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A Family’s Adventure in Wonderland – Go to School

(This is one of my earlier English essays.)

Of all my childhood dreams, there is one that remains to this day most clearly from the day it hit my mind the first time. I had it both in my sleep and imagination when I was little. Sometimes I still have it now and rather call it a daydream. I just need two nouns to describe it, and they are school and teacher.

Almost all my friends, Western and Chinese alike, have reached an agreement: I have done better than many young people who received formal education in school. I agree with that myself, albeit in a modest manner. Home schooling – I tend to call it this way despite the total absence of official exams and tests – has empowered me to study for pure joy and truth. I don’t have to pretend reading a textbook when my parents are looking. Neither do I hide my desire to watch movies or chat online. But I do know when to stop and where to start. A life without school has honed my abilities of introspection, self-control, self-access, and self-acknowledgement, all of which play a significant role in building up one’s careers after school.

Gains, however, always come after sacrifices. A man who goes blind, for example, will not thank God until one day he discovers his unrivaled talent in music. A young girl will only stop crying for her amputated limbs when she comes to believe that life can go on quite well without them. An addict will not have the strength to turn away from the addiction without a suffering ten times more painful than quitting the addictive. I am one of the very fortunate people who have so far been guided to a good path, thanks to my family and friends, who act as wonderful substitutes for teachers in school. Nevertheless, what cannot be replaced is the longing for what has gone missing in my life as a real student.

What has gone for good will not come again in the same form. For this reason, the school in my dream has become “university” and the teacher “professor” as I grew older. The October 29th of 2008, to my greatest delight, was such a rare day for my adventure in Beijing that I quivered slightly when walking into a classroom of a university whose name I was later asked not to make public for “personal security reasons”.It is a classroom in capacity for 70 students. 3/4 chairs have been occupied by the time I arrived with the professor. Head down and eyes fixed at the floor, I make a beeline to one of the last empty rows at the back of the room and sit down on a folding chair. A metallic desk is right in front of me. Across rows of heads ahead are a dais and a traditional blackboard, next to which hangs a slide screen for Powerpoint presentations.

It has been 16 years since I attended a class. The classroom back then was much smaller and equipped with wooden chairs and tables in a similar fashion. When the bell rang, the room was immediately filled with scratchy and scraping sounds from students who hurried through conversations, grabbed their books and pencils, and ran across the aisles for their chairs. The teacher then walked unto the dais, and the room became silent at once.

“Good morning, Teacher.” Led by the head student, the whole class stood up and shouted in unison. “

Good morning, class.” The teacher would say. And then the class began.In retrospect, school meant fun to my seven-year-old self. Throughout the second grade, I had a faithful tablemate who never played tricks on me or forgot to turn pages for me. We complimented each other on our Chinese essays. We shared our trouble and laughter. He was truly my first friend. Ms. Li the head teacher, who was then in her late fifties, knew this, too, so she would make sure that we were always arranged to sit together. I had also made some girlfriends, who often kept me company when I got too sick for school. But the most fun of all was when I looked right into Ms. Li’s eyes. Behind her thick spectacles I would find understanding and care. She would praise me at the least expected moments, one of which was stamped on my memory as she read out my essay in front of the whole class. Whenever these moments came, I would shudder with pride and make up my mind to do better next time.

Ms. Li loved teaching, and she was one of the few teachers who believed that horses, no matter how stubborn they appeared to be, could be led to AND made to drink the water by proper guidance. She had made me a student proud of my academic brain – despite my physical appearance and the fact that my achievements could not go down in the school’s record.But she retired the next year.

It was a wintery night when my parents asked me to quit school. For two years I was permitted to study in the local public primary school as an “ineligible student” due to cerebral palsy. I had made friends there. I even invited some classmates over to my eighth birthday party. There was party glee still in the air when I was told to leave my school and little friends once and for all. I yelled, kicked, pleaded, and wailed. I cried as hard as my throat allowed me in an attempt to change my parents’ decision. I cried harder at a terrible, terrible thought that I would lose friendship, the very last thing to make me feel like I was a normal child. All was in vain. To protect my rights as a student, my poor parents had no choice but to endure their darling’s tears and sacrifice her wish to be a student.

