China — A Teacher Who Moves Mountains

Circa 2012

I think you’re viewed to be more serious when you stand while lecturing,” says Ruan Wenping. He currently teaches the children of the Yao, a group of about 2.6 million ethnic people who reside in a grouping of provinces along China’s mountainous southern border.

When he arrived in Xiajia Town in 1994, he was met with much animosity by the locals and more work than any man could typically manage. Single-handedly, he revived an old school house and gave the local children, who knew little more than how to herd sheep, an opportunity to gain an education. It was the first time any of the children had such an extraordinary opportunity since 1991 when Nian’en Primary School closed.

Sweating heavily, Ruan lifts his body from his wheelchair, holding tight to his walker so he can greet his students. Sometimes he uses one hand on a desk to steady himself, while using the other hand to write on the blackboard. Though his legs ache and tremble, he continues relentlessly to teach six classes a day.

When Ruan was a year old he contracted polio, which led to paralysis. Born in the nearby Longfeng Village of Xiajia Town in 1979, he brought hope to his parents that he would one day distinguish himself as a learned man. To aid those hopes and prayers, they gave him a name that means: “owning a diploma and being learned.”

Early in life, however, Ruan faced many challenges.

Ruan and his wife, Huiqin, teach together at the school. They have their own son and are guardians to three orphans.
Ruan and his wife, Huiqin, teach together at the school. They have their own son and are guardians to three orphans.

Aside from contracting the condition that left him unable to walk, his father became ill in 1985 and lost his sight. Several years later his mother, the only family member who was working, died tragically in a car accident. This left no one to care financially for the family.

Ruan, the second of three siblings, was forced to leave school and work as a farmer to help support his family. Even though times were tough, he still dreamed of the day he could return to school. He was a curious boy by nature and often stood quietly outside classrooms at a local school listening to the lessons being taught. Sometimes the teacher allowed him in to sit and listen to the lectures. Ruan was so eager to participate, he would reply to the teacher’s questions before any of the other students had an opportunity.

One of the teachers managed to persuade Ruan’s father to allow the young man to return to school on a more permanent basis. After deep contemplation, his father finally relented. Ruan returned to school at the advanced age of 12. When it was time to enroll in college though, the family could not afford the tuition. His window of opportunity slowly closed before him and there was little he could do about it.

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In his early adult life, Ruan became a substitute teacher. He earned a modest salary but that did not bother him. He enjoyed his work and his enthusiasm for teaching gleamed in his students. Within the short time he taught, his students improved in all their studies. Unfortunately, because he was only a temporary employee, his teaching assignment eventually ended when the regular teacher assigned to the class returned.

After that he was assigned to another school. This time he was met with far more obstacles than simply teaching children. The first day alone tested him beyond his breaking point. It took him an unbelievable four hours to make the journey to the school. The narrow rock stairway leading to the building played havoc on Ruan’s walker. The long journey up the stairs alone left him exhausted, but what he found inside the school took his breath away.

The school was in utter shambles. The walls were a splintered mess and served as a home for cobwebs and creatures alike. The chipped blackboard hardly resembled a blackboard at all. The desks and chairs were scattered in pieces around the classroom. A leg of a chair in one corner, a desk top in another, it resembled more of a graveyard of lost educational dreams. The playground was the worst of all; it was little more than an abandoned lot full of knee-high weeds.

More than 10 teachers attempted to teach at the school, but all failed. None stayed due to the substandard teaching conditions. No one had the drive and determination to rebuild the school. But Ruan saw great potential. His determination swelled inside him, forcing him to make the best of a bad situation regardless of the school’s dilapidation and lack of supplies. As soon as he saw the school he decided to dedicate himself to the task of transforming the school into something spectacular.

Education? What was that? The local children had no concept of academics. A typical day for a child was spent tending the family’s sheep; hidden away from a world full of knowledge. Ruan’s first task, and one of his hardest, was to persuade local parents that their children deserved an education. His unrelenting effort was like that of the teacher long ago who convinced his father to allow him to return to school.

Ruan playing on the Ping Pong table he built for the children.
Ruan playing on the Ping Pong table he built for the children.

On some days Ruan’s walker refused to cooperate, forcing him to make the trek on his hands and knees. One time he fell on his journey to the school. Instead of the villagers helping him up, they laughed at him. Some even called out:

“Look at the cripple! He can’t even take care of himself. How can he teach our children?”

“I was so sad to hear that,” Ruan recalls. In spite of the ridicule he spent more than a month visiting nearly 100 families throughout five of the Yao villages. “Some villagers were aware of why I was there, so if they saw me from a distance, they would close their doors immediately,” says Ruan. “They refused to welcome me.” He grew wise to the situation and began to visit at night. Villagers seemed to be more at ease with having a visitor in the evening versus during the day. Yet this created a dangerous situation for him. Sometimes it would rain making the rocky path difficult to navigate in the dark. A few times the valley flooded. There was so much rain that the water reached his knees. Ruan had to continue regardless of the weather. Every eye was on him, gauging his every action and scrutinizing his dedication to the school.

“Many villagers just waited. If I insisted on the importance of education, they would send their children to me.”

