Thursday, March 8, 2007

Part Two

School Days

And more about my birth – it really was a dramatic event !

It was around sunset when mother felt I was ready to arrive, but father was working late at the office (as usual) , so she had to get to hospital on her own, and being frugal, she took a pedicab. You can imagine the poor driver pedaling furiously for an hour through the dark streets of Beijing while mother was begging him to hurry. On arrival, I didn’t waste any time entering the world – but the hospital staff were so eager to go home for the night, they forgot about mother, and she was left to spend the night in a delivery room. It was winter – and neglecting to leave her with a blanket, my mother needed several months of acupuncture to restore her health.

Mother spent the next six months recovering at home – and I spent the next 18 months living with a wet nurse.

That’s how it was done for government cadres – the government provided a subsidy – but the parents had to recruit their own nannies – so my mother’s brother sent her a young woman from his village – who moved to Beijing and lived with the me in the nurse’s dormitory. I was, of course, too young to complain about all this – but apparently my country nurse was not completely candid about the other children she was feeding --- so I was not growing as quickly as babies usually do – and she also managed to give my mother many other things to complain about: she flirted with the cooks, she didn’t change my diapers, she let me ruin my clothes, she slapped me around. Eventually, some neighbors told mother how badly I was being treated, the nanny was sent back to the country, and I was put into daycare.

At the age of two – I was sent to my first boarding school – which was another mansion, nearby, that had been converted into a facility that fed, housed, and pre-schooled children 6 days a week (we were sent home every Saturday night, and came back Monday morning ) The school was closed for two months during the summer but you can see that I hardly spent any time with my parents at all !

Our pre-school even had a zoo ! -- a little petting zoo – to which, one day, the principal added a few monkeys that he brought back with him from the south. We loved those monkees ! And you can imagine our excitement when a baby monkey was born --- and all our eager little faces pressed up against the window to see him. You can also imagine our terror when one of the monkees escaped and ran wild in the courtyard. We started running too – and it was right in front of me that wham! -- one of the kids and the monkee knocked each other over..

In my entire life, I only lived with my parents for four years – but I was the only child who spent so much time in boarding schools. So, living at home, my siblings had stronger bonds between each other My two older brothers made a team, and my older sister protected my younger sister. For some years I felt like I was an adopted daughter, an outsider. (happily, that is no longer the case.)

Then at the age of seven – I went to grammar school – and since it had just been built, I was the first of my siblings to attend. It was right outside the old Beijing city walls – in a cemetery, in fact, so the school grounds encompassed the monumental tomb of the Dowager Empress’s favorite eunuch. ( I remember this monument quite well because whenever father dropped me off at school, he always stopped to read the text carved into the two plinths on either side, detailing the achievements of that notorious figure in 19th C. Chinese history. In front of the tomb was an enormous stone altar – which served us quite well as a ping-pong table !

This is now 1960 – and the country has just passed through the “Great Leap Forward” – where government workers, like my parents were now on salary – but had to pay for services --- and many of them, including my mother – were laid off – to cut expenses and save money to pay back debts to the Russians. (being a good cadre, however, my mother was soon offered another job – this time as the manager of a local clothing factory)

My grammar school, called “June First” ( “International Children’s Day”) was one of about seven special schools in Bejing built to educate the children of government officials.(each one was named after a some special day, like “May First” (labor day) for example.) The “June First” school took the children of (and was supported by) the Internal Ministry and the PLA, and though our lives were very regimented (by American standards) the teachers were strictly forbidden to hit us.

(That was Mao’s new policy for all of China: no physical punishment – but there could be verbal punishment or humiliations, like standing in the corner or the revoking of privileges.)

We did group exercise ( including eye exercises between classes) and some wore badges of rank on our shoulder. The well behaved children got to join the Young Pioneers and wear a special red scarf – like the young pioneers did in the Soviet Union ( which provided so a model for so much of Chinese education ) – but I didn’t get to wear one for several years.

I was a good student but I was too independent or strong headed , so I was not allowed to join until my third year. ( and even then, I had to pretend to be good for two weeks)

One time, I remember we had a young teacher whom today might be called “manic-depressive”. One morning she began class singing and smiling ---in a very happy mood -- but suddenly that mood turned dark – she began to yell and made us all write something a thousand times in our little notebooks. I wouldn’t stand for it! – and I shouted back “I’m not going to do it!” – at which point the teacher removed the penalty from everyone else – and gave it only to me ! But soon she relented, and the punishment was stopped..

Another time, when I was a new student (about age 7), the teacher said something I didn’t like. She then continued teaching , but I wanted her to stop – so I began to cry and scream so loudly that the principal could hear me from the other side of the school.

He took me away to his office -- but he was a very kind man – and I remember, after I settled down, climbing up on the chairs in his office to nose around the panoramic picture of the school hanging up on the office wall.

We all had to go to bed in the dormitory at 9 O’clock – but some of us liked to talk – and I think that this was what got me in the most trouble.

I was never severely punished, but several years earlier, my oldest brother had not been so lucky – and one day a teacher got so angry with him that she stuck him in the arm with a needle and locked him in the cellar. My mother was very upset – a meeting of the parents was called – and the teachers agreed that they would never do this sort of thing again. The worst punishment that I ever saw was making children stand in a corner.

But it’s not like I was a bad student – indeed, I was such a good student I was often spared the punishment or humiliation that my head strong behavior well deserved. (perhaps you could call me a “teacher’s pet” ?) I was also a popular student since I was the fastest runner, a good dancer, and was active at acting – and even directing – our little plays.

We studied math, and Chinese, and music. Most of our classes were memorization and recitation – with the teacher calling on each student to stand and recite, by memory, various pages of text. We students got to elect a class monitor – usually a very well behaved student – whose job was to announce the teacher’s entrance to the classroom and command us to stand or sit. I just saw a film, “Au Revoir Mes Enfants” about a French boarding school in the 40’s, and it all seemed so familiar.

So I think I had very good time in school – although we did have bullies now and then. One time my father took a special trip to Sin Jiang (on the silk road) – and when he returned he brought us all raisins – which were a special treat. My little sister was stingy with hers and wouldn’t share them with other children – but soon she came crying to me after bullies had dumped her bag of raisins on the floor so all the other children could pick them up. I shared some candies I had with her (which she remembers to this day!)

We had two places to keep our personal things: inside our desk – and shelf space in a dormitory armoire. We could really keep anything in that desk – and the little boy who shared the other half of our two person desk was really, really dirty ! He kept worms, frogs, pine resin balls, and who-knows-what else inside that desk, and it really irritated me. I drew a line in the space between us – and whenever he crossed that line – ouch ! -- he got a swift, sharp elbow in the side !

That’s how we sat in class: boy-girl-boy-girl – but there were separate bath houses for each – where once a week we all went to soak in a large warm pool, get scrubbed, and then walk through a shower. One time, I remember, some boys -- who were approaching that age when girls began to interest them – broke into the girls bath house to satisfy their curiosity. I think they were all punished – but I don’t remember how – probably letters were sent to their parents.

No comments: