, she broke down in tears and tripped accidentally. When Wang Bin tried to help her up, she refused and kept sobbing. “Bin Bin, you have to go to school. You have to!”

“I was raised by my grandma. My parents were always working. Since I promised my grandma, I have to follow through, so I died my hair black again and came back. My grandma says if you don’t study, you’ll end up a loafer and land in prison one day, stuck with prison food.” Wang Bin concluded with a smile.

I smiled too. Amid a gentle breeze and evening haze, I felt a warm feeling swell within.

A few days later, the basketball tournament got underway. Even though Wang Bin played hard, basketball is a team sport, after all. Despite his efforts, our class was eliminated at the round robin stage.

But it was also because of this tournament that Wang Bin was “discovered” by the PE teacher, landing himself a spot on the school team.

3.

After the National Day holiday period in early October, it was time for the first briefing for freshman class parents.

This was the first briefing since the term started, so I called every single parent saying attendance was mandatory. Some of the parents were on the fence on the phone, which prompted me to follow up with them the day before the meeting. Most parents agreed to show up.

After the meeting, I checked my list of absences. Among them were the parents of a girl called Ren Hong. She lived in the residential complex just behind the school. She also happened to be having some issues at school, so I decided to try my luck with a cold call, riding over on my electric bike.

I spotted Ren Hong’s father well before I got to her apartment unit. I had met him on enrollment day a month ago. He was seated with three others at a table in the courtyard of the residential complex, basking in the warm sunshine while shuffling mahjong tiles.

I stopped, got off my bike and walked to the mahjong table. “Hello, Ren Hong’s father. I’m Ren Hong’s homeroom teacher.”

“Oh, Teacher Zhang. Two of bamboo!” Ren Hong’s father cast me a fleeting glance before turning his attention to his mahjong game again.

“About today’s briefing for parents, I called you yesterday…”

“I know, I know. Can’t you see I’m a bit busy? I was going to go, but my old mahjong buddies were missing one. There was no way around it. Wait—one of dots, Chow!”

I really wanted to let him have it in front of his friends, given the sheer absurdity of neglecting his responsibility as a father by skipping his daughter’s parents briefing to form a mahjong quartet. Then it struck me that wasn’t the purpose of my visit, so I restrained my fury and said in the calmest tone I could manage: “The briefing for parents is over. I’m here today to discuss your daughter’s issues.

“How can you possibly develop issues at a vocational senior high school? It’s not regular senior high. You just need to graduate and get your diploma.” Ren Hong’s father was fed up.

“Studying at a vocational senior high school is still studying. If we don’t nip problems at the bud, they become big issues. Then we’ll have a handful.”

“What kind of problems?”

“She wrote in her weekly journal recently that she’s run into a couple of young punks on the way home on a few occasions. They shout out her, saying they want to date her. She’s a bit scared, so I plan on…”

Before I could finish, Ren Hong’s three mahjong buddies jumped in.

“Wow, your daughter is quite something, huh? Drawing attention wherever she goes.”

“Good looks do make a difference!”

“Maybe one of the punks is rich. He’ll lavish you with a major cash gift when they get married.”

The entire group, including Ren Hong’s father, burst into laughter.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Raising my voice, I barked: “Ren Hong’s father, I’m talking about some real bad guys here. This is your daughter we’re talking about. Aren’t you afraid that she’ll be led astray?” My change in attitude shut everyone up. Ren Hong’s father could only manage an awkward chuckle. “Just kidding. Just kidding. Don’t take us seriously, teacher.” I spent another half hour explaining Ren Hong’s problems and relevant school policy. He responded absentmindedly, his occasional comment punctuating the overwhelming noise of banging tiles.

I had no choice but to leave the mahjong game and ride my electric bike back to school. On the ride back, I thought back to a call I received on the office landline that morning. It was a parent looking for his son. I asked for his son’s class. He didn’t know. I asked for the name of his son’s homeroom teacher. Still no clue. He said the only detail he knew was his son’s name. I told him it was a tall order to locate a student by name alone, given the large student population. He responded with a tirade, saying how dare we consider ourselves a proper school if we couldn’t even find a student, before slamming his receiver.

In contrast, Ren Hong’s father was better. At least he listened in between mahjong hands.

