Ouyang Tongzi, the 23 year-old schoolteacher of Xiaohusai’s local primary school, sits at the front of the classroom, her hands folded together a bit awkwardly.
We are scattered amongst the seats in front of her like overgrown students. Outside, the sound of children screaming and laughing permeate the walls. Occasionally, a child who cannot control his curiosity any longer will dare to get up onto his tiptoes to peek into the classroom window, some of the more dauntless even opening the door, only to stop in the doorway and stare at us with an exhilarated smile. It is endearing, but a bit at odds with the heavy topic that we are discussing.
“I just graduated college last year,” Ouyang explains, carefully not looking at the camera propped up on our makeshift tripod. “I am from the nearby city, Lincang. I was assigned to come teach at Xiaohusai by the government. I was really excited, you know? First job after college, and everything.” She pauses, looking at some unidentifiable point in the distance. “But then someone told me that this school was 一师一校; that I would be the only teacher in the entire school.
“I felt conflicted, but tried to keep an open mind. It wasn’t until I actually came to Xiaohusai…I was in the car with my brother and sister, and I remember they just kind of, looked at me.” The road to Xiaohusai is notoriously rough and uneven, 2 hours of driving up the mountain on an unpaved mud road. There is no such thing as safety measures here, the great mountain hills just one wrong turn or one slippery tire from swallowing you whole. It is left unsaid but obvious to all of us, Ouyang never imagined she would end up in such a backwater and undeveloped village, surrounded by poverty every day.
“I just…this wasn’t what I thought my first job would be like,” Ouyang says. A tear slips out of her eye unprompted. “I’m really sorry,” she says, swallowing, “Could you excuse me for a moment?”
She leaves the classroom in search of a pack of tissues. We can’t help but wince in sympathy. Ouyang’s story is like some sick reverse-parody of the classic ‘small town girl in a big city’ trope. She was forcibly thrust into a life no fresh young college graduate would imagine for themselves, filled with dirt roads, outdoor toilets, and having to shoo wandering chickens out of the way every morning as she walks to school.
When she returns, her eyes are red-rimmed but she sits back down evenly. She folds her hands on the desk in front of her again, like putting up a shield. “I’m sorry,” she says, “The first few months here were difficult for me. I thought so many times about quitting and applying for a job somewhere else, but seeing the kids here…I just couldn’t leave them behind.”
She takes a breath, turning her head to look through the cloudy classroom window. Outside in the courtyard, a group of children are playing the world’s most illegal game of basketball, periodically breaking out into giggles.
“It really surprised me at first, how much the villagers here value education,” Ouyang says. “People would stop me on the street and tell me, ‘thank you for being here. You are the first real teacher we’ve had in over ten years.’ They’re always finding new ways to help out around here at school and give the kids more resources. All of them come to every single parent meeting that we have.”
A small smile tugs at the corners of her lips, “I still remember Children’s Day. They hadn’t even known what it was before this year. I went down to Mengku town to get some snacks and balloons, and we spent the whole day playing games with the kids. Some of the parents showed up, too, it was amazing to see the women wearing their traditional Lahu tribe clothing.”
Ouyang shakes her head, a little self-deprecatingly. “When I first arrived here, I couldn’t do anything! I grew up in the city, I didn’t even know how to do the most basic things like wash my clothes, or cook without a stove. The villagers really helped me and took me in as one of their own. Adjusting to life in Xiaohusai was rough, sometimes. But I’m so glad I got to meet the people here.”
When the interview is over and we walk out of the classroom together, school has been over for a good hour and a half. Yet, there is still a group of children huddled together at the corner of the courtyard, chattering excitedly about something. “I usually stay here for a few hours after school ends,” Ouyang explains, “A lot of their parents are busy picking tea and working during this time, so the kids will go drop their things off at home and come back to play.”
As we trudge closer, the kids jump up. “Look, look!” They scream, “Look what 班长 planted!” The group parts like the Red Sea to reveal their precious treasure. The land next to the basketball court is dusty and dark, mostly barren. There are weeds and cracks in the dirt– and next to them, a single flower. It is a small, delicate thing with soft blue petals, painstakingly sown. The one spot of color.