Igniting hope for children -- a saga of rural schools in southwest China
Gazing at his pupils in a bright and spacious classroom, primary school teacher Luo Yazhong could not help thinking about his former students some 20 years before, who had received their education under the most lamentable conditions and even dropped out of school because of biting poverty.
Luo is a 50-year-old veteran teacher in Lancang Lahu Autonomous County in southwest China's Yunnan Province. The county used to be an economic backwater tucked away in the mountains on the China-Myanmar border.
Over the past 18 years, Luo has witnessed the remarkable changes that have taken place in Lancang's primary education system, with increased investments in the sector -- new campuses, better educational facilities and a higher enrollment rate.
Luo was interviewed by Xinhua reporters in 2003 when they surveyed several rural schools in Lancang and recorded the county's dire educational conditions. A revisit to the county in March this year by another team of Xinhua correspondents has shed light on the epic changes that have taken place there over the years.
In the March interview, Luo said that he often dreams about having a time machine, one that can bring his former students from 17 years ago to this day, so that they can finish their education in a much better environment.
As the principal of Banshan Village Primary School in 2003, Luo still has vivid memories of the dilapidated school campus back then.
It was little more than a number of ramshackle bamboo houses with plastic sheets pasted onto the side to fend off the wind. Many of the children slept beneath quilts, with their feet sticking out.
The students, mostly hailing from poverty-stricken families, always ate plain boiled vegetables for lunch, without any meat. Some of them took turns with their siblings in attending the school, and the more unfortunate ones had to drop out of school due to sheer poverty.
To keep the students in school, Luo and his colleagues often paid for their textbooks from their meager incomes.
Things started to change in 2012, as Lancang made great social and economic progress amid a nationwide poverty-alleviation drive and more government funds trickled into the county's primary education system.
Official data shows that governments at all levels have invested some 486 million yuan (about 74.5 million U.S. dollars) to ensure access to primary education and improve the campus conditions in Lancang.
The county now has some 73,400 students receiving education in 254 schools of all levels and types. It is estimated that Lancang residents have received more than seven years of education, on average, whereas the number was barely over three in 2003.
Last September, the campus of Banshan Village Primary School was moved to a new site to merge with another school. The new campus now has spacious classrooms equipped with multimedia teaching equipment, computer rooms and dance rooms. The school canteen serves meat every day.
When the school bell rings for the end of daily classes, the students play basketball and do exercises on the skid-proof playground.
Luo said that, when he walks around the new campus or comes across his former students, tears often well up in his eyes.
"I really wish I had a time machine to bring them to the current campus. Then I could be their teacher again and they could finish their education," he said.
Yang Qixiu, a teacher from Lancang's Habuma Village Primary School, is more than glad that her pupils no longer have to starve, as many did during their school years.
In October 2004, the 23-year-old went to the remote rural school to teach after graduating from a technical secondary school. As a child, she saved money and worked part-time in the canteen every day for three consecutive years just to have enough to eat.
"When I arrived here 17 years ago, the houses were very low and the windows were rather shabby. The beds where children slept were made of bamboo chips and would often scratch them," she recalled.
"Every June and July, when the rainy seasons came, the children could not even have physical education class because of the muddy playground," said Yang.
To Yang's relief, her students have lived a better life, as the government has provided subsidies and free meals for local schools. The radical changes can be seen in the appearance of the campus buildings, as well as the evolution of the small vegetable plot.
Covering some 0.3 hectares on the hillside behind the school, the plot has been of great significance to everyone since the school opened in 1959.
For many years, the field produced vegetables, ensuring students could fill their stomachs.
The plot is still preserved to this day, but it has been given another purpose -- to cultivate students' labor skills, allowing them to experience the hardships of manual work, and to help them inherit the spirit of being hardworking and self-reliant.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the school arranges labor-skill classes for students. During such classes, they learn how to cook noodles, plough, grow vegetables, and even do artificial pollination when the pumpkins bloom.
These activities are always completed through the joint efforts of teachers and students. The vegetables that they grow have become part of regular meals in the canteen.
Last year, as the price of meat rose, the school sold the vegetables they had grown in return for more than 250 kg of chicken, said Yang.
"The children were so happy to eat it," she said.