IN a dank cave in China's windswept Shaanxi Province, two dozen elementary students sit at rickety desks chattering or turning the dog-eared pages of textbooks.
Daylight filters through the yellowed paper of a single, half-moon-shaped window at the entrance to the dugout school, barely illuminating the blackboard mounted on the wall. There is no electricity, and only a coal stove for heat in the bitter winters. Old newspapers plaster large parts of the earthen walls where the whitewash has worn off.
Promptly at nine, Bai Gunling strides through the narrow wooden doorway of the primitive classroom.
"Good morning!" the youngsters shout in unison, jumping to their feet.
Mrs. Bai walks to the blackboard, draws a line down the middle, and chalks some simple addition problems for the first-graders on her left. Then she turns to the row of second-graders on her right. "Today's language lesson is 'Lenin at the Barber Shop,' " says Mrs. Bai in the thick tones of her native Shaanxi Province. "Do you have any questions on the new characters?"
The scene in Yangjiagou, a poor, dusty village surrounded by barren hills high on China's Loess Plateau, vividly illustrates both the challenge and the hope of lifting millions of Chinese rural youths out of ignorance. Despite China's significant progress in reducing illiteracy among adults in recent years, education officials have expressed alarm over the new illiteracy among Chinese youths, especially in the countryside. More than 180 million people, or nearly one out of five Chinese, are illiterate o r semi- illiterate, official statistics show. Of these, 72 million are relatively young, between the ages of 15 and 40, and more than 90 percent live in rural areas.
Each year, millions more children are dropping out or failing to attend school. In poverty-striken villages like Yangjiagou in Shaanxi and other northwestern provinces, many peasants feel they cannot afford schooling for their children. Poor farm families have found themselves hard-put to pay rising tuitions, since the state turned over the responsibility for funding local education to counties, townships, and villages in an early-1980s reform. Others struggling to shake off poverty view formal education
as irrelevant. Instead, parents seek to put their children to work in the fields as early as possible.
With scarce funds, many remote villages have no schools. Elsewhere, millions of square yards of rural classrooms are classified by the state as "dangerous" and prone to collapse. Basics such as desks, stools, books, and chalk are in short supply. Textbooks are outdated and bound by Marxist doctrine.
Pay for China's 9 million primary and secondary teachers is lower than that of workers in most other main professions. Morale is also low, the number of resignations is high, and the state anticipates a shortage of half a million teachers by the end of the decade.
Political discrimination against teachers lingers from the radical Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao Zedong promoted the slogan "The more you read, the more stupid you become." Hundreds of teachers suffer attacks by angry students, parents, and others each year, and dozens have been killed. Chinese education officials are demanding a law to protect teachers' rights.
At the bottom rung of the teaching profession are the low-paid and academically less qualified minban, or "community sponsored" peasant-teachers like Bai, who make up 40 percent of China's primary school instructors.
Yet Bai's experience shows that even in the most destitute village, a motivated minban teacher can tap children's curiosity, instill a desire to learn, and nurture home-grown initiatives to raise the quality of education.
"I want to popularize the importance of primary education," says Bai, who frequently makes evening calls at villagers' homes to promote her cause. "People who are educated can easily use new farming technology, others can't," she says.
Bai, the first of six children born to a peasant couple in a nearby village, is proud to be the most highly educated person in her family. She graduated from high school in the early 1980s, later completed a three-year correspondence course for teachers, and has taught for eight years.
Every morning at daybreak, Bai rises from the traditional packed earth bed, or kang, in the two-room cave dwelling she shares with her two young children and a niece. She fires a wok with straw or coal to cook a breakfast of steamed bread and millet gruel. Bai's husband, a construction worker in the old revolutionary base of Yan'an 25 miles away, is rarely home. While her niece babysits, Bai leaves for the nearby dugout school. There, 55 village children ranging from kindergarteners to third graders awai t classes in math, music, language, morality, and sports.
To finish the required classes, Bai must teach two grades simultaneously while the other two study nextdoor. She strives to hold the youngsters' attention with a routine that resembles a carefully orchestrated duet, with Bai playing both hands.
"Timing can be difficult," says Bai. "For instance, if I want to give the second year students 10 minutes of language class, I have to make sure the first year students have math exercises to keep them busy for the same amount of time." Bai admits it is hard for the students to concentrate, especially when she tells a story to the other class, but she adds, "we're accustomed to it."
Like most Chinese teachers, Bai is required to follow a teaching outline and use standard textbooks issued by the government, despite their outdated contents. The Soviet-inspired text on Lenin at the barber's, for example, has been recited by Chinese pupils for decades. On the classroom walls, hand-painted character posters urge students to "Study [the 1960s Army martyr] Lei Feng!" reflecting Beijing's recent calls for intensifying political indoctrination in schools.
To capture the students' attention, Bai starts with a vivid story taken from her richest source of material - village life. "Once, two families in the village fell into conflict over a childrens' dispute. I told the students about this at the beginning of a lesson on moral character," Bai says.
At the end of the school day, Bai's work is far from over. She corrects homework, prepares new lessons, and often makes a casual visit to a student's house before cooking dinner for her family. At night, Bai reads the Yan'an Daily and Teachers' News and watches television for ideas.
Bai also supervises the farming of a small plot of land donated to the school by the village as part of a "work-study" program for students and teachers. As in millions of Chinese villages, this economic activity has become the main source of income for the school. In addition to tuition, which is relatively low at $3 per student a year, and a donation from the township for Bai's $13 monthly salary, the tiny fruit orchard produces $130 a year for new desks, books, and winter coal.
Bai's hard work appears to be fruitful. The problems of students dropping out, repeating grades, and failing to enter school are minor in Yangjiagou compared to the rest of Shaanxi, where surveys show that just six out of 10 students who enroll in first grade enter fifth grade four years later.
With a prim and gentle manner, Bai seems to enjoy a sympathetic rapport with students and respect from villagers, who she says welcome her in "like a guest" when she visits their homes. But just as the Yangjiagou peasants who toil to coax crops from terraced mountain plots in this dry, inhospitable land, Bai does not set her sights much beyond basic subsistence.
Her most ambitious goal is to call a village meeting to try to persuade the peasants to contribute money for a new school.
"I want it to be a regular, two-story building, not a cave," she says with a smile. Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18; March 2, 16, and 30; April 13.