I was walking towards Student Affairs Department with a letter in my hand requesting leave from the school.
That day, I submitted my leave application to my head teacher. He understood my family situation and without much further inquiries, he wrote in the blank space at the lower part of my application letter, “One-year leave request approved.”
He then asked me to wait and left the room with the letter. When he returned, another “Approved” was written onto the letter and signed by our headmaster.
The head teacher said, “Go to Student Affairs Department and get a certificate of approval.”
I knocked on the door of Student Affairs Department and entered after I was given permission. I saw a young woman bent over a beige desk, I bowed slightly and asked, “Miss, can you please issue me a certificate of approval for my leave?”
She lifted her head and took my application letter. Her eyes were focused on that one line, written and signed by my head teacher and the even briefer note by our headmaster. “Must you take leave?”
“I have no choice.”
“Can’t any relatives help you financially?” “They are ... all very poor.”
“How can you be sure you’ll come back after one year?”
I was confident of it. My elder brother would finish middle school by the following year and my father planned for him to go to a teacher training school where students would be given three yuan per month in pocket money in addition to free tuition and meals. That was the plan of how I could come back to school and continue my education.
I said, “My father said he could only afford the schooling of one child. If the two of us go to school at the same time, he won’t have the money for it.”
I didn’t explain further. My pride, a weakness of mine that had gripped of me long before, stopped me from elaborating on how poor our family was.
My father was a farmer and knew nothing but farming. He had to provide two sons for studying in middle school at the same time. My brother studied at the town school about 20 kilometers away from home and I attended a newly built school in Xi’an, about 25 kilometers away.
It would never be a problem for us to share one blanket, no matter whether it was tattered or frayed, as long as we were at home, but we would need to pack separate beddings when we went to board different schools located respectively in the town and the city. Then there were also tuition, meals, and other necessary expenses.
In fact, when I passed the middle school entrance exam, the family was in no mood for the usual merrymaking that would normally shower a household in the light of such achievement. Instead, a gloomy air hung over our povertystricken house.
My father had two ways to make money to support his two sons. One was selling crops and the other selling trees. I remembered clearly how he sold trees. My father liked to plant them from his youth. Along the banks of the irrigation canal flowing at the edges of the few blocks of damp fields that belonged to our family, he had planted fast growing poplars. He planted them with such density that was almost just one step apart from the other. The thick trunks could be used as purlins and the thin ones as rafters.
When he sold trees, he ignored the general rule of selling older and thicker trees first then the younger and thinner ones. He let the buyers choose whatever they needed and chopped off thick ones if they needed purlins and thin ones if they needed rafters.
The paper notes he profited from the sales passed through a cycle: from the buyers’ hands to my father’s, then on to our hands and finally to the school in exchange for our books, stationery, for my brother’s meals and my drinks.
Once a tree was sold, my father would immediately dig out the roots and when he did
so, he would miss nothing even the tiniest root hair. He chopped the roots into small pieced and laid them dry under the sun. He then gathered them in two large bamboo baskets and carried them on a shoulder pole to the town market to sell to drug stores or other businesses who had demand for them. 50 kilograms of these at best sold for 1.5 yuan and the money was ultimately earmarked for exchange.
This went on until there came a day when all of the poplars around the fields had been chopped off and their roots were dug up. Only newly sowed saplings were still left standing along the banks.
After I finished first semester and returned home in winter, I sensed that a change had taken place.
New Year came.
The whole village was merry except for my father. On the contrary, his brow was furrowed with misgivings, and he wore a constant sour disposition.
He didn’t confide in me until the second night of the New Year, “You’ll have to take a leave of absence from school for a year.” He stressed the length of this leave being one year. I wasn’t surprised.
During that past semester, I longed to go home on Saturdays yet feared to do so at the same time. I was 13 years old that year. I had never travelled far but when I was forced to leave home it was to a strange city 25 kilometers away.
Only on Saturdays could I go home and bring back bread for the next week. My craving for a bowl of noodles also peaked on Saturdays after spending the whole week eating hot water soaked bread.
Every Saturday, after the simple bowl of noodles that seemed to me like a sumptuous gourmet feast, the emotional challenge came when I had to ask my father for money for the next week. Every time I saw how his face sank and how the sighs came in bunches.
I turned away as I did’t have the gumption to look him in the eye.
I had not only once asked myself why I must study in middle school, but also why I must bring regular trouble to that beaten face of his.
My father explained his plans to have my brother apply for a teacher training college after one year, at which time I would be able to return to school. He didn’t want to upset the whole family during the New Year so he waited until a day later.
