The clock strikes 7pm. The last bit of chalk scratches out a few words and dots a final period on the blackboard. Zhangxu slams the chalk down. He looks up and says, “I am finished.” On the board, four sentences describe a scene of one man riding a bicycle and another one swimming in a river. The language is comprehensible, and the grammar is good. It is an improvement. I ask him to read it aloud. He stumbles. His pronunciation is still off, but it will do.
He returns to his seat and starts to put his things away. His pencil takes a nosedive into his bag and the other utensils follow suit. I close the book book in my hand and give it to him–English: Shanghai Edition. The cover is torn and loose on its binding. We work five more minutes on his pronunciation, and then I tell him that I'm returning back to the United States in two weeks. He droops his head droops and brings his hands to his face. We walk out together. We climb down the four flights of stairs. We hit the ground level, and he turns to me.“Why do you have to go back?”
"I just have to,” I say. We exit the front gate of Zhangxu’s school. We look at each other once more, and then he walks one way and I walk the other way. I look back and he vanishes into the shadows. I continue down into the subway under the flickering fluorescent lights.
* * *
Four months ago, I first met Zhangxu, a young migrant student, through my internship at Stepping Stones, a Shanghai migrant assistance organization that connects volunteer tutors and teachers with students. He was struggling with English. Zhangxu's mother had found Stepping Stones by calling into a show on the radio to ask for help finding a tutor in English for her son. She added that Zhangxu needed a mentor.
When I met Zhangxu, I did not expect that I would be both tutor and mentor. I only expected to see him once a week to tutor him in English. And I have, and with success. Previously, Zhangxu scored around 20% on his English examinations, and now he is scoring up to 60%, a huge improvement. But many migrant students not only have problems academically, they also have a lot of problems at home. Many of families struggle, with traditional family support networks back in their home provinces.
I noticed at first that Zhangxu is very introverted, but I soon learned that he has been through a lot and he needs someone to look up to. He not only needed a tutor or a mentor, but a friend and a sense of hope. Like many migrant students, he needs people who can show them that there is a big world of possibility out there. And in the end, the one thing I really tried to give to Zhangxu was hope, not just for better test scores but for a better life.
The Stepping Stones tutor project has been successful for many others, as well, and they are planning to expand their one-on-one tutoring program. They will do this in part by sending a mobile tutoring center into migrant communities so migrants to deliver resources and opportunities. Now, they need more volunteers not only take part in the one-on-one tutoring program, but who are also willing to become mentors.
As I return to the United States, I do not know what will happen to Zhangxu. Stepping Stones deploys one-on-one volunteers in Zhangxu’s migrant community and others, so I hope Zhangxu connects with another tutor. Zhangxu’s English has improved by leaps and bounds, but without a tutor I doubt his English will continue to improve. I also wonder to whom he will go with for support as he encounters other challenges. After he started doing better on his exams, he has gained a lot of self-confidence and he seems like a stronger person now, and I hope that growth can continue.
I talked with Zhangxu’s English teacher, Miss Nancy, and she has also seen an increase in self-confidence in Zhangxu, but she adds she thinks Zhangxu is a rare case and that volunteers can only go so far in helping and a few tutors barely make a dent into the larger problems that plague the system. In an interview with Miss Nancy that I conducted, she claimed that many of her migrant students, up to 80% of them, are flunking their English exams. As my days that intern with Stepping Stones come to a close, I recognize the huge scope of the challenges facing migrant communities throughout Shanghai.
One thing we can hope is that there will be many people who would like to volunteer with Stepping Stones. Volunteers need to be willing to deal with students who all have different stories and different problems. But they also all have different strengths and different dreams. Zhangxu’s dream? To become a computer designer, but even more to help his family.