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Teachers brave spicy peppers, rain, harsh conditions

BACK in Shanghai for the Chinese New Year, Yuan Bing was shocked that his three-year-old son briefly didn't recognize him after a five-month absence in quake-hit Sichuan Province. Maybe that was because Yuan lost a lot of weight in harsh conditions.

Yuan is among the first 60 Shanghai teachers who left last August 27 to aid the city of Dujiangyan for one year. The earthquake struck last May 12 and many badly constructed schools were ruined. They will go back on February 14.

The volunteer teachers, selected by the Shanghai Education Commission last July, are part of a nationwide effort to pitch in and help reconstruction. It pairs quake-struck areas with better-off cities elsewhere. Shanghai is paired with Dujiangyan, which was severely damaged.

The teachers were assigned to schools and kindergartens in all the 19 towns and villages of Dujiangyan to help get teaching underway again. Restoring normal routines, especially education, is healing and reassuring to traumatized children and adults.

Though the teachers had thought they were fully prepared, physically and mentally, many of them were still shocked by the devastation everywhere.

"You wouldn't know how serious the earthquake was until you got there and saw the terrible scenes with your own eyes," says math teacher Yuan, a teaching director with Shanghai Luwan District No. 1 Central Primary School.

The sentiment is shared by other volunteer teachers who devoted themselves to rebuilding local education in Dujiangyan.

"Children were more fragile after the earthquake, so we needed to give them more care and love," says Zhu Jingying, a volunteer teacher from Xuhui District.

Before going to Sichuan, the Shanghai teachers had closely followed media accounts of the quake and its heart-wrenching aftermath - the single cloth shoe, the red scarf, the single flower in the debris.

The volunteers experienced numerous aftershocks, big and small; 29 of them were above magnitude 4, Yuan recalls. The one on the night of November 6 left them the deepest impression as the epicenter was right under their feet.

"I was making a video call with my wife and cousin when the signal was suddenly disrupted by the shock at 11pm," Yuan recalls.

The ground was trembling, the buildings were shaking - it was pretty much like situation when the big quake hit, Zhu says.

All the 60 teachers, together with 3,000 students living in dorms of Dujiangyan High School, rushed out. Some frightened students jumped from the second floor and suffered foot injuries. A terrified girl was vomiting and refused to go back inside for two hours, Yuan says.

The teachers sent all injured students to a nearby hospital and finally put the others to bed at around 2am.

"We kept food, water and emergency bags under our pillows every night before going to sleep in case of any emergency," Yuan says.

Yuan now teaches math at the Tianma Primary School in Dujiangyan and is acting vice principal. He also gave talks to local teachers and parents and helped design the new campus.

The students in Dujiangyan were fascinated by the new Shanghai teacher. They stood outside Yuan's office and watched him through the window. Local teachers were interested in his teaching methods and attended his lectures.

The child quake survivors are generally stronger, both physically and mentally, than their relatively pampered counterparts in big cities like Shanghai, Yuan says. Still, it was painful to see students suffering in their shabby temporary classrooms in remote areas.

"Wind outside (the classroom), breeze inside; rain pouring outside, drizzling inside," he jokes.

Then Yuan and other Shanghai teachers decided to do something. Students were sent to the auditorium for class on rainy days when rain flooded the classrooms. They were also allowed to wear scarves and gloves in class against the freezing cold - scarves and gloves are usually forbidden in Shanghai.

To avoid injuries, paper was used to cover rough edges in temporary classrooms and teachers kept reminding students to be careful not to scratch themselves on exposed nails and screws.

Volunteers also took many motivational books for the local students and listened to their worries from time to time.

"We should consider the self-esteem of students when offering help to them," Yuan says.

All the time and effort paid off: Shanghai teachers soon became good friends with their students.

"My students gave me a lovely plasticine flower they made by themselves as the Teacher's Day gift on September 12," Yuan says. "I was almost moved to tears."

The education situation in Dujiangyan is improving as most classes have resumed and students are working even harder under the instruction of their Shanghai teachers who urged the use of scribbling pads and notation of mistakes.

The Shanghai volunteers introduced many advanced teaching methods, such as using vivid illustration and accessories at class, and adapted themselves to working in temporary shelters.

They usually had to stand in the middle of the classroom so that all students could hear clearly; they couldn't raise their voice because that could disturb nearby classes in shelters without sound proofing.

Many textbooks with rich supplementary material, tape recordings, CDs and electronic keyboards were sent from Shanghai to schools in Sichuan thanks to the efforts of the volunteers.

In daily life, Shanghai teachers endured the very different and spicy Sichuan food, rainy weather, harsh living conditions and homesickness.

"The sudden stoppages of running water, electricity and Internet network happen from time to time," says Zhou Jinbao, a volunteer teacher from Minhang District. "Some even last for more than 10 days."

All the teachers shared the food of the locals, though they were not used to Sichuan peppers. Provincial authorities once proposed making special food for their Shanghai palates, but the teachers declined, saying they didn't want to bother them for special treatment.

More than half of the Shanghai teachers fell ill and lost weight as they were not accustomed to the food and climate.

Some of those who didn't eat the spicy peppers got skin ailments at first; others who ate too much suffered piles, sores in the throat and gum inflammation. More fell ill in November due to the sharp temperature difference between day and night.

Despite the discomfort, the Shanghai volunteers persist in their work and don't want to be taken care of and cause inconvenience to the earthquake victims.

"Friends said that I become one size smaller when I returned," Yuan says, laughing.

Maybe that's why his son didn't recognize him at the very beginning when he went to the kindergarten to pick him up as soon as he returned to the city.

Yuan says he missed many growing-up changes in his son, but he doesn't regret being away, as he had more significant work to do in Sichuan.

"Not only are we helping them, but they are also 'teaching' us a lot," Yuan says.

All the Shanghai teachers were deeply moved by the touching stories of quake survivors and the spirit of their teaching counterparts. They continued their work though many suffered physical injury, trauma and loss of their own family.

The volunteers sent tape recordings of their diaries and reflections back to schools in Shanghai. In the city for the holiday break, they will give lectures in schools about their experiences in Sichuan.

After their family reunion, the 60 teachers will depart for Dujiangyan again on February 14 to fulfill their one-year mission. They will not come home again until June.

"I expect more things to do in the next semester when construction of the new campus is completed," says Yuan.


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