olivia – Posted on 09 February 2010
By Olivia Xiaoyu Wang
Approximate time period of story – Aug. 1978 and on
My childhood life was quite simple, as far as I can tell. My family was my sanctuary and then I paid attention to only the things I wanted to do (for the most part that’s learning knowledge), or the things I was required to do by my parents and authoritative figures, and ignored pretty much everything else.
Tutoring became one of the requirements for me when we first entered third grade. The time is around 1978. A few years after the downing of the “gang of four”, there seemed to be a new movement of promoting learning and increasing education effectiveness. I believe that’s also when colleges started to pop up and my parents secretly taught night schools.
The big movement trickled down into our small classroom of 40. The top five academically ranked students were paired with the bottom five as tutors. Since I ranked number 1, I was paired with number 40 – Ray. He always sat in the middle of the last row of the class. I got moved from my first row to the desk next to him so that I could keep an eye on him during class. And my assignment would be doing homework with him together after school and tutoring him as needed. The last row was at least 20 feet away from the teacher’s podium. I was often annoyed that I could hardly hear the teacher. So if there were any chattering or distraction around me, I’d be upset and cast cold looks at the source. Luckily I didn’t have to do much of that at all. My surroundings were for the most part, quiet and attentive.
I find Ray soft spoken and obedient, quite different from the rowdy and belligerent that I had been hearing. His home was a block away from mine, across from the grocery store. From the outside, it looked like a bump slapped onto the wall. Once inside, there’s that slightly familiar structure, on the left, kitchen, on the right, bedroom/living room combo. Only his kitchen was more of an edge of that room with a stove, and the living room had one bed with a small square table on it. There was barely enough room between the bed and the window for one person to pass comfortably. I figured he and his parents probably all slept on that bed at night, temporarily placing the table sideways on the ground between the bed and the window. The platform bed was quite high and it took me a good jump to get up to the table. I could hear the traffic outside and even passers-by talking and laughing while we did homework together. For every subject, I’d be completely finished while he was still half way. Then he would try to make conversations and I’d always say, with much authority, “No talking. Concentrate on your homework.” And he’d obey and tried very hard to finish them quickly so we could compare answers. Then we’d go over all the questions he did wrongly until he understood why. After that, I’d go home to play with my sister, and wait for my mom to return. To me, the quicker we finished, the better off we were. I always felt the low ceiling of his was pressing down to me.
After the first week, Ray’s quiz results came back. Both his math and reading are in the low seventies; science was 69. All his scores used to be around 60. He was in a particularly good mood that day.
“Can we take a 5-minute break between subjects today?” Ray asked and I agreed. We did math first and checked the answers.
“Wait here”. He jumped off the bed and ran to the kitchen side. Then he seemed to be digging into the ceiling and I heard clatters of glass jars. When he came back, he handed me 2 saltine crackers.
“Not on the table.” I did not want crumbs on my homework. I jumped off and perched on the window sill, one cracker in each hand. “And you?” I asked him noticing he was empty-handed now. “Nah, I don’t want any.” I put one in his hand. He smiled and said, “Water,” and brought two glasses of water and set them on the window sill. I ate my cracker slowly, mesmerized by the setting sun, orange melting into blue. Somehow the tiny house no longer seemed depressive, but rather cozy.
“We need to set a goal for you. Each week you need to move up 5 points on all subjects.” I drank the last of water.
“Then I’d be catching up with you soon.”
“That’d be the ultimate goal.” I said and tried to climb up the bed. He was so fast that his one hand was under my arm while the other setting down the glass, and then the spared hand came under my other arm and bolstered me onto the bed. He climbed up himself and went to the other side of the table. We resumed homework.
He reached the goal the following week. Now all three subjects were in the high 70s from the quiz. We were chatting excitedly on the way home together that day. A friend of his wanted him to do something together, but he declined. For a second I thought to myself, how unlikely that I walked home with him under the normal circumstances, but chased the thought away. We just started math homework and a truck stopped outside. His father came in, did not look at me, and said to him, “Ray, we need you to work.”
“Dad…” Ray went out for a moment and came back.