My father consoled me saying, “It won’t matter much to wait for a year. You’re very young.”
I replied lightly, “After a year, I’ll grow taller and no longer need to sit in the first row. It pains my neck in classes always raising my head high.”
My father gave yet another of his melancholy sighs, “We have no more trees to sell now.”
The teacher put down the wooden dip pen she held between her fingers and said, “Wait a bit. I’ll be back soon.”
After a while, she returned looking hot and excited. She said after sitting down on the chair, “I went to see the headmaster...”
I was surprised. She didn’t say what she talked about to the headmaster or what he had replied. Now she held her hands on the edge of the desk, eyes dropped low, and gave an air of helplessness.
Finally she started filling out the certificate, then took out the stamp and stamped below the texts. Then she stamped again across the perforated lines. I ran my hand over the certificate of authorization, feeling its stiffness, folded it twice and slid it into my pocket.
She came around the desk to me, drawing the certificate out of my pocket and put it into my school bag, saying, “You must come back next year to continue your study.”
I bowed low to her and left. I heard
the door slam shut behind me and at the same moment I heard a voice shout “Wait!” She tidied her shoulderlength hair and walked towards me. Then we walked side by side on the stairs beneath the veranda, her hands in the pockets of her jacket.
We passed by one classroom window, one back door and one front door after another, all in plain sight of my classmates, I started feeling uneasy about seeing their familiar faces. I lowered my head and quickened my pace, feeling her keeping pace right along with me, we almost went out of the school gate at the same time.
She called out once again for me to wait, I stopped and she came over, patted my school bag and said, “Don’t lose your certificate.”
I lifted my eyes to look at her. Suddenly, under her long eyelashes, I could clearly see tears welling up. Like water in the lake rising in the rain, the tears gathered into a drop, a glistening and translucent drop.
I quickly lowered my head. I knew I’d cry out loud if I had stared into her eyes for a second longer.
I held my head down, bit my lips and kicked a fragment of a tile in an effort to keep my emotions in check, I stood there tensely for a moment when the acrid taste of a bitter liquid streamed from my nose to my throat.
Later on in life, I experienced a similar backflow of bitter tears, but this was first time in my 14 years of life that tears washed through me. This was the first time in my life that I had felt so overwhelmed. Unfortunately the backward channel was stopped up and began to overflow, so a small trickle escaped from the corner of my eyes. My sight was blurred by it and I quickly wiped it away with my sleeve.
I finally managed to lift my head up and tried hard to speak in a cheerful tone, “Miss, I’ll be leaving now. ”
She laid her hand softly on my shoulder and said, “Don’t forget to come back next year to re-register.”
It was at that moment that I caught a glimpse of two drops of glistening tears slide down along her long eyelashes and land on the sunken area between the bridge of her nose and her cheekbone. The tears ran down and hung at the sides of her nostrils.
I bowed to her with all my heart again before turning and leaving.
5 years later, my father, who’d supported me by selling trees and roots, said to me during his last moments, “There’s one thing that I truly regret.”
I couldn’t have predicted what was to come next.
“I shouldn’t have let you take that one year of leave. ”
I felt an electric shock through my body and stood there confounded and dumbfounded for a time. It was as if I’d fallen into an ancient ice hole and my limbs and my body were frozen solid, even my heart was iced over.
After graduation from high school, I returned to the village because I didn’t receive any college offers. I used to complain that, “All was due to that stupid one year’s leave...”
Graduating in 1962 was the toughest era for China’s economy. Colleges tightened up their admission quotas. No one received an offer in our class. Nevertheless in the previous year, half of the students were admitted to colleges from my school, even though we weren’t one of the best high schools. If only I hadn’t taken that one-year break and had graduated in 1961...
My father continued, “For that one year of delay ... you paid a heavy price of 20 years. Now, at least, you did finally achieve something...”
I felt my frozen heart start pounding again and suddenly recalled the glistening teardrops welling up the eyes then dripping and hanging on the sides of the nostrils of that kind teacher. I began to tell my repentant but dying father of those tears. He closed his eyes and murmured, “But you ... how come you never ... told me of this earlier?”
Today I’ve finally put this story of almost 40 years down on paper. It is for me a sincere prayer. In today’s world, where desires become a powerful current thrashing the heart’s every door and window, I wish I could protect the wellspring of tears from drying that had glistened like precious pearl upon the face of that teacher forming a crystalline window to her soul. It’s this same well that nourishes the soul, and purifies the soul of our nation.
( From Under Green Shades, Chinese Literature and History Press. Translation: Zhang Lei)