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Teacher shows girls how to reach the top


Inspirational woman breaks cycle of poverty in mountain areas as she realizes potential of students.

China DailyUpdated: December 11, 2020

Inspirational woman breaks cycle of poverty in mountain areas as she realizes potential of students.

Zhang Guimei, principal of Huaping High School for Girls, a free public high school, in Huaping county, Lijiang, Yunnan province, checks students in class. [Photo provided to China Daily]

It was a chance meeting that revealed the reality of one life as it changed another. About 20 years ago, while on the way to visit a student's house, Zhang Guimei, then a rural teacher in Huaping county, Lijiang, Yunnan province, noticed a girl sitting on the hillside. She was staring blankly into space. She was completely preoccupied. The girl, 13, told Zhang she was about to get married. It was arranged by her parents.

"But I want to go to school," the girl says. Zhang went to her house and tried to persuade her parents to let the girl return to school and promised to pay for her tuition herself. However, they didn't agree.

Zhang says she feels sorry not being able to help. "We always say, each child should stand on the same starting line, but these girls didn't even have a chance to get on the track," she tells Xinhua News Agency.

That fateful encounter persuaded Zhang to build a free high school for girls, aiming to help break the cycle that saw women drop out of education, marry early and spend their whole life in the remote mountain. The priority of less well-off families was to spend whatever scarce resources they had on educating their sons.

Zhang visits a student's home in 2011 [Photo/Xinhua]

After years trying to raise funds, in 2008, Huaping High School for Girls, a free public high school, was founded at the foot of the Shizi Mountain in Huaping, where Zhang is the principal.

Over the decades, Zhang walked thousands of kilometers, visiting students' families in the deep mountain, talking to villagers, persuading girls to go back to school. It has been worth it. More than 1,800 graduates have been admitted to college, which is regarded a "miracle" in the remote area, as most students didn't perform well in academic study before the school was established.

Though lacking full health, not least dealing with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, Zhang, now 63, insists on a daily routine-get up at around 5 am to turn on the lights of the teaching building, call students to get up with a loudspeaker, accompany students to classes and sleep after senior students' study ends at midnight. She swallows dozens of pills a day. She has collapsed several times from exhaustion on the campus.

Zhang's husband died in the 1990s. She doesn't have children or a house, so she lives at the student dormitory. Zhang Xiaofeng, director of the school's office, says the principal donated all her wages and bonus to bolster rural education and poor people.

Zhang Guimei says she wants children from the mountain to attend the best universities.

In early December, she was named a national outstanding member of the Communist Party of China for her dedication to education in rural China. She was also given the honor of the country's "role model for teachers", "advanced worker" and "outstanding woman". Her moving stories inspire thousands of people.

Zhang Guimei told the media a girl can influence three generations."An educated, responsible mother will not let her children drop out of school," she says, adding the goal is to prevent poverty from passing down from generation to generation.

Zhang enjoys the moment with her students in September. [Photo/Xinhua]

School in remote area

Chen Fayu, 27, remembers the first day she came to Huaping High School for Girls in 2009, where there was only one building, no walls, gate or restroom. Students and teachers slept in empty classrooms.

Chen says she could not have enrolled in any high school because she didn't reach the required grade, but Huaping was open to any girls and charged no fees.

"Teacher Zhang is tough. We were all a bit afraid of her," Chen recalls."She would walk from the back door of the classroom and make sure the students were concentrating fully on their studies."

Chen accompanied Zhang Guimei on a business trip to Kunming, capital of Yunnan, in August. At the end of the day, the teacher was exhausted and could barely speak. But she insisted on returning to Huaping, about a four-hour drive from Kunming, to look after the newcomers.

Now a policewoman at Yongsheng county in Lijiang, Chen says she learned from Zhang to "fully fulfill duty at work and help people in need".

Zhou Yunli, 27, a former graduate, says the school has grown and facilities have improved. Now it covers 5 hectares, with a large, renovated teaching building, three dormitories, a canteen and a soccer field. Classrooms are equipped with computers and electronic screens. The school is financed by the local government and has received donations from individuals and companies.

In 2008, Zhou's father could only afford to send one of two daughters to high school, and her elder sister was about to give up her chance."If that happened, I would be guilty my whole life."

The sisters were both able to go to the school because it was free.

Zhou returned to the girls' school in 2015 as a math teacher, after graduating from Yunnan Normal University, to "help change the life of girls from poor families like me", she says.

She says all students must have short hair, eat lunch within 10 minutes and wash clothes once a week, to save time for study. Now the school has three classes with about 150 students in total.

Zhou says the principal will never be satisfied with grades from their gaokao, China's college entrance exam. "She always says we should have done better," she says, adding although the school's enrollment rate often ranks in the front in the city.

Li Cong, deputy director of the publicity department of Huaping, says: "Though she is stubborn sometimes, her persistence is what makes change possible."