Although Teach For China Fellow, Jasmine Wang, wrote the following piece about her students in rural China, their stories are universal. As I read what Jasmine wrote, I couldn’t stop asking myself what it would have meant if I had leaned in a bit more for my girls, what it would have meant for me if my teachers had taken a stronger stand for me, and when it’s ever enough.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been helping enroll in college one of my former sixth-graders, a shy, quiet girl who always did as she was told... and therefore got none of my attention back in 2005. Kimmy is now 20 and still soft-spoken. For the past two times we’ve talked on the phone, I’ve reminded her to be a “bitch” - to be louder, more assertive and to not give up what she’s aiming for. She giggles at her sixth grade teacher using profanity and promises to do so, but all I can think about is what might have happened if I had these conversations with her seven years ago, even though she was quiet and well-behaved.
At the end of my first year of teaching, I was given the option of repeating seventh grade English again with a group of new students or staying with my current class and teaching eighth grade. My current students are exceptionally lively and I know they will be even more of a challenge to manage in the coming year. While I was strongly tempted to start fresh with new students, I chose not to. The reality is I have failed the female students in my own class this year.
In an effort to respect their independence, I’ve actually neglected them as I focused almost the entirety of my attention on managing attention seeking, misbehaving boys. Out of all the home visits I have done, I have only ever visited the home of one female student.
The stories of Min, Song and Kun have helped me see that while girls may be the highest performing, quietest, or most responsible students within a class, this does not mean they are not in need of guidance. In fact, if we hope our female students can escape being defined by the roles of wives and mothers that society expects them to take, we must actively give them our attention even when they have been socialized to go unnoticed. For these reasons, I owe it to my female students to give it another go and, if it’s the least I can do, simply to be a more present figure in their lives.
Min’s story began with a feud between herself and an older female student carried over from primary school where they had engaged in fisticuffs. While it has become more difficult to fight each other physically in middle school, they resort to vicious gossip, competition over boys and female gangs as harassment tactics. She is mired in it constantly at school because everyone knows everyone and, for this, her once stellar grades have dropped and she is increasingly moody. Min started cutting herself in moments of distress when she didn’t want to be seen crying, or hurt or angry. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself or be perceived as weak. And clearly, there is no such thing as true privacy at school.
Throughout our conversation, Min would stop to apologize for her “weird personality” as she is more brash and prone to tempers than a girl should be--or her classmates expect her to be. She apologizes for this over and over because she believes who she has become only causes trouble and sadness for her mother, who is a single parent and sole supporter of her family. Yet she doesn’t seem to be able to change who she is becoming.
This struck a chord in me because my father also died when I was very young and I have been raised completely by my mother, who is both my role model and best friend. Min spoke of her mother with the same tone of admiration as I speak about mine. She describes how her mother is the first woman in her village to learn how to drive and how, though they are strapped for money, her mother never spares her the latest trends in clothing or shoes.
Listening to this story parallel to my own, I am startled by just how few options there are for single mothers in rural China. As most families here earn their income through agriculture, single mothers are tasked with not only raising children and cooking, but also collecting the firewood needed to cook, and cultivating the crops that produce food. It is an astronomical task for anyone of any gender. Moreover, there is immense cultural pressure for women to remarry if not just to secure themselves financially, then to find some protection against high rates of sexual harassment and assault many single women unfortunately face. For Min, this reality meant grappling with the prospect of a stepfather she barely knew. Her only words on the matter were very restrained as she noted that, “If it makes my mother happy, I should support it.”
At the end of her story, I did not know what to say. I could only ask her to find some outlet besides self-injury to release the emotions, though I knew that would be difficult. Students only have around 2 hours of free time every day and there is an unspoken rule that only boys have access to sporting facilities.
I was reminded, then, of how I had first met another student named Song: I had seen her once or twice at girl’s basketball club, a weekly 20-minute (the longest passing period of the day) basketball session that my Teach For China colleague Bolin and I host.
Girl’s basketball club began this semester on a feminist whim I had as I expressed discontent for the unspoken rule that only boys can or should play sports regularly. While I was not passionate about basketball or am I much of an athlete, I believed that if Bolin and I -leveraging our position as teachers--could reserve a court only for female students, girls would break out of the fold and come play. And they did. First, in embarrassed but curious droves that stood on the sidelines, then trickling down to 8-10 girls who now come regularly and play intensely. I felt some glee to have proven my point.