And at the end of the day, we resolved Ren Hong’s problem. Ren Hong’s father said “adults are busy with work” and that it was impossible for him to pick his daughter up from school even occasionally, so he accepted my suggestion to let Ren Hong become a boarder so as to avoid harassment from the young punks. Passable is how I would rate this particular parent-teacher meeting by the mahjong table.

4.

After the meeting with her father, Ren Hong became a boarder.

About a week after that, just after 9 p.m. one night, my phone went off just as I was about to retire for the night. When I glanced at the number, my heart leapt. It was from my school. Something happened.

Indeed, it was the teacher who had just completed rounds in the student dorm. He said Ren Hong wasn’t in her room and her roommates didn’t know where she had gone. Her phone was shut off. School officials had tasked me with the job of tracking her down. “If something happened to her, then it will be a big deal.”

My mind went into a spiral. I got dressed and rushed to school while my mom kept nagging away. “You’re just a teacher. Why do you have to go to work in the middle of night, leaving your own child behind? Why don’t you sell your soul to the school?”

My dad tried to calm her down. “Easy. She’s a homeroom teacher now.”

When I arrived on campus, the teacher on duty, Mr. Hu, and I pulled up the surveillance footage. It turns out that Ren Hong climbed over one of the walls surrounding our school compound at around 8:40 p.m.

“She didn’t head back to her dorm room. She took off immediately after evening study hall. Either this was planned or something went down that forced her to leave,” Mr. Hu surmised.

“Her home isn’t far away. Why don’t I just start there,” I suggested.

I rushed onto Ren Hong’s apartment, but the door was shut and the lights were out. No one answered my repeated calls. It was as if the entire family had vanished.

I charged back to school, where I questioned Ren Hong’s roommates. They didn’t offer any useful clues either. “Who knows? Maybe things will clear up tomorrow,” Mr. Hu consoled.

Back at home, I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. Whatever light sleep I got was interrupted by nightmares—either about something happening to Ren Hong or her parents wailing in front me, wanting me to answer for their daughter. I woke up in the wee hours.

Luckily, I got a call the very next morning shortly after I arrived at school. When I saw the number, I was near tears—it was Ren Hong.

It turns out that Ren Hong’s father had a habit of beating her mother whenever he drank, regardless of whether he got drunk or not. Last night, her dad started drinking again. After evening study hall, she got a call from her mom en route to her dorm room. When she heard her mom sobbing non-stop, she knew what happened. That’s when she decided to go AWOL and escort her mom to safety. She turned off her phone so her dad couldn’t locate them.

Ren Hong promised to arrive at school before 9 a.m. I could finally rest easy.

After Ren Hong arrived punctually, I found a quiet spot for us to have a long talk. I said: “You’re right to care for your mother, but you chose the wrong way to leave school. You could have called me. I would have agreed with you. You could have left with official approval. You didn’t have to sneak out.”

She lowered her head in embarrassment and wrung her hands. “I’m sorry, Teacher Zhang. I was in a hurry. I didn’t think things through.”

“How’s your mom now?”

“She wants a divorce.”

“Where do you stand?”

Ren Hong raised her head, a look of determination in her eyes, and said: “I’m with her.”

I held her hands, which were ice cold, so cold that I wanted to warm them by holding them up against my chest. “You must feel horrible, with your parents’ relationship in shambles like that.” I felt very sad too.

“Teacher Zhang…” Ren Hong broke down in tears in my lap.

5.

Soon I had to deal with another situation.

One afternoon, just before PE class, three girls showed up in my office. One of them, a chubby girl named Yu Ling, said: “Teacher Zhang, we want to be excused from PE class.”

“Why?” I asked.

“We’re having our periods.”

“All three of you?”

They nodded in unison.

Just as I was writing up sick notes for them and getting ready to sign, Ms. Li, who sat across from me, coughed awkwardly and blinked at me.

I got the message immediately. I told the three girls: “You probably don’t know the format of a sick note. I’ll write out a template for you to copy. Why don’t you wait outside? I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

After they left, I asked Ms. Li immediately: “What’s wrong? Why can’t I let them take sick leave?”

She responded with a smile: “You can, but you better keep an eye on them. It’s best that you take down the dates of their sick leaves and the reason in a notebook. Most importantly, have them sign the log.”

I was confused and about to ask for clarification when another colleague, Mr. Li, jumped in. “Don’t ask why. Just do it. In due course that notebook will come in very handy. Get ready for a show.”

I was puzzled but didn’t press the matter. I fetched a new notebook, listed the date and reason for the leave request and had the three girls sign their entries.

My two colleagues totally called it. The notebook soon came in handy indeed. A few days later, Yu Ling and another female student showed up in my office with painful expression on their faces and said: “Teacher Zhang, I’m having my period. It hurts like hell this time. I’d like to skip PE class.”

“You’re really having your periods?” Ms. Li stepped in after seeing the sympathetic look on my face.

“Yes,” Yu Ling responded, furrowing her brows.

“That can’t be right. Didn’t you ask for sick leave from PE class because of your period a few days ago? You’re having another period barely half a month later? That’s some period you’re having.” I caught the drift immediately and went into interrogation mode. “Yeah, Yu Ling, didn’t you just ask for leave?”

“No, that wasn’t me. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else, Teacher Zhang.” Yu Ling stood firm but the panic was written all over her face.

“We can check if there’s been a mix-up by checking the log. Didn’t the girls who ask for sick leave on account of their periods sign their names? Let’s see who they were,” Ms. Li said.

I dug out my notebook quickly and opened it. Yu Ling went silent.

“Go back to class. Focus on your studies, not pulling scams like this,” I said in a stern voice.

I thought I had settled the matter for good. Little did I expect Yu Ling to stay her ground. “I am having my period. I need to take sick leave.”

Caught off-guard, I didn’t know how to respond.

Ms. Li continued calmly: “OK, since you insist you’re having your period, we believe you, but you need to convince your classmates too. You’re a girl, so is your homeroom teacher. There’s a female toilet right next door. Why don’t you head over and change your sanitary pad? Your homeroom teacher will be your witness. She won’t do anything else.”

I was extremely reluctant to share a toilet cubicle with a student, but I could only play along. “Yes, that’s what we’ll do. I’ll be your witness. Do you have a sanitary pad? If you don’t, I’ve got one.”

Yu Ling was out of moves, blurting: “Fine, on leave then!” before storming out of the office.

“There’s a lot of anger behind that door slam. You better follow up on her,” Ms. Li said.

I decided to talk to the PE teacher.

When I arrived at our sports ground, I saw students from my class practicing volleyball. I scanned the crowd twice but Yu Ling was nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Yu Ling?” I asked the students.

“Yu Ling? Oh, you mean Meatball? We haven’t seen her since PE class started.”

“She’s a meatball already. Of course she can’t do PE class. She’ll have to roll instead of run.”

That was the commentary from a few of the more aggressive boys. Everyone laughed along. Now I knew why Yu Ling wanted to skip PE class.

I shouted: “Stop that. Coming up with derogative nicknames for your classmates is bullying too. Are you asking to be punished?”

Only then did the students quiet down.

“Teacher Zhang, I think Yu Ling is in our classroom,” a female student told me. As I began to head for our classroom, two other girls dashed toward me. “Teacher Zhang, we want to tell you something about Yu Ling.”

I felt my chest tighten. “Talk while we talk,” I responded.

“More and more people are calling Yu Ling Meatball. It used to be only during PE class. Now people are using the nickname all the time now. Some of the girls call her Meatball instead of her real name at night in the dorm as well. It’s totally out of line.”

“Yu Ling has secretly broken down in tears a few times already. She says she doesn’t want to go to school anymore, that she wants to drop out, that there’s no point in staying and so on…”

“Got it. Why don’t you head back to PE class?” I started panicking even more.

I was afraid that Yu Ling would hurt herself, so I sped up my trot to the classroom. Thankfully, she was lying on her desk when I arrived. Only then did my worries vanish.

“Yu Ling, you’re skipping PE class?” I asked in an even tone.

She lifted her head, glanced at me before turning her head in the other direction and slumping on her desk again.

“I know why you want to skip PE class now. Have faith in me. Let me deal with the situation, OK?

Yu Ling lifted her head again. She was still silent but her eyes had turned watery.

