Once a week for five months ten of us, sometimes twelve, were herded into a dark van with tinted windows and ragged carpets. The smallest one of us contorted ourselves into the most uncomfortable positions and driven to the outskirts of Shanghai. The driver dropped us off on the side of the dusty highway and like clockwork, there was always someone waiting there to take us through the dark, narrow alley.
We passed by a middle aged couple who’s brown leather skin was the result of years of toiling in the sun. They baked bread on the side of the highway – salty ones and unsalted ones. Behind them was a dirt road carved between two dug out vegetables fields, which were being tended to by residents in straw hats and hunched backs.
We passed by tattered wood houses battered by the heavy rain and the harsh sun. The women chatted on small wooden stools and gawked as we passed by. Some of them were nursing. They looked tired and lifeless. Dirty toddlers with cracked red cheeks laughed innocently around them, as if they harbored all their mother’s life and energy. The men were no were to be found.
We entered a white two-story building. The children present looked eager, curious and afraid – all at the same time. I was assigned a room on the ground floor. It was a tiny room big enough for only 15 people but overcrowded with 50. My hands were tugged along the way as I squeezed to the front of the room. I introduced myself.
“小朋友，你好。我是黄老师。你的英语老师。”(How are you kids? My name is Miss Wong. I’m your English teacher.)
“黄老师好！”(Good morning Miss Wong!)
They shouted in unison.
This was the QiDi Migrant School. These were migrant children. Their families live like nomads, moving from place to place in search of work. Men leave before the sun rises and return long after the sun sets. The children here know nothing of consistency. The people they know and the friends they make come and go. It’s as fleeting as their education, but their desire to learn is stronger than all the children I’ve ever taught back home.
These migrant children were not only hungry for food. They were hungry to learn. They shouted answers with bright eyes and they fought to come to the board. For them, enough was never enough. They always wanted more. At the end of each class they tugged at my hands and asked,
“黄老师，你会回来吗？”(Miss Wong, will you be back?)
I always said yes and they would gleam with joy but I knew that the more I said yes, the closer I was to saying no. Eventually I had to leave. Just like everyone else in their lives.
Migrant families who live in poverty know that education is the key to economic mobility but their children’s education is hindered when kids are pulled from school to harvest the land and scrounge for scrap metal. My students don’t know it but what they taught me was much more valuable than the English I taught them. Kids in the States say, “I hate school. School sucks. It’s boring.” But many children around the world walk barefoot for miles to attend school. We get driven.
This opportunity I had to teach and travel abroad was all due to the Fudan Foreign Students Volunteering Association. It was the most rewarding experience at Fudan University. The dedicated principal of QiDi Migrant School provided door to door service from Fudan’s Foreign Dormitory to the dilapidated school building in the outskirts of Shanghai. He himself was a former migrant student who saw that education was his way out of a migrant lifestyle. He built the school at QiDi for the children, and for the future, of the migrant community. He’s proof that education is the way out of poverty.