What I did not realize in my single-mindedness is that basketball club can be so much more than simply advancing my feminist agenda. In this small, miniscule, 20-minute interval, perhaps basketball can be a relief for students who struggle with the gender norms and girls who would otherwise not have the opportunity to act completely counter to how they have been taught. Our most enthusiastic player, Li, is a student that other girls have come to me about, whispering and asking about her gender. Because her hair is short and she carries herself like a tomboy, they find her odd and make cruel statements about her behind her back. Yet, on the basketball court, identity is not defined by how you are supposed to look or behave but rather by your skill at the game. When Li is playing on the court, the only words I hear about her are girls cheering for her and calling for her to, "加油！"
And so, I implored Min to continue coming to basketball club. It is a solution to no problem and yet, I can only hope it will be a small but crucial outlet for students like herself who feel stifled in other spaces. In the weeks since, I have seen Min come to basketball every week displaying both viciousness and camaraderie on the court. I cannot expect her to speak to me every time she is distressed and I can’t ever be sure that she will be “fine” in the long run and no longer resort to self-injury. However, each time I see her on the court, I breathe a sigh of relief and I am reminded that while I have every doubt about my own abilities as a teacher I also have every responsibility to keep giving these girls opportunities to take charge of their own identities.
I could conclude with Min, but it would be more accurate to conclude with the story of the student called Kun. Kun is Bolin’s student and she is the girl who faced her own death when she jumped into a river rather than return home with her mother. She stayed in the water for over ten minutes yet was able to survive. A few weeks later, she returned to school after winter break and calmly recounted this to Bolin. Bolin cannot help but marvel at how mature, kind and polite this student is--even when telling what would be a terrifying experience for anyone.
None of us are quite sure of her home dynamic, but what we do know is that her father is dead and the circumstances surrounding the causes of his death are suspect. Her mother has remarried, but the relationships between Kun and her family members are extremely tenuous. Even so, Bolin believed that after facing a near-death experience, Kun would no longer make such rash decisions that would cause harm to herself.
Midway through the semester, Bolin learned that Kun had disappeared. None of her classmates knew of her whereabouts because she had told several different stories. It is very likely, however, that Kun had run away from home and school with a boy from her village. My first reaction upon hearing this is that she is just a fifteen-year-old girl and this is completely unsafe. What does she know of the high rates of HIV/AIDS in Yunnan? How does she know she can trust this boy? How will she make money? Bolin and I struggled with what to do--if there is anything to be done at all.
“Maybe sometimes being more educated means we always over-complicate an issue that can be made simple,” Bolin suddenly said to me. “After all, both of my older sisters ran away from home at around the same age. It is a very common thing in rural China and they are both doing well for themselves now.”
After thinking about this for a while, I replied somberly, “That’s true. But how many were not so lucky? What if Kun isn’t so lucky?” How could I live with that?
Later, Bolin found Kun on the popular Chinese messaging app QQ and engaged her in purposefully casual conversation. Afraid to break her trust, Bolin asked her no direct questions about her whereabouts or intentions, only that she would stay safe. Kun then asked Bolin to send a picture of herself because she missed this teacher that she had always considered more of a sister. Bolin agreed, only on the condition that Kun would do the same. She sent a photo from a recent trip to Lijiang then waited for Kun to do the same. After a while, Kun said she couldn’t take a picture now; the lighting would be too dark. Kun then began reminding Bolin to take care of herself, to eat more fruits and vegetables and to sleep earlier. Shortly thereafter, the conversation ended.
Bolin and I were both stunned and heartbroken by this girl who tries so hard to display a level of maturity far beyond what should be expected of her young age. I thought in that moment that there is nothing we can do, I don’t even know if and when we would ever hear from her again. Most compelling however, I realized that maybe given the same situation, I would make the same decisions as Kun did.
I want to believe that Kun is taking active steps to improve her life, that she will be one of the lucky ones, that we will hear good news from her in the near future. But, truthfully, I have no clear answers either way. When I ask myself what I am supposed to do, I know only that sometimes you simply have to let her go.
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.