6.

Next, I summoned the three boys who used Yu Ling’s nickname the most to the office and grilled them. “Isn’t there a provision in our school rules and code of conduct that says you can’t bully your classmates?”

“Teacher Zhang, we haven’t bullied anyone,” one of the boys, Yu Meng, answered.

“No? What about Yu Ling’s nickname? You also got creative with the nickname, so much so that she doesn’t want to show up for PE class. This isn’t your doing?”

“Teacher Zhang, you’re taking liberties here, aren’t you? We were just kidding, trying to lighten the mood. What’s this bullying business you’re tossing around? Nothing of that sort,” another one of the students, Zhang Li, said. “Kidding around? Since you think it’s OK to come up with nicknames for your classmates, why don’t I come up with some for you three? You!” I pointed to Zhang Li and said: “ I hear that out of all the boarders you have the most stinky feet. Shall I ask your classmates to call you Stinky Feet Zhang from now on?”

“And you, Yu Meng. The homework you turn in—the handwriting is like hieroglyphics. Why don’t I call you Hieroglyphics Yu? What a trendy name! How about that?”

“As for you, Li Jun, you’re the easiest the name. Every other word that comes out of your mouth is foul language. Why don’t we cut to the chase and call you Poop Lee? How about that?”

“Don’t, Teacher Zhang! That’s too harsh, isn’t it?” the trio complained.

“You need to use discretion with your jokes. If jokes are built on some else’s pain, then it isn’t joking. That’s called campus bullying. You’ve seen the movies—students who can’t cope with bullying end up killing others or committing suicide. Did you know that Yu Ling was contemplating dropping out of school because of your so-called joke?”

The three boys went silent.

“Are you going to use her nickname again?”

They shook their heads vigorously.

Next up was dealing with the female boarders who used Yu Ling’s nickname.

Ms. Li kindly reminded me: “Girls can be quite petty. If you summon the few girls who are responsible and scold them, they might take it out on Yu Ling. It’s better if you summon all the female boarders and address them in general terms and ask them to change their behavior. That way you accomplish your goal and the girls responsible won’t keep score against Yu Ling.”

I followed Ms. Li’s advice and the girls agreed to change.

Still, somehow I felt my interventions didn’t get to the root of the problem.

By chance, I noticed that Yu Ling drew quite well, so I assigned her to blackboard journal duty. To help her do a good job, I even researched examples on the Internet. She didn’t let me down. Our blackboard journal was honored with top prize in our grade.

During class announcements, I said in an unusually loud voice: “The entire class owes our art director Yu Ling a thanks. It’s she who won our class its first award, a top prize no less. Let’s start a round of applause for art director Yu Ling!” I dragged out and stressed the words “art director” deliberately.

From then on, whenever I mentioned Yu Ling, I would automatically add the honorific “art director.” Soon the students in our class followed suit, calling her Art Director left and right. Eventually, my students forgot about Meatball and stuck with Art Director only. Every time someone used the term, Yu Ling would lift her head just a bit higher than usual.

7.

In December, as our town immersed in the festive spirit ahead of Lunar New Year, one of my female students dropped out.

On a day of Sunday class, she didn’t show. When I called her dad, he said she was sick with the flu. A few days later she still didn’t show up. I called again. Her dad said simply she didn’t want to study anymore and hung up.

I didn’t buy it. Li Jing’s grades were decent and I had never heard her say she wanted to drop out. Not long ago, knitting scarves was quite the fad at our school among the girls. Whenever class ended, I saw them scrambling to pull out her needles and yarn and getting right to it. Many of the girls intended their scarves as Christmas presents for boys they lied. Li Jing joined in as well, but I was the recipient of her scarf.

I geared up for a home visit. I called her dad again. To my surprise, her dad said off the bat: “Teacher Zhang, no need for you to come. I’ll come to school.”

“Great, let’s have a good chat. Someone of Li Jing’s age should be studying at school.”

“No, Teacher Zhang, I’m coming to school to deal with my daughter’s withdrawal paperwork. My older sister opened a noodle shop in Hangzhou. Li Jing has already left for Hangzhou to apprentice with my sister. What’s the point of a girl studying so much? Sooner or later I need to marry her off. It’s a waste of money.”