Ruan knew how painful it felt to live without knowledge. He wanted so desperately to attend college and never had an opportunity. He shared his experience with local villagers in the hopes that it would strike a chord and explain the importance of having an education.

One month later, five children suddenly appeared in the classroom that he had taken back from the choking weeds. They were eager to learn. He set to work immediately teaching them Mandarin, math, gym, music, art and science.

“Children learned a lot in school, and then they would tell their parents what they had learned when they went home,” Ruan remembers. Education filtered down from students to parents, then parents to neighbors and so on.

“Through the villagers’ daily conversations, the parents gradually began to realize that schooling made sense. Because of this, enrollment slowly increased.”

The number of students has since increased to 60, and sometimes goes up to 80, since the school opened over 17 years ago. Today Nian’en Primary School is renowned not only for its quality education but for its beauty as well.

The year 2011 was an especially eventful one for the school. It was the first time that Ruan received acknowledgment for his efforts by being awarded second place in education for the area. In addition, Luo Shou’an, one of Ruan’s students, was the first villager to attend a university.

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When Ruan first came to the school, he commuted between work and home. Even during the thick snow of winter, Ruan would trudge to the school. Not once did he miss a day. After some time the commute was taking its toll on Ruan. He, along with his father, decided to move into an unused area of the school and make it their home.

Since he was always on site, Ruan was able to interact more with the villagers. Communication proved difficult at first. The Yao have their own language, a language that is not commonly spoken anywhere else. Only a few of the elders knew Mandarin, which made talking to parents nearly impossible. Over some time though, Ruan managed to learn the local language. He later created a bilingual course. As soon as children could speak and understand some common Mandarin, he began giving his lectures completely in that language. “If children cannot speak Mandarin they won’t be able to break through the restrictions of mountain life,” Ruan said.

Since the grade levels were all mixed in one classroom, he had to invent new ways to teach all of them at once. He created a method called combined instruction that allowed him to give lessons to one grade while the other grades would prepare for their own lessons. If students caught on quickly to the information, they could easily listen in to the higher grade’s lessons and not be bored.

Owing to limited resources, recess initially proved to be a bit lacking in activity. So Ruan took it upon himself to buy materials and build a ping-pong table for the students. His father donated funds he earned from selling pigs to purchase ping-pong balls and a basketball. None of the children had seen items such as these before. They often called the basketball “the big ball” and a ping-pong ball “the small ball.”

Ruan also raised funds to build a large, underground water tank to store drinking water. He went on to plant a small vegetable garden. The fresh vegetables were a welcome change from the plain, boiled noodles he had eaten over the two earlier years.

“Once in a while, villagers would give me some greens so that I could make some soup that would last for a whole day,” Ruan recalls.

In 2005 the local people all gathered to help build new classrooms. Their school reopened sporting a new name: Nian’en Primary School,which means, being grateful to all the helpers and supporters. This serves as a reminder of what we all can achieve when we work together.

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Word of Ruan’s efforts spread far and wide. In early 2004, a young teacher named Lu Huiqin had read about his work in the newspaper. She was impressed by the strong-minded and kind Ruan portrayed in the articles. She told her family that she was going to a big city to find work, but instead she walked across several mountains intending to meet Ruan.

The arrival of the young teacher stunned all, including Ruan. Since his arrival at the school, he never had the luxury of a substitute teacher. Lu quickly proved her place within the school. She took on the role of both teacher and surrogate mother to the children. She also grew vegetables, raised chickens and helped with the housekeeping. Ruan and Lu fell in love and married. Two clerks from the Bureau of Civil Affairs of Lingyun County arrived at the school and awarded a marriage certificate to the young couple.

Their union was sweet and quiet with no large ceremony. Only a traditional antithetical red couplet poem announcing the couple’s marriage was posted on the door of one of the classrooms. “We don’t care about ceremonies, we only wish to have a peaceful life,” Ruan explains.

During a simple dinner on their wedding day, Lu made a toast to her husband and to every one of her friends and relatives who was present. Her father seemed nervous during the dinner. He had only heard about the news of the marriage 10 days prior, and it was the first time he’d met his son-in-law. But everything has turned out well. Still to this day Lu and Ruan teach together at the school. They have their own son and are guardians to three orphaned children who live with them.

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Ruan still enjoys teaching, but finds it sad when his students graduate and move on. He offers each one a few words of advice about staying safe on their journey through life along with some stationery to keep in touch.

Even seeing an empty classroom after the last lecture of the year makes Ruan a little wistful. “Children always go to better places to have better lives, so we cannot detain them. And then, on the following day, new children sit at those same desks. Students change, and so do we; we are growing older and older.”

Ruan enjoys when graduates return to wave or say hello. Every harvest season, villagers bring a variety of vegetables and rice to Ruan’s classroom and secretly place them under his table. They also donate money and volunteer their efforts to extend the rural road to the gates of the school. Ruan and Lu have convinced the locals that not only is there is hope for their children to receive an education, but one day it may be education that changes their families’ destinies.

No matter how chaotic the outside world is, Ruan continues to stand at his teaching podium. He is unmatched in his ability to reach children and encourage their spirits. Ruan is a bright torch illuminating the path of Yao children’s futures.

by Qu Hui

This story is the first in a series of articles that will be published as a part of an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities /Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

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