I am twelve years old when Dad is assigned to our embassy in Beijing as Minister-Counselor and chargé d'affaires. The mid- to late-1970's is a tumultuous period in modern Chinese history. I join Mom and Dad in Beijing in the spring of 1976 shortly after Zhou En Lai died, and the capital is still in mourning. We are warned to limit our movements around the city. I remember watching endless cues of mourners processing down Chang An Boulevard in eerie silence, monitored by teams of Red Guard, identifiable by their signature red armbands.
Dad's tenure in Beijing takes us through the massive earthquake in summer 1976, Mao Ze Dong's death, the purge of the Gang of Four, and the rise of Deng Xiao Ping who heralds the end of the Cultural Revolution to make way for economic reforms putting China on the road to modernization. During this period, there are very few foreigners living in China, an overwhelming majority of us diplomatic families. Foreign high school kids have few options for schooling. There are international schools operated by various embassies, the Brits and Americans have their own exclusive schools, as do the West Germans. Many of my African playmates attend the French school, and my Eastern European friends all go to the school on the Russian embassy grounds, which includes a hockey rink. For my last year of junior high, I attend the international school run by the Pakistani embassy.
Chinese kids are barred by their own government to attend these embassy-based schools. However, we foreign kids also have the option of attending the one Chinese public school with a program set up especially for us - Beijing #55 Middle School (北京市第五十五中学). This is where I go for my first year of high school, supplemented by a social studies correspondence course Dad sets up through the University of Nebraska.
There are only a handful of diplomatic kids at #55. For the first couple of months, my class with other diplomatic kids is in a sheltered classroom to learn Mandarin all day, taught by one of the best teachers I have ever had - He Laoshi, or Teacher He. She knows not a lick of English, which makes her the perfect teacher of Chinese as a foreign language. There are no more than about 12 of us in the class representing three different continents. After a period of studying nothing but language, we are then incrementally scheduled into mainstream classrooms to join our Chinese peers for other subject areas, such as math, art, and music. In my own subsequent teaching career, I often recall many different techniques Teacher He uses, and implement them in my English as a Second Language classroom for my recent immigrant students at a high poverty district in the Houston area.
This past November, during an extended layover in Beijing on my way to Manila from Austin, I take the subway into the city from the Beijing Capital International Airport and go sightseeing between flights. My friend Marilu, also a diplomatic child in Beijing during this era, meets up with me. She has followed in her late father's footsteps and is now enjoying an illustrious diplomatic career, currently assigned as Consul at the Italian embassy in Beijing. Marilu and I spend the day checking out our old haunts, including the #55 campus, which is now a full-fledged international school. We aren't permitted by the security guard to enter the grounds on a Sunday, even though I explain in my now unpracticed Mandarin that I am an alumnus from the 1970's. But we do get a view from the gate.
Below are some before-and-after photos.
|The front courtyard is where all the students assemble for daily morning exercise, guided by a recorded voice broadcast over the public address system loudspeakers...|
|He Laoshi - this blogger's all-time favorite teacher. For over 20 years, I use many of her techniques teaching us Chinese to teach my recent immigrant students English at Southmore Intermediate School in Pasadena Independent School District and Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston ISD, Texas.|
|He Laoshi (left) directs our afternoon classroom cleanup time. In the foreground is Robinson, a student from Madagascar who is more advanced in his Chinese language learning, but often comes to visit our class and hang out during breaks. R Nogabe Randriaharimalala is now an accomplished musician based in London...|
|The 1977-78 freshman class of #55 on a field trip. Our teacher is standing first from the left. I am fourth from the left same row, flanked by two other diplomatic students - on my right from Burma, on my left from Madagascar.|
|I remember all of the teachers at #55 Middle School to be super nice to us foreign students all the time. Here we are on a field trip...|
|In 2019, #55 looks more like an exclusive international school. The guard would not let us past the security gate...|
|(Photo courtesy of Marilu.)|
|(Photo courtesy of Marilu.)|
|This Beijing #55 Middle School alumnus dreams of one day visiting his alma mater inside the gate... (Photos above and below courtesy of Marilu)|
Needless to say, Beijing #55 Middle School looks nothing like it used to during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, much like many other parts of Beijing. Our group of teenage friends, now connected on Facebook, all nostalgically concur that living there in the 1970's was an intensely beautiful and unforgettable experience difficult to describe, and impossible to replicate...
"Life is not a journey, but a pilgrimage..."
- Kokoy Severino has been in a constant state of travel since he was four years old.
|Photo by Dad.|