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Chen Wanxia hopes her students get a good education at the boarding school, and also see it as a second home. Yang Zi / For China Daily
For the children of migrant workers left at home, a dedicated teacher is providing security and a chance to learn, Zhang Yue reports in Anhui province.
Chen Wanxia can hardly get a moment of rest at school.
Children swarm around her most of the time after class, and they drag the 43-year-old to and fro for almost everything: showing her their good grades, looking for something they've missed, or asking questions about homework.
In the boarding school that holds 330 students at the moment, more than 200 are children left behind by their parents who migrated to cities for work.
The school, which she named Sunshine Primary School, is located in Chenji township of Hefei, Anhui province.
"I love teaching," Chen says. "But I would never have thought of setting up a school of my own if not for these kids."
Chen has worked as a teacher in the primary school of her home village since she was 18. Because she was the best-educated person in the village at that time, she was well respected by parents, and always warmly welcomed in the neighborhood.
The village school was relocated to Chenji township for better hardware and stricter management in 2005. Chen then moved to a teaching position in a middle school in the county, which brought her a monthly salary of more than 3,000 yuan ($482).
"At that time, both my son and my daughter were also studying at the new school," Chen recalls. "And my salary was much higher than before. It was the perfect choice for my family."
One weekend in the summer of 2006, Chen was visiting her parents back in their home village when she noticed some children she used to teach going back home.
"The kids were running, quarreling and fighting noisily on the muddy road," she recalls. "Their school was about two hours' walk from home. They could never get home before the day turned dark."
The kids were excited to see their former teacher back. They shouted her name aloud and ran towards Chen like an old friend was visiting.
"It is hard to ignore their situation as a teacher, as I still feel like I'm their teacher even though I have left," Chen says. "In counties and cities, children board at school, or they are picked up by their parents. But here, they mostly grow up on their own."
Chenji township, locating on the north side of Hefei, is one of the poorest areas in the region.
"Students in my new school have enough qualified teachers and resources," Chen says. "But children in my hometown do not."
Chen borrowed 30,000 yuan to start her own school. At that time, all she thought about was giving a home to these children so they don't have to spend hours on the road between home and school.
China now has 58 million left-behind children in the countryside, and the number is increasing. Yet few boarding schools in rural areas were available.
"On hearing this is a boarding school, hundreds of parents brought their kids together with their beddings and clothes to the school," Chen recalls.
That decision changed the lives of Chen and her husband Zhong Zhiqiu. Now they bear on their shoulders the responsibility of caring for more than 300 students - including accommodation, schooling and security.
The boarding school charges 2,380 yuan for each student per semester.
Chen's husband, Zhong, used to be an architectural designer in the county. In 2008, he left his construction job and joined Chen. All of the new housing and teaching buildings were designed by Zhong. He also helped out with construction.
"It was almost impossible for her to do all of this on her own," Zhong says.
Chen says that looking back, she wouldn't have the courage now to do what she did then, because the scope of the responsibility is huge.
"School safety is the key question. It is too much of risk holding so many children at school all day," Chen says. "I even wake up from sleep fearing things might go wrong with the kids."
Boarding at school at the age of 6 or 7 is also a challenge for these children. Many of them feel homesick, and try to slip out of school.
"We found a child who went missing in the second week after the school was opened," says Wei Zhaoshun, a teacher in charge of students' living arrangements. "And it took us two hours to find him."
To make the children feel at home, every month the school hosts a birthday party for those born in that month.
The regular birthday party was Chen's idea. Yet when she started to ask children for their birthdays, she realized many children had absolutely no idea about their birth dates.
"Most of their parents left them behind for city jobs when they were very young," Chen says. "They spend most of their childhood with their grandparents, who have very little idea about their birthdays."
The monthly birthday party always needs five birthday cakes for all children.
"It is also our happiest moment of the month," says Chen Chong, a 12-year-old boy who has been at the school for five years.
In July 2012, Chen was named one of the most remarkable teachers in rural China by China Central Television and Guangming Daily. Since then, her school has attracted much financial assistance and media attention.
"I'm glad that the school is getting better thanks to the various support we've received," Chen says.
"But my wish for the kids is that they can stay with their parents permanently. Then we will no longer need to run a boarding school to give them a home. They will be at a real home of their own, something that I can never replace. That would be the best."
Contact the writer at email@example.com.
Chen shops for students from poverty-stricken migrant families. Zheng Chenggong / For China Daily
(China Daily 01/24/2013 page20)