Around 2006, I was invited to lead a delegation of Literacy Educators to a conference via People to People (the organization started by President Eisenhower). About 20 teachers signed up for the excursion.
As is often the case, the conference of international speakers (mostly Chinese, speaking Chinese with occasional translation) of talking heads was dull. But other activities were planned for the week, such as a visit to the Great Wall, a silk factory, shopping, and of course school visits. We were all most looking forward to the two school visits.
In the way of context, Chinese children in Beijing are grouped into schools by abilities based on their score on a single uniform test across the city (as it was explained to us by our guide). Therefore, we would be shown only the top schools with only the top scoring students.
The first visit was a high school which began with a welcome orientation by a school administrator in a sort of conference room. He was warm and welcoming. One of my teachers asked how they deal with struggling readers.
“We don’t have any,” was his terse reply.
The rest of our visit was orchestrated and escorted with no interaction with either teachers or students. We got back on the bus, and began talking.
“I didn’t see a library,” one teacher brought up. Hmm, we all thought. Indeed we did not. American schools always show off their library to guests. We had asked our guide earlier if the schools have libraries.
“Yes,” he’d said immediately, and he recited the ratio of books to students in each school.
So, we resolved on the second visit, a school with younger children, to ask see the library. We arrived at the second school.
“We’d like to see the library,” I asked respectfully via a translator. There were heads nodding and we were escorted to….a lunchroom. At one end were a few magazine racks with age-appropriate magazines. We looked at each other. Hmmm.
By this time, my international travel had been extensive. So I was thinking there had been a translation error. Translation is a tough thing, especially between languages that are so very different.
So, as delegation leader, I asked again, trying in earnest to be more clear. “We would love to see your library – the room where all the books are, where students might find a book to read, or to check out for a report or project.”
There was quiet talking and mumbling and of course, we had no idea what they were saying, but clearly there were conferring about our request. We were then directed to the two elevators, and in each case, a Chinese person selected the basement button.
From the elevators were were led down a long hallway. The ceilings were lower than in the rest of the building. In the hallways were also planters taken in for winter, and broken chairs and desks, being stored there. Lighting was dim, and winter chills seeped from somewhere.
A Chinese man stopped us in front of a metal door with a padlock on it, We stood there for a good 10-15 minutes. Clearly this man did not have the keys. Finally another man arrived with a ring of keys, and opened the door. We filed in quietly.
There were books all right. Rows and rows of metal stacks. We went up and down the rows looking at what was there. BUT, nearly all the books were still in shrink wrap. No book showed any signs of use. Everything was too clean and untouched. There was no card catalog, no windows, no place to sit and read, no desk for checkout. Many titles were Chinese translations of British literature – classics. We saw no picture books. No evidence of cataloguing.
We stayed quiet, not wanting to be disrespectful. This time we were given a tour which was more personal. We were brought to a large room where children were seated with their teachers, and they demonstrated for us a Chinese art of paper cutting. It was interesting and enjoyable. We were invited to answer questions of the students. Some raised their hands. Translators helped. One asked what we thought about the “One child” rule, and didn’t we agree it is a good thing? We decided to steer away from that one. I said something about how we really don’t know much about the rule, so we cannot comment.
Afterwards we were paraded into a lovely art room. The thing was, however, there was no evidence that art room was used. Nothing smelled like art supplies. There was nothing drying, or in progress, or hanging, or displayed.
We were brought into a science lab. It was a large and well equipped lab with bunsen burners, beakers, flasks, and lots of sinks and benches. But, there was a fine veil of dust on all the glassware. There was no evidence that this room had ever been used.
As we passed classrooms, we smiled at the children who were stuffed wall to wall into rows. A teacher upfront would not be able to walk anywhere but down and row and back as desks went all the way to the back wall – I counted 36-40 students. Children had all identical haircuts, wore uniforms, and the rooms were quiet.
“May we go in?” I asked the escort. He seemed unsure what to say, but opened the door. We trailed in, said hello to the teacher and greeted the students. We encouraged the teacher to keep teaching, but that wasn’t going to happen. Children broke their stoic stance and popped up like jumping beans, wanting to shake our hands all at once. We felt like rock stars amid momentary chaos. We said our goodbyes and then left.
I don’t think that part of the visit was in the Chinese plan.
We were taken to visit the “counselor” who was called the “Teacher for Morality.” She was talking with a few students in an attractive and comfortable setting with chairs and a table. Of course, we do not know what they were talking about.
Our guide had been the assistant principal. We learned the principal was not an educator. He was a member of the Communist Party there for enforcement of whatever they needed to enforce. The assistant principal, a woman, was the real educator.
Subject area textbooks were Party approved, and uniform. We saw no child interacting with books other than the approved texts. We saw no books anywhere, other than those magazines in the lunchroom.
We had lots to talk about back at our hotel. I still think about this visit. Still unpacking what it means to have a locked library that no one uses. Still thinking about a country where children have no access to books – by design, not because of poverty.
I find myself so very thankful for American libraries, and the fact that they are so incredibly important, and that we sometimes have to defend them, and I for one, will always support libraries. A world without libraries is a very different sort of place. Not one I wish to live in.