BACK-TO-SCHOOL sales shout their message of new clothes for new beginnings. Many American children attend pre-kindergarten and kindergarten before they make their official entry into school at first grade. Still, first-graders experience a new beginning, which calls for new clothes, new shoes, a pencil, a notebook and a backpack.
On the other side of the world, in rural villages in China, the scene is much different. While I was teaching on a Fulbright fellowship in Shanghai a year ago, I became friends with a young man who lived in a remote village, 10 hours by train west of Shanghai.
He did not pass the entrance exam to Fudan University, where I was teaching, but his village saved money to send him to the university to get a certificate in English. With this credential, he could get a good job, and lift the village of about 80 people out of poverty.
He sat in the back of one of my classes, in order to hear spoken English. He became one of 10 students in similar circumstances whom I tutored in my apartment. Each week, I would correct his paragraphs, help him with grammar, listen to him read and talk with him. He improved rapidly.
He was heartbroken when "his professor" returned to the States. He writes regularly, and sends me paragraphs to correct. A few weeks ago he sent me this:
"The Day I Became A Pupil
"I never thought I could be a pupil at seven years old. As a child, I did know how to play with little friends. I never imagined I could sit in the classroom the way other older kids did. The only reason for this was that I was seven years old. Those who could sit in the classroom were all at least eight years old. But the reason I could sit in the classroom was there was an extra desk and a stool.
"At that time I did not really know what a pupil was. I only knew that a pupil should do homework, could not cry anymore and had not enough time to play. Except for those ideas, I knew nothing more about it.
"One autumn afternoon in 1985, as I was playing with Xu Yong, who is as old as I am, on the sunning ground, one of my older friends asked us to go to school. I still remember clearly what he said to us:" 'The teacher asks you two to go to school. There is an untaken desk and a stool.'
"So Xu Yong and I ran after him to the school. When we came into the classroom, laughter burst out. I glanced at Xu Yong; he also glanced at me. We two did not know what had happened. At last, we realized that we were naked.
"The teacher pointed at the untaken desk and stool for us. So we sat on the stool as well as the other pupils did. We two sat there silently and listened to the teacher. But I heard nothing.
"I looked out of the windows. I could see the trees and the peasants who worked in the field. I could hear water buffaloes.
"I did not know when the bell rang. I rushed home because I had good news to tell everybody -- I was a pupil.
Xu Shenghua, or "Bovey," the English name he gave himself, took me to his village last year. I saw the schoolhouse, with its desks and stools. At that time, I did not know this story, but now, every time I see a "Back to School" advertisement, I think of the little boy who needed nothing more than a desk and a stool to become a first-grader.
Sister Kathleen Feeley is a former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore and now is a professor of English there.