In Ashley Zhou’s words:

The familiar melody blares through the school speakers, and almost immediately is joined by the deafening anticipation of students waiting for teachers to finally grant class dismissal. The four students sitting in front of me are no exception. The girl smiles sweetly and looks up at me hopefully through her bangs. The boys are almost twitching, casting wistful glances at the basketball courts. I wait patiently for them to finish one last problem, and then with a “thank you”, finally take mercy on them. With a quick “thank you, teacher”, they are off, blast-off!, rockets zooming in different directions. Except for one boy. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, something he constantly has to do now since one of the legs broke off. Suddenly, he grabs my hand. “Laoshi, bu yao zou,” he tells me earnestly. Teacher, please don’t go.

We’re getting closer to the end now, which is rough. Questions like “will you be here during eighth grade?” and “are you coming back next year?” and “why don’t you stay?”, which we’ve always had to field from the students, appear with increasing frequency. I answer honestly. I’d like to come back. I really genuinely would. I want to see the way my students grow, see the way they become taller and wiser and more mature eighth-graders, see who remains at Dandelion and who returns to their laojia for schooling. But the reality is that for most of us, and indeed DukeEngage volunteers in general, the experience is a sort of intermission, one that is life-changing and humbling and educational in a plethora of ways, yes, but it will end and we will return to Duke and to our majors and to our career paths. Particularly, when oceans and thousand-dollar plane tickets separate us.

We’re “useless.”

Or so our coordinator tells us, but that statement requires context. Sometimes when I catch a rare moment of quiet in the midst of all the hustle and bustle and noise that comprise the typical school day, I realize how much I am going to miss everything and everyone, and how I wish I could do so much more. It’s a difficult reality to navigate.

We give everything our best, a pure good-intentioned earnestness fueling our actions, but there’s really only so much we can do. There are systemic and institutional barriers at play that limit the opportunities available to the students. At some level, it doesn’t matter how hard the students work or how talented they are, there will be always be a ceiling present that curtails their potential. At the same time, the students must work harder and do better than their peers who have Beijing hukou status to access the exact same educational opportunities.

As “volunteers”, here only temporarily and inherently separate from Dandelion Middle School, we can easily extricate ourselves from the situation. At the end of the summer, we’ll return home and “resume” our lives at Duke. At the end of the summer, the students will continue on the same trajectory because these are their lives. This is not some brief service “experience” for the students. This is what they live with.

It’s this reality that partially fuels the frustration with the even more short-term volunteers. What can a week do? A single day? Even two months feels far too short. And part of that frustration is the oversimplified understanding of the situation volunteers can have. It’s easy to adopt a savior complex, to think that you can personally do so much to change the students’ lives. Or to regard the children as passive recipients of your “help” and to not see them as individuals but rather as some vague amalgam of their situation. It’s hard to develop an understanding of the nuances of the situation of the school and of the students, as well as of the problematic nature of volunteering. It’s hard, but our time here at Dandelion has ensured that we learn these lessons.

Unfortunately, yes, I will have to go at the end of the summer. Wo yao zou. But I will not forget Dandelion or the teachers and students that make Dandelion Dandelion. I will not forget the lessons Dandelion has taught me, just as I hope my students will not forget the lessons I taught them. The bell may ring at the end of the summer, but I’m not even close to being dismissed.


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