Their man in purple

Updated: 2008-05-24 07:41

Four days after the earthquake, dozens of surviving students of Beichuan Middle School yelled the name of their physics teacher, Zhang Jiachun, on the ruins of the collapsed school building. They searched frantically in the debris for anything that looked purple, the color of a new shirt Zhang wore on the day the quake struck.

The physics class started at 2:20 pm that day. When 34-year-old Zhang entered the classroom, his new attire immediately aroused cheers and claps from students.

"He looked really gorgeous in that light purple shirt," recalled a girl. Many girls thought the letters "GE" on his shirt were short for "girl friend".

The teacher was in a good mood. His writing on the blackboard looked extraordinarily neat.

The quake hit minutes later.

The building shook violently. Zhang opened the door and leaned on it to keep it opened. "Don't panic. Run out quickly. The row near the door goes first," he ordered.

The class had 68 students - only eight of them successfully escaped from the collapsing building.

Zhou Yuming is one survivor. When he ran out of the classroom, a classmate Liao Sansan tumbled behind him. Zhou turned back to help. Just then, a massive cement slab above them fell. At the last moment, Zhang shoved the two boys 4 m away. The teacher himself was buried under the debris.

Student Fu Liying recalled the first day the class met Zhang. It was a morning class about half a year ago. Zhang stepped to the front and wrote on the blackboard three large characters: Zhang Jiachun. "This is my name. It will keep you company for the next two years," he said.

Zhang often played basketball with students. "His moves were cool. But his shots were lousy," said Jiang Jing, who had taken shelter beside the basketball field with other surviving schoolmates in the quake. She remembered Zhang's response to that comment on his basketball skills: "Yeah, but I was tough when I was young."

Students were deeply impressed by Zhang's exaggerated actions and sounds when he tried to imitate bubbling water on the first class. Many found physics difficult to grasp, but they liked Zhang's class, which was often filled with laughs and applause. They also found mechanics and electrology less intimidating in Zhang's class.

Zhang was thin. He stood 1.68 m tall. "He was amiable, funny and stylish. He was our 'man in glasses'," said students in makeshift shelters in Mianyang. The youngsters smiled whenever they talked about their beloved teacher.

He had a great sense of humor, said Chen Yong, the math teacher.

"If he's still alive, he will contact us for sure," Li Yun, a teacher who once taught Zhang, comforted students.

He did not dare tell them Zhang would never come back.

(China Daily 05/24/2008 page4)