Today we took the kids outside during 8th period to practice singing a song for our international day celebration tomorrow morning. As the kids stood on stage, they had to shield their eyes from the glare of the brilliant sun. I saw many students still in sweaters and wool pants, drops of sweat beading across their brows. And as I saw the mound of cast-off jackets piled in front of the stage, I remembered that it was only earlier this month that I had spent a weekend with high school students and other teachers shivering in the Sichuan mountains.
In early December, Melissa and I had answered a call for volunteer chaperones. Teachers were needed to go help high school students volunteer, spending a Saturday with sixth graders, many of whom were the children of migrant workers and lived in dormitories at the school they attended. This opportunity was, in addition to being a volunteer trip, a chance to escape from the smoggy city I now call home. So, Melissa and I volunteered. The trip was suppose to happen in early January, but with set-back after set-back, was moved to March.
The group finally able to go consisted of 12 high schoolers and 4 teachers: Melissa, Jason, Didi, and me. Jason and I were going to superview team building games, Melissa was to help students put on a science demonstration, and Didi was teaching an art lesson.
On March 6th, we left QSI early and loaded ourselves onto a bus to begin the five hour drive to the Daba Mountains to the Hei Tan township. As we drove, Melissa slept and I gazed out the window, snapping pictures of the yellow rapeseed flowers that people grow in every open field near the highway. Not only, would we learn, does the plant taste delicious, but it also is used as a primary source of cooking oil.
By the time we reached Hei Tan, it was already 7pm and our stomachs were definitely rumbling. We disembarked at a small restaurant that was expecting us and the headmaster of 南江县黑潭九义校, the Hei Tan school, welcomed us and showed us to tables where we were served local, not-so-spicy food…including rapeseed.
After dinner, we piled back on the bus and drove a few more minutes to 南江县黑潭九义校. Once at the school, we pulled out all our equipment and piled it outside of the bus. We meandered about the grounds to find out where we would be sleeping. We had been told there was a playground or a basketball court to pitch tents on, but once we arrived, we found the school even more accommodating. They opened up their cultural center for us, letting us sleep in a space that houses computers and had been built especially for “left behind” children whose parents are in remote reaches of the country. The female teachers lucked out even more and we were shown to the bedroom of a school teacher who was gone for the weekend. We laid out our sleeping bags and I proceeded to huddle up to a good book. While the room was frigid (the entire school is not heated), I was grateful to be inside and was able to get quite a bit of sleep.
In the morning, we woke up early and got ready for the day. That was a bit challenging. There was one squat toilet for the 20 or so people milling about. There was also no hot water, but at least there was running water. Brushing teeth required us to spit into a hole in the bathroom floor below the spigot that drizzle out ice-cold water. I don’t know how buildings here seem to trap cold air in the winter, but it was impossible to get warm that morning until we went outside. We trekked back to the town near the school and ate a breakfast of dumplings and apples. Afterwards, we returned to the school to begin volunteering.
There were roughly 100 sixth graders in attendance that we split between two groups: and inside group and outside group. While Melissa and Didi took care of the science show and artwork for the inside portion, Jason and I helped the high schoolers lead the outside middle schoolers through a variety of activities. The high schoolers had the little ones play limbo and a version of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” They created relays and strategy building games. And they got the kids up and moving, running around, laughing and singing. We broke for lunch, packed the bus, then returned to the day. We switched groups of children and played similar games with the second group of children.
By the time the day was drawing to a close, I was feeling quite warmed up largely due to all the jogging about. I decided to leave the high schoolers to their own devices for a moment and see how Didi was doing with art. When I walked into the classroom, I couldn’t believe how packed it was. I counted the desks that were piled into the room: 49. And with small windows and very little sunlight, the cold air just enveloped the room. I shivered, took a few pictures, and thought of the tenacity students who study here every day must have to be able to learn anything without being so shaken by the cold.
After the second session, we showed the school the movie Big Hero 6 using their projector. Then we ate dinner and hopped back on the bus to drive back to Chengdu. While the bus was warm and cozy, it wasn’t until I was back at QSI, helping to unload the bus, that I truly felt spoiled. Here we have so much: water that runs hot and cold, heat in our school buildings and apartments, children who have parents they get to go home to on a daily basis.
And, as the weather now starts to warm up outside, I think of the children at 南江县黑潭九义校 and wonder how their lives change with the seasons.