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Tao Tao Holmes ’10: Workman Grant Work in Sichuan, China
tao tao holmes 10 arts entertainment editor volume 84
September 12, 2009

Tao Tao Holmes ’10 won a Workman Grant to run a project in Deyan, Sichuan, southern China for two and a half weeks, volunteering at a school recovering from the March 2008 earthquake. She helped teach English. Below are three of her journal entries.

June 14

It’s tough to wake up earlier than I would at Deerfield. I slept on a bamboo mat spread over a low bed – meant to help stay cool in the humid sticky summers. I was up at 6:30, left a bit past seven, in the car with my host father, a teacher at the school. On the way we dropped off their son, a year younger than me, at his high school. He has school Monday-Friday from before eight to almost nine at night. A trek.

In the morning, I walked around the school, a cluster of temporarily constructed classrooms, teacher offices, dorms and canteens. I talked with several of the teachers, and was ogled from the classroom windows. I saw a large poster near the entrance of semi-celebrities who had visited directly after the quake with the school’s opening, one of which my star uncle, a well-known actor. I ate lunch outside of school with a group of visiting teachers from Shanghai.

That afternoon, we went, led by zhouxiaozhang (the principal), to the original school’s location, a relatively long drive from Deyang, rural and up against picturesque green mountains. Here the sky was a little healthier – not the blanket of stuffy white that covers Deyang, perpetually. Little of the school is left. We walked between abandoned apartments with collapsed stairways, brimming with chunks of cement and twisted sheets of metal. Peering into a few doorways, I saw littered floors and barren rooms. Next to the school’s basketball courts was a massive area of rubble and crumbling cement, as well as an enormous pile of broken building on the basketball courts themselves. I could see bits of the blue brick that decorated the exterior. Incense and decorative ornaments had been left by people before us. A dirty; brown, trickle of a stream ran nearby while zhou told us about how the earthquake took place – who was where, and how the survivors survived. Many of them were those lucky enough to be in gym class outside. He himself lost both his wife and daughter (who would have been about my age). By the time I returned from the site, it was evening, and I went straight with Xu shushu, my host father, to dinner. Trying to understand what people are saying is exhausting. And it’s hot too, since they prefer that I wear pants to the school.

June 16

During a break in the office, the old former principal took out a few books and gave them to me to look at. They were about 5-12-08: the date of the huge earthquake. For China, this date is parallel to USA’s 9-11. There were pictures of awful rubble, workers, emergency relief and soldiers pulling people from under fallen debris, and lines of body bags. He also showed me a group of photos, in which he had inserted slips of paper. They detailed the number of students in each class, the number that passed away, and the number who still go to Dongqi Middle School. The first class had 46 students, 38 of which died in the quake. The second went from 46 students to seven, and four out of 44 survived in the third. In the fourth, 39 died out of 43, while in the fifth, the class that had been outside for gym, only 24 of 43 passed away, while in the sixth, 15 survived out of 46. Of the survivors, several had lost limbs – there was a picture of a boy with no legs at all but still beaming with the most ebullient smile I have ever seen. As for those who survived, for many it had just been a matter of being late to class or taking a trip to the bathroom.

There were also pictures of the fourteen teachers who died in the earthquake. I would never have guessed on my own that the teachers and parents I have met have been through so much – they are as friendly and happy as any.

June 18

When I pass by or go into a class, the students all smile and wave – very friendly. Now that I know a few of the students more personally, I’ve started to ask them some questions about their lives. They live in the dorms – which I’ve looked at – eight to a room, four bunk beds. They are monitored and expected to sleep, not talk, and have a miniscule amount of space for a handful of belongings. The bathroom is on the other side of a gate, while there are sinks within – a roomful at each end of the long stretch of rooms – to wash faces and clothes. Behind the building is a long clothesline where t-shirts and pants and underwear swing and dry. The bathroom is far from luxury. Having been to China before, the squat toilet is nothing new to me. These, however, are along the lines of the most basic toilets possible. Each has a gutter of water, whose flow can be shut on and off. Above this gutter are a few half-stalls. They provide one corner of privacy and an open side, so when I walk in and glance to my side I see the faces of people in the middle of going to the bathroom. It’s imperative that you bring your own tissue or toilet paper, because you won’t find any anywhere. The faucet next to the door barely works, and there isn’t soap anywhere, so my sanitation is at an all-time low.

In the afternoon, two students from ‘gao er’ (second level) came to find me and ask if I would come to their class. I sat with them then afterwards ate lunch with them in the cafeteria, which I hadn’t been in before. I enjoyed talking with them, then afterwards went and spent a short time with them in their dorm rooms.
Every afternoon, I only just recently realized, there is an hour or so of nap. The students get this time for rest at the desks, for fear that if they were in their dorms they wouldn’t use it wisely, while the teachers have their own rooms stocked with creaky bunk beds where they close the curtains and nod off for a while. Today one of the lady teachers showed me to the room and I lay down for a nice snooze. Naps are a great thing – maybe we should change the Deerfield schedule once more to squeeze one in.

Click here to read about other students’ summer community service projects.