|In Ashley Zhou’s words:
He’s a quiet boy. Tall, sixteen years old and almost a man among a class of twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds who bustle about, vibrating with repressed energy and noise.
His mother sighs. He’s been quiet a long time now, she tells me. He didn’t always used to be this way. When he was younger, talking was just his natural state. Curious and vibrant, he was a boy who loved to talk to his family. He became quiet around eight years ago, when the family lifted up their roots from the Hebei province and planted them in Beijing, dreaming of growth and prosperity.
Here in Beijing, the family has opened up a grocery stand just two minutes away from Dandelion. I walk there with my homeroom teacher one day, during the middle of the day when business is slower. They live in a comfy little home behind the grocery stand. His family welcomes us with open arms, offering the most comfortable seats as they gather around us. His mother and father are there, his aunt and his eighteen year-old older sister, as well as his grandfather who has traveled to Beijing for a major operation. He rests quietly on the bed in the corner, a tube in his nose as he whispers quietly that he will not be able to eat solid foods for a month.
The boy is not always quiet. I see him laugh and joke with his friends, dominate the basketball courts. I mention his basketball prowess, and the family smiles, proud of his role in helping our class win first place in the basketball tournament last week. If only he could be number one in academics, his mother bemoans. If only we were educated and could set an example.
The family operates the grocery stand from 7:00 AM each morning to 10:00 PM at night. The sister, who does not attend school, helps out a lot with the business since her mother is ill. It’s hard work. If only we were educated, his mother says again. Then we wouldn’t have to do such work.
The grocery stand doesn’t generate much revenue. It makes it difficult to pay for school, particularly with the strain of the cost of the grandfather’s surgery. The hospitals in Beijing are expensive, the aunt says, and they don’t take proper care of their patients. In fact, my father shouldn’t even be out of the hospital, but the hospital has no room.
This boy’s story is similar to those of many other students in my class. As we walk back to school, my homeroom teacher and I discuss their situations. My class is comprised of migrants, children of farmers who have sought opportunities in Beijing. Some students have attended elementary school in Beijing, while others, like this boy, attended elementary school back in their laojia, and often lack some fundamentals, particularly in English.
The boy isn’t so quiet around me. I am cruel and make him and his friends sing “What Makes You Beautiful” by themselves, never mind how girly the song is, never mind how girly the accompanying dance is, never mind how much the class giggles at seeing them called out. They oblige with sheepish smiles and shuffled feet, but with voices that are surprisingly sweet and reveal just how young they are. There is time. This boy is a quiet boy, but he’s sensitive and he’s diligent, never needing his parents’ prodding to do his homework. It will be difficult leaving his family, but he will eventually attend high school back in the Hebei province. He’ll become educated.