“I am sorry I have to work. Please go home.”
I didn’t say anything. I picked up and walked to the door. “I will make it up. ” He said behind me.
The next day he did not show up at school until noon. He looked tired and sleepy when he finally came and hunched over his desk the whole afternoon. On the way home he told me that he did not go to bed until early morning. “Hey Ray, you owe me one, you son xxx.” A teenage boy on a bicycle passed by. “Yeah, buddy, I won’t forget.” Ray waved to him and accented himself with a voice definitely not the kind I became used to. What shocked me was when we arrived at his home, that is, if I could still make it out, from floor to treetop high, covering the whole front of the house, neatly stacked red bricks.
“Once we finish building out the house, I will have my own room,” He said proudly.
The door way was still clear but the window was almost all blocked. We turned on the lights when we got in. As we proceeded to start homework, I noticed his right hand was wrapped with a handkerchief. Blood stains were visible.
“What? Oh this. It is nothing. A couple of bricks fell. Let’s get to work.”
But it was much harder that day, as he missed both math and reading. And he was apparently tired.
Despite the missed classes and sleep, Ray’s third week quizs returned an 82 on math, 79 on reading and 78 on science. I breathed a sigh of relief on that Tuesday and made special efforts to reinforce that past week’s contents. He seemed sheepish, “I did not raise 5 points this week.” “But you raised 4, 1 and 2.” I encouraged him. “Next week is mid-terms, prepare well and we have the national holiday in between, I want you to reach 85.”
“I will, I promise.”
He looked at me for a long time, one hand holding his head.
“What?” I asked.
“Promise that you won’t get mad if I tell you.”
I shrugged. “Do I want to know?” I thought to myself. But curiosity got the better of me, “Fine I promise.”
He bit his lips and stuttered, now I remember he often stuttered in front of me, “Would you marry me if I reach 85 on the exams?”
” No. ” I shot back a quick answer and shrugged again. I knew I was not mad. But I certainly didn’t prepare for this kind of question.
“How high do I need to score so that you will agree to marry me?”
I fell into the trap of this question and answered, ” see I almost always get 100. Anyone who ever thinks about marrying me should get at least 95. Besides, I am 9 years old. You are like what, 10?”
“I will be 11 in November.”
“Whatever, it will be at least 10, 20 years before we should even consider such a thing.” I started to put on my coat. The blockage of the window made me loose track of time. I was a fraid that I was really late.
“So if I get 95 on all the exams, and, and if I am 28 and you are 26, you will agree to marry me?”
“I got to go.” And I ran out.
It was really late. The last burgundy from the sun was drowning in darkness. I felt a chill as the wind brushed harshly against my face and neck when I picked up the pace.
“Xiaoyu,” Ray called from behind.
“I am late.” I shouted without slowing down. His footsteps caught up with mine.
“You forgot this.” Ray said running along my side and wrapped my scarf around my neck.
“Thanks.” I did not stop and did not look back.
I was sick the following day apparently caught cold the evening before. I missed school. Then the four-day national day weekend came. I recovered and studied.
The following Monday was midterm for math, Tuesday reading, Wednesday science. When the results were published on Thursday, I was mildly interested in how Ray fared – in the seventies on all subjects. The head teacher declared tutoring a huge success since all five tutored students had improved their scores and their rankings. He also declared tutoring over, because with the new ranking, it was hard to figure out who should be tutored now.
But the expected relief didn’t come to me. It seemed that the rowdy or the gossipy groups, who used to ignore my existence as I ignored theirs, shot me glances or giggled when I went by. As I walked home that afternoon, passing Ray and his gang, five or six of them, hanging outside his home, they stopped and looked at me. One guy whispered something to Ray and Ray laughed. I did not like their look, I did not like Ray’s laugh. But I ignored it as ususal.
The next morning at recess, I just started making my daily walk around the sports field, Chang-Fu sneaked up behind me. He, I never liked. He was the kind of person who peddled information for personal gains. You could almost see that everything going inside him immediately turns muddy.
