Mamahuhu: A joint column for mamas in Chengdu
The classrooms in my 8-year-old son's small-town primary school are really bare, but I try not to let it get me down.
Desks, all 45 of them, are made of laminated wood; paint is peeling from the unadorned walls. At the front of the room is a good, old-fashioned green chalkboard. There are no bins of learning aids and books, just student desks and the teacher's podium.
On a typical day, students begin arriving at around 8 a.m. Lessons begin at 8:40, and each period lasts 40 minutes. Of the 30 periods per week, eight are Chinese, eight are math, and the rest are English, arts and music, sports, and "moral security and safety." And guess what Moral Security and Safety are about? I don't know either!
There is one 10-minute recess and a second 20-minute exercise break at 10:10, during which all students practice—to speakers blaring very loud music— the exercises and dances they've learned during sports classes. Students go home for lunch from 12:05 to 2:30 p.m. They have one more 10-minute break in the afternoon, and classes end at 4:05 p.m.
Last semester, my son had the honor of being the classroom key holder. Every day he arrived at 7:30 a.m. to unlock the classroom door. This revered task is usually passed on from student to student every few months, but this proud mama is here to say her son's teacher just loved her son so much that he was allowed to wear that key around his neck every day for the whole semester.
Friday afternoon "meeting" sessions give the teacher an opportunity to lecture about who has been bad and good and the once-per-semester upcoming field trip. Once, the teacher called out the names of the poor-performing students while praising my son and other students. The kids got their revenge when they chose which teacher would supervise them during a field trip. Nobody picked her, and she told the class she was upset that no one liked her.
Sometimes parents are invited to the meetings. We've gone to one: The math teacher reported that parents need to help their children form good habits and do mathematical calculations in their heads, and that hiring supplemental teachers isn't good because parents are the best teachers. She also said not to bring in colorful rulers since they're distracting. Gray is better.
When I asked my son about playing with a certain boy once, he answered that he wouldn't because that boy was bad. He said the teacher had said so. This teacher often praised my son while scolding the other students, saying that they, as Chinese people, should be ashamed that a foreigner's Chinese was better than theirs.
But guess who has decided that this kind of school system is what she wants her children to be part of? Me! While conditions at my son's school might be considered at best unsophisticated or at worst unacceptable for many members of Chengdu's expat community, I think people are people anywhere. We get used to different kinds of conditions. I am choosing not to exclusively home-school my son because I figure that if this is good enough for the people I live around, it's good enough for us. There are solid walls and roofs, and there are textbooks. People express care for children, albeit in very different ways than I'm used to. I'm here to learn about those differences, even though it's a very long process.
Jane Zawadowski, mother of three, has lived and taught for the past two years at Xihua University in Hongguang, just outside of Chengdu.