When the school bell rang I automatically raised my arm and looked at my watch. It was exactly 8, but only about two-thirds of the students were in the classroom. I felt a bit annoyed, because I had told my students several times not to be late for class. Their reason for being late was always ''The bus was too full.''
Not long after I had started the lesson I noticed some students who were sitting near the front glance at the door. I knew what was happening. Three students with a guilty look were panting outside the door as usual, waiting to get my permission to come in. The minute they saw me nod without any emotion, they rushed in quietly to their desks. A few minutes later two others were panting at the door. And so on.
At the end of the lesson I said with a smile (I never lost my temper in front of the class): ''Look, I know the bus was full again today. In fact, the bus is full every day during the rush hour, isn't it? But can't you leave home a bit earlier? I told you I had to leave home half an hour earlier myself in case of any possible accident on my way to school.'' I could see the heads of those late ones hang down immediately.
During the interval, Li Mingfang, one of the latecomers, came up to me timidly and apologized in a very low voice: ''Teacher (they always call me this, like primary school pupils), I'm sorry I was late again. My child was being difficult this morning. She wouldn't get up. So it took me some extra time to dress her. I'll try my best not to be late again.''
Oh yes. It suddenly dawned on me that most of my students were married. Half of them had little children. A familiar scene appeared in my mind: I live in the teachers' dormitory of the Institute of the Shanghai Foreign Languages. Early every morning I can see the young parents rush in and out, bringing back baskets full of raw food from the market or breakfast from the college kitchen, then around 7:30 carrying their little children out on their bicycles or in their arms to the primary school or to the kindergarten. I often hear the young lecturers complaining: ''The early morning is just like a battle. It is the hardest time of the day.''
I am now teaching English in a spare-time college. All our students work during the day. Their factories, schools, or companies give them two half-days off to come to school. They also have to come to school twice a week in the evening. They have altogether 14 periods a week for a four-year course. Their average age is about 30. Chang Ting, a librarian, is over 56! Most of them missed the chance to get into college because of the Cultural Revolution. There is a lot of competition to enter our spare-time college; usually only 1 out of 5 to 7 candidates can get in.
Apart from their being late, they are the best students that I have ever taught in 30 years of teaching.
They work so hard and appreciate your lectures. When I explained to them the difference between ''take refuge'' and ''take shelter,'' one of them raised his hand and asked, ''Teacher, what about 'take asylum' '' - which he had come across in the newspaper.
Usually I go into the classroom about 10 minutes before the lesson and stay there during the intervals. I chat with my students and try to find out how much they can grasp of my lectures.
I thought I knew my students well. Li Mingfang's apology, however, brought me up short, and from then on I have been trying to know more about their life. I have already learned quite a lot.
Most of my students have to give up watching TV or going to the pictures. They even do their homework on holidays. One student said to me that by the time he put his little daughter to bed (in China both parents go to work) he was already very sleepy after the battle in the morning and the eight hours' work during the day. He had to wash his face with cold water several times to keep awake to do his homework.
Another student told me that he was listening to the tape recording of his listening comprehension while he was feeding his son. Sometimes he had to read the text aloud in the bathroom as his family were watching TV in their only room - bedroom and living room.
I also noticed some students still eating bread when they entered the classroom because they had had no time for a proper meal in the dining hall.
The more I learn about their life and ambition, the more greatly I am touched. Some of their colleagues or bosses, however, criticize them for coming to spare-time college, for not being content with their present jobs.
Why should they be content? Why can't they be educated properly and have better jobs?
I often receive letters from the students of my previous class, telling me about what they are doing now after graduation. One young man is now working in a foreign company as a secretary. Another student has been assigned to do translation work in her food corporation. Two men have just come back from the United States, interpreting respectively for two delegations visiting there. Two former cooks wrote to me that one was teaching English in a middle school and the other was employed by an import and export company after he had passed the entrance examination. One former English typist is now representing her factory to negotiate business with foreign companies. Two salesgirls have been asked to sell antiques to foreign customers. They are all very grateful to the school and to the teachers for giving them the chance to learn English during the past four years.
There are still some students late for class, though the number is getting smaller. I don't feel like blaming them anymore.