Zha Wenhong, a laid off Shanghai woman, sets her life anew by helping her impoverished students in Anhui.
Zha Wenhong almost cried her heart out when she was informed of her layoff one day in 1997. The 47-year-old Shanghai native felt lost.
Not wanting to waste her life, she volunteered to be a teacher in Dangshan, a poverty-striken county in East China's Anhui Province. By fulfilling her long cherished dream of becoming a teacher, Zha was able to pick up the pieces of her life.
The circumstances that led to Zha's teaching role began in 1993, when she started to donate money to children for their schooling after seeing a Project Hope advertisement - a programme that sponsors children from poor countryside families to continue their schooling.
Most of her donations went to Ma Xiaohong, a boy in Caozhuang Town of the county. From then on, to ensure that Ma received his monthly 100 yuan ($12), one tenth of the family's income, Zha cut back on expenditures on her daughter's milk.
In 1997, Zha received news that Ma planned to drop out of school, as his grandmother, and only living relative, was seriously ill. Without hesitation, Zha journeyed to Dangshan for the first time, and was horrified by the rural community's poverty.
She witnessed dilapidated classrooms with broken roofs and windows, lacking electricity and using candles to illuminate classes.
Ma, at a mere 14 years old, sported white hair and had the hands of an old man.
Zha swore to local officials that she would return to teach after her retirement. Later that year, she was laid off, and returned to fulfill her promise.
On September 1, 1998, Zha, accompanied by her husband, became a primary school teacher in the town.
However, villagers doubted the reasons for her decision. They wondered why Zha would give up a good life in the city to live in their village. Zha watched as distrustful parents withdraw their children from the school.
However, her enthusiasm was not squashed. Besides Chinese, Zha taught music and art for another two classes. She would prepare for her classes late into the night, rising the next day as early as 5:00am.
Zha received no salary. She was only allotted 150 yuan ($18) in subsidies with half going to buy stationery, basins, towels and handkerchiefs for the students.
Her endurance paid off. Several months later when the winter holiday was approaching, farmers and children hated to part for the holidays with the new teacher.
To ensure Zha made it back to Shanghai to celebrate Spring Festival with her family, the headmaster asked Zha to start off a week earlier. However, parents and the village head misunderstood and thought that the headmaster wanted to drive Zha away.
They rushed to the headmaster and threatened that if he drove away Zha, they would throw him out of the school.
The misunderstanding was soon clarified, but crying students in the class all begged her to stay.
On the September 1, 1999, parents flooded into Zha's dorm at dawn, asking her to accept their children in her class.
A year later, when a headmaster from Shanghai went to Dangshan in hope of hiring Zha, farmers and students all gathered within minutes. A second grader cried out, "If you take Teacher Zha away, we will send all the village dogs to expel you."
Li Heyan, now a junior middle school student, once had to drop out of school to work in a factory in East China's Zhejiang Province.
"I still have a younger brother and a younger sister, and all the family depend on apple trees. While most of the apples were not sold until the winter holiday," the girl said in an interview.
To keep her brother and sister in school, 14-year-old Li agreed to go to work after the Spring Festival.
Wanting the girl to stay in school, Zha began begging others to buy Li's apples on her return from Shanghai. She called all the 23 schools in town, and invited all the headmasters to the playground to buy apples.
Despite knowing that many teachers had not been paid for months, she still kept on pleading: "Please save a child, and educate the students with heart."
Finally, all the apples were sold out with Zha's great efforts, and Li returned to school.
The teaching in the town won her great respect among students and farmers, but it also deeply hurt her family and relatives.
She once promised Zhao Jing, her only daughter, that she would just work there for one semester, but the one semester grew into three years.
For the students, Zha even missed her daughter's wedding. After the daughter was diagnosed as sterile, Zha only stayed with her for one month before hurrying back to the village students.
After a miraculous pregnancy, the daughter experienced further problems which could have caused her to lose the baby.
To save the baby, Zha's daughter was given a Caesarean operation without the use of anesthesia.
However, two students were wounded in the class when a roof beam dropped. To raise money to build new classrooms, Zha once again cancelled her visit to her daughter.
"Without anesthesia, the pain was unbearable. I only wanted to hold my mother's hands," said Zhao.
Not only her daughter, but also Zha's sisters and brothers have been annoyed by her putting the family aside.
On the eve of the Spring Festival in 2000, Zha called all her sisters and brothers to dinner for a celebration, but no one showed up.
Once, at the news that Zha would go back to students to start a new semester, her youngest brother cried, "I will never enter your house."
However, they are brothers and sisters after all. The brother once took his 6-year-daughter to the school. Over the past two years, the little girl has saved money to help buy erasers for the student there.
"She even asked me to abstain from smoking," he said.
Last November, on a ceremony of a donation to the school, Zha met all her siblings.
"If possible, I will go to teach math," said the youngest brother.
(By Sha Qing)