One of my earliest memories was my parents’ arguing about whether or not I should be sent to school. My father, the eldest of 10 children, never had a chance for literacy. He had to help out in the family from a tender age. My mother, a girl and from an even poorer family: her education had not been deemed worth mentioning in her household. What was the good for a girl to be educated? All the learning she needed in life was to know how to marry a decent man and to produce sons for her in-laws. She had watched her lucky peers go off to the school in town, admiring the gaiety in their walk and the colourful books in their school bags. Her longing to walk in their shoes had been secret, yet undeniably strong. I could sense it even at my young age, and see it in her eyes, although she never voiced it or hinted at it to anyone. The way she argued with my father took everyone by surprise. Before that, she hardly ever raised her voice, and then out of the blue she became a fierce, protective creature who would not back down until she got what she wanted.
“My son is going to school, no matter what it takes,” she declared in a determined tone, which nobody in my family knew existed until then.
“No,” my father had persisted, his tone already less firm.
My father was a quiet man of few words. Too much responsibility too young must have killed any joy and fire in his belly. He seemed an old man before his time, and all I ever remembered of him was his slightly hunched back, squatting outside our small mud house, smoking nasty, cheap tobacco. When he saw me and my siblings running around half naked in the courtyard, he showed no interest in joining in. It was our mother who would be there to pick me up, when she happened to be watching, taking a quick break from her busy household chores.
“Yes, he must.” My mother had the last word.
The school was 15 kilometres away from my village, at the nearest town called Wu Zhen (Black Town). It was deemed not revolutionary enough during the Cultural Revolution, so was temporarily renamed as Hong Qi (Red Flag) Town. But old people like my grandma still referred it as Black Town.
At seven years old, it seemed an awful long walk from my house to school. I rose before dawn, arriving at school just before the morning exercise. All the teachers and pupils gathered at the small courtyard in front of the one and only school building. We followed the instructions on the radio, spoken in perfect Mandarin, quite different from the local dialect we used both in class and at home.
It took me a while to do these physical exercises properly. I usually stood at the back row and went through the motions. I did not see any point in stretching my arms or turning my small body around. I had enough physical exercise when fighting with my sisters and other boys in the fields and running family errands.
I did not mind school. It was neither fun nor interesting, but it gave me a chance to learn the basic Chinese writing and to perform simple calculations. I remembered my first Maths teacher, whom I really liked. She was the youngest teacher in our school, probably twenty years old, though quite old in my young eyes. She came to our school after graduating from a college in Fuzhou, the capital city of my province. She wore nice clothes and spoke our dialect in a Fuzhou accent, which was different from how we locals talked. Some pupils laughed at her accent, but never in front of her. Even naughty boys showed respect to their teachers. I was never naughty, never missed a day in school, no matter rain or shine.
Now when I reflect upon my life, as people do when they are on the verge of ending it, I think that my school days were perhaps the best times of my life: certainly the easiest part when I had the least worries. Five years of continuous studying, playing with other children, and repetitious rote-learning of Chinese characters and Mathematics was to last me a lifetime. From then onwards everything seemed to go “pear-shaped”, a path beyond my control, a spiral going downhill.
What have I done in my previous life?