“Word on the street is that you are betrothed to Ray.” He eyed me slyly as he got onto to the topic after some unwelcome chit-chatting.
I stopped and turned to face him slowly but very decidedly, not only to face him, but also the whole sports field.
“You listen carefully, Chang-Fu Wan,”
I was just over 4 feet tall and barely 60 pounds, a slender girl who seemed not to be able to withstand the slightest breeze. But I had a voice that could carry, a coldness like ice that could chill the bones, a sternness like blade that could cut stone.
“Whoever told you that lie can come and face me. I will show him what a lier and a cheat he is. If he dares to do so now, or whenever he can gather up his cowardliness, I will be ready for him. ” I glanced the field, noticing at least half of the school was looking at me. And Ray and his gang, not even 15 feet away.
“But if you are the one spreading these rumors,” I narrowed my eyes, “say it now so everybody can hear you. Do you understand me?”
“Hey, hey, I was just, you know, thought you’d like to know…Just trying to be nice…Hey, consider it withdrawn, alright. Nothing said.” Chang-Fu started to walk away, but found himself in the path of Ray and his gang. He had to make an L rather embarrassingly.
I turned slowly to walk in the opposite direction, clenching my teeth so hard not to let that tear fall down, until it hurt so badly. Luckily I reached a fountain to pretend for a drink of water. “Are you alright?” Shu-Yun, a girl who lived next door to me came to ask. “Yes… Could we walk home together after school please?”…
That weekend turned out to a so called “Indian Summer”. Mom and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather for a shopping spree. She wore a green gingham dress with a white sash, holding a light green hard plastic molded tote. A stalk of celery cheerfully dangled its tail outside the tote, while red tomatoes, white turnips and green peppers huddled inside the tote but peeked through the perforations. I, walking alongside her, wore my favorite white-flowered blue dress with ruffled collars. A basket, skillfully painted burgundy by my father to resembled an article of heirloom statue after being rescued from the trash, was filled to the brim with pecan crisps and sticky rice sticks. It nestled comfortably in my arms. The two of us must had looked like people from the picture books. As we walked and talked, I suddenly felt a shot of cold glance in my direction. I looked up and my stomach churned. A group of men, all topless with dirty pants working side by side slapped wet concrete onto bricks and lay them onto the newly forming walls. Among them Ray, who had already turned to focus on his work. I couldn’t help but to realize the look he gave me was not of an 11-year old, it was of an injured man. Before I could ignore it and move on with my life, I stole a look-back. In that moment, I caught that Ray’s father handed him half a cigarette. Ray stared it for a second as if to make a decision but then put it in his mouth. The rim burned red. And the sweats on his shoulders glistened in the sun. I realized once again, he, in the midst of men, was actually taller and better built than some of them.
It did not take a genius to know that the effect of tutoring would have worn off before the year end – all five tutored students returned to their bottom ranking. The problem at the time in China wasn’t wealth, because everybody was poor. It was knowledge – the knowledge that knowledge had power and knowledge held the key to the future. For 2 decades, intellectuals were oppressed, and many of them tortured and thrown to the bottom of society. But secretly they cherished their best property – the intellect and used it to survive, and passed knowledge to the their children in the hopes that they would thrive. The laborers valued their labor, the slogans, the propaganda, and made choices for their children of the same. Any chance for a success of the social experiment of tutoring would have been sparkling something inside these five students. But that attempt failed. But it was only a matter of time, because change was in the air.
One afternoon during my last year in high school, that’s two years after we had moved to a teachers complex far away, I searched for a new book store called the “Trend” featuring newly translated books of the US and European countries and found myself looking at the now converted but used to be neighborhood grocery store – freshly painted with lots of glass windows. The mirroring glass reflected a guy in a muscle shirt and cargo shorts holding and swaying a baby, a cigarette in his mouth. I knew that was Ray even before I turned around to look at his face. He did not recognize me. It was around 3:50 pm on the afternoon of 1987. The government had started to massively lay off or furlow workers in manufacturing plants. I turned and stepped into the bookstore.
“At least he is helping his wife taking care of their child. Many guys don’t even do that. ” I thought to myself.