So that was the story.

Even though our city has a booming economy, people can be very conservative. I’ve come across many parents like Li Jing’s father. If it’s a son who doesn’t want to stay in school, they’ll beat them into submission. If it’s a girl, a junior high diploma is enough. In their eyes, enrolling a girl in vocational senior high school is a waste of their money. “Skip it if you can manage it” is a common refrain.

I didn’t want to give up just yet, so I called Li Jing on her mobile. “Li Jing, it’s Teacher Zhang. Are you at your aunt’s in Hangzhou?” “Yes, Teacher Zhang.”

“Do you still want to study? Your say counts a lot. If you want to study, I’ll talk to your dad. Maybe he will agree to let you return to school. Hangzhou is very close. If he changes his mind, you can come back immediately.”

“Teacher Zhang, I want to study, I want to. Teacher Zhang…” She broke down in sobs.

I had such mixed feelings. When I called Li Jing’s father again, no one picked up.

A few days later, he showed up at school to handle his daughter’s withdrawal paperwork.

I wanted to have a good chat with him, but he never gave me the chance to speak, instead, constantly interjecting: “Enough, enough, Teacher Zhang. She’s dropping out, dropping out. I need to get back work. I only asked for two hours off. The penalties for lateness are brutal.”

And so Li Jing dropped out.

I didn’t have the thick skin to call Li Jing, so I texted her instead. “Sorry, I wasn’t able to persuade your dad. Take care of yourself.”

Li Jing never responded. We lost contact abruptly.

Many of my colleagues consoled me over Li Jing’s withdrawal. “Don’t think too much. You’ve done your job as homeroom teacher. Being able to look yourself in the mirror is enough.”

“Indeed. Look at my class—I lost someone too. He was dismissed though. He broke so many rules the infractions filled a thick notebook—smoking in the girls’ bathroom, cutting class by climbing over school walls, extorting classmates, fighting at the school entrance and so on. If he didn’t leave, he was bound to corrupt his classmates. Sometimes when we advise and preach, our students don’t necessarily think we are looking out for them. They might even think we are fools and they’re the smart ones.”

“In sum, teachers are human, not godlike. We do our best, but our students have to forge their own paths.”

I get all that. Still, as I watch my students wheel their luggage to our school entrance after end-of-term exams, I can’t help but nag. “You better all show up for the next term.”

Postscript

In June 2011, the e-commerce class that I had watched over for three years finally graduated. On the day of our graduation photo, as I led my students to their places, I couldn’t help but think of the few students that dropped out. Apart from Li Jing, three other students left in the next two-and-a-half years. One dropped out because he was sick of school, another due to family reasons and the third because he had racked up too many infractions and was asked to leave.

The students who graduated had all landed jobs from their previous internships. Most of the girls ended up at one of the larger supermarkets in town as cashiers. As for the boys, a few joined Internet companies and others became customer service reps at the online store Taobao.com.

In the following years, we rarely ran into each other even though we lived in the same small city.

Wang Bin visited me once after graduation, a huge batch of fruits in tow. I felt so honored. I kept saying as I shared the fruit with colleagues: “They’re from a past graduate. Help yourself to more. Take more.”

Wang Bin ended up joining a relative’s construction business. He quit basketball and turned into a 200-pound giant. I ran into him again once. He yelled at me from a distance: “Teacher Zhang!” I couldn’t recognize him.

On another occasion, I was visiting a colleague’s wife who had just given birth. The moment I set foot in her ward, the mother in the next bed yelled: “Teacher Zhang!” I looked over and it was Yu Ling. She had just given birth to a daughter.

Later on, I would think of Li Jing whenever I sat down at a noodle shop. Sometimes I would think that maybe someday when I enter a noodle shop, the owner will be Li Jing. I’ve kept the scarf she knitted me in my closet all these years. It’s too precious to wear.

As for Ren Hong and many others, I never saw them again.

I’ve never counted how many students have come through after serving as a homeroom teacher at a vocational school all these years. I’m very clear on the fact that I will never produce a top student who attends a prestigious university. But my students soldier on in their ordinary jobs, obeying the law, respecting their parents and treating their wives and children with kindness as they persevere in life.