“Now let’s start”. I am drawn back to the present by a soft voice coming from the dais. Without further ado (“No standing up and ‘good morning, professor'”!?), the class begins.It is a B.A. class for insurance policies. Some of the students bend over their cell phones. Some whisper to their tablemates as if nothing had happened. Only a few have opened their textbooks, waiting for the professor to continue.

“As some of you might have noticed, we have a special guest with us for today’s lesson.” The professor announces, and scores of heads are turning to my direction. I return them with a smirk and then hurriedly look away at the windows.

From where I sit on the fourth floor, the campus is largely a patch of the sky which, covered in thick clouds, seems to have a hard time deciding whether to rain or not. A bird flies around all alone. The trees wave their dying leaves in the wind.

“…and she sets a fine example from which you all should learn to cherish what you have for academic education. Now let’s give [Jenny] a big hand.”

The room exploded with applause. I fix my eyes resolutely at the blackboard, trying as hard as I can to fight back the tears swimming in my eyes.

The lesson turns out quite simple. I am right in the middle of the course, but I have little trouble understanding the professor without the textbook. Some of the students must have felt this way, too. There is one girl taking pictures of her friend’s long hair with her cell phone. In two rows ahead sit a boy and a girl giggling over their cartoon drawings. A little farther is a boy who clearly dozed off on his opened textbook. A few left and entered the classroom of their own accord.

There is a popular saying among Chinese junior and senior high students, and it goes like this, “Work hard, buddy. Freedom awaits us in the university!” Parents, in unanimity of this remark, say to their five-year-olds, “Try as hard as you can to get good grades at school, darling, and Mommy (Daddy) will buy you anything you want. KFC, toys, computers, you just name it.”

When the kids grow older, the tactic changes to “You must get to the key high school, you know, for a better chance to get a place in a good university. Competition is fierce out there!”

If they did manage to go on to a key high school, the parents would probably frown and complain on a daily basis, “Will you take a long good look at what you are doing? You’ve dropped to the tenth place in the results of your mid-term exams! You are our only hope, but is that what you do to repay our expectations and love? How can you get a nice job if you can’t get to a good university? I want an answer!”

Teachers, who are solely responsible for “enrollment quotas”, have their own way of instilling tension in students. “Let’s exert every bit of our efforts on the final examinations to see who the winner is, Class 7 or us!”

Few parents or teachers, though, say to their children, “I love you for whoever career you choose, kid, but it is your social responsibility to be a lifelong learner for a purpose greater than that of having cars, houses, and money.”

The result of our current educational system is the very epitome before the professor’s and my eyes – that many young people and professors, at an age most appropriate for some serious thinking and learning, simply squander time away at this shrine for development of mankind.Lin Yutang, one of the past greatest writers, linguists, and educators, expressed his distinct attitude in one of his essays that may be summarized as follows:

“Why do we use millions of dollars to construct facilities of higher education on an assumption that students are all learning-impaired? Instead of those knowledge-inefficient schools, we should build free-access libraries where youngsters, guided by volunteer humanitarians and specialists in all fields, could read for enthusiasm, enlightenment, and work rather than examinations and textbooks designed to impossibly scale the grasp of knowledge via a number of multi-choice questions. The reader could later contribute to the existing knowledge base with inventions that came from his or her free mind developed at a much younger age. How many qualified scientists, writers, doctors, politicians, and economists would we produce by then!”

Approving as I am of this attitude, my dream still remains the same that one day I will be able to get my PhD diploma from, say, Harvard University, and probably write a Chinese bestselling book entitled, “How to Get Admitted to Harvard University in Three Simple Steps and Why”, based on my fortunate learning experiences with a teacher like Ms. Li.