Children from remote mountain villages in Chongqing municipality struggle against the cold weather during long walks to get to school – proof of their desire to go to school and learn.
Carrying a flashlight and a small brazier in her hands, 7-year-old Yi Ping leaves home about 7 am in the wintry morning. She walks 30 minutes through heavy mountain fog on a bumpy gravel road to the Yunfeng primary school.
Located 1,200 m above sea level, the school of 44 students is located at the highest peak in Yunyang county.
“Snow fell a couple of times this November already. The weather is getting even colder,” said 23-year-old Chen Bo, the only teacher at the school, in an interview with China Daily. Chen regularly sees pupils too cold to hold their pens, whose feet are shivering.
The school has but one classroom with blue and yellow mold spreading like cracks over the inner walls because of the moisture. A quarter of its window frames have glass panes missing and those are covered with plastic film by Chen.
“The film should be strong enough to shield mountain winds,” Chen said.
Yi Ping and a dozen other students carry the homemade braziers to class and place them between their legs for heating.
Most of the braziers are simply empty food or paint containers, holding pieces of lit charcoal that burn slowly.
Yi has to blow air into the braziers at times to keep the coal burning. Between classes, elder students swing the braziers in a circle to keep the fires from extinguishing.
“Studying in the classroom, I don’t feel cold at all, and I’m not afraid of cold weather,” said Yi, a second-grade student in the primary school, though his swelling fingers are noticeably red.
The temperature in the village can drop to lower than -10 C in January, locals said.
Apart from the freezing air, all 44 students, aged 6 to 14, encounter other difficulties. Among them, the scarcity of teaching resources and poor education facilities stand out as the most problematic.
In the single classroom sits a mixture of students from grades one, two, four and six. Pupils of other grades must trek mountain roads to another school with better facilities and more classrooms, which is 30 minutes away from Yunfeng village by foot.
The children who study in Yunfeng sit at desks that are just two planks of wood on top of four sticks.
The classroom has no light fixtures in the classroom that smells of burning charcoal.
“On average, I can teach each one of the four grades no more than one hour per day. When several of them are listening to me, the rest of the pupils study by themselves or take exams,” Chen said.
A one-hour lecture is by no means enough, Chen said.
“I can’t provide proper lessons and a systematic education to them all by myself,” he said.
He once suggested to the headmaster of the Nongba township school, which sits at mountain foot and oversees the operation of the village affiliate schools, to mobilize other full-time teachers to assist him.
But he was turned down, possibly because the students from the remote village rarely rank admission to the higher key middle schools, Chen said.
“Forgotten by local education authorities, no teacher is willing to work in the village where telecommunication is shut down, and the living standard plummets – not to mention no entertainment activities,” Chen said.
Chen, who is from neighboring Jiangkou township, has been teaching for two and a half years at the school. He teaches downstairs in the classroom and eats and sleeps in a bedroom upstairs.
“It is the pupils' eagerness and resolve to learn against all hardships that keeps me staying here,” Chen said.
His docile students know very well that retaining a teacher is not easy, Chen said.
“Aspirations for a better life through education makes them hungry to learn.”