Ziyuan sits in front of her preschool class
looking out at her classmates. She has volunteered to be a “little teacher” today, to read a story aloud to the other children. In her small hands, she holds a copy of her favorite book, “The Three Rabbits.”
Giving a shake to her shiny short hair, bangs cut straight across her forehead, she takes a breath and begins, “The Mommy Rabbit says, ‘I have three babies, Red Eyes, Long Ears, and Short Tail…’”
Ziyuan holds up three fingers, one for each bunny, and goes on reading, about how Mommy Rabbit leaves to get some carrots for her babies. About how she tells the babies not to open the door. And about how a hungry wolf comes, looking for a snack of baby bunnies…
Ziyuan is just learning to read, but her “reading” today is flawless. She’s looked at the book so many times with her teacher that she can re-tell the story from memory. She can recount how the wolf comes back again and again and tries to trick the little bunnies, and how they remember not to open the door. They stay safe, waiting for Mommy Rabbit to return. And she does! Bringing carrots!
Ziyuan’s favorite part of the story is that happy ending, when the Mommy Rabbit comes home.
As Ziyuan speaks, her fellow students are all caught up in the story. When she finishes and her teacher tells her how well she did, a bright smile spreads across Ziyuan’s face. When she gets home today, she’ll proudly tell her grandmother that she read aloud.
Ziyuan is four. She lives in a small rundown house in a tiny village with her elderly grandparents. Both Ziyuan’s parents work in a city just a few hours’ drive away, but they seldom get back home to see their little daughter.
But once every week they call, and Ziyuan listens intently to the voices coming from the magical little device her grandfather holds. When it’s her turn to speak, Ziyuan leans close to the phone and begs her mother to come back.
Ziyuan has no idea when that might happen. Her mother’s last visit was more than a year ago, and Ziyuan is still savoring it.
Inside Ziyuan‘s ramshackle home, it’s dark, but the place is warm with love. Her grandparents dote over her and her “little brother”, her uncle’s son, Heyun.
In the cramped bedroom she shares with her grandparents, a big paper poster has been taped over one wall, to cover the chipping paint. Near her part of the bed, Ziyuan keeps a treasured possession—her parents’ wedding photo. She often pulls it out and stares at it, daydreaming. When her teacher came for a home visit, that photo was one of the first things Ziyuan pulled out to show her.
Most of Ziyuan’s care falls to her grandmother, since her grandfather suffers from a number of ailments, can barely walk, is blind in one eye and losing sight in the other. When the grandmother talks about her husband’s sad state of health, she cries.
Heyun is just Ziyuan’s age and the two are inseparable, playing together constantly. They are in the same class at school. In fact, Heyun was one of the children listening raptly as Ziyuan read the rabbit story. She acts like a big sister to him, and he is usually just a few steps behind her wherever she goes. Ziyuan gets a little frustrated with him because Heyun is apt to cry when he doesn’t get his way. Sometimes Ziyuan tells him to behave, or she won’t take him home.
Although Ziyuan spends a lot of time trying to get Heyun to dry his tears, the two also get into quarrels. When they got into an argument one day at school about who could go down the slide first, it was Ziyuan who wound up in tears. But the teacher helped the two to work it out, and it didn’t take Ziyuan long to muster a smile again. “Ziyuan’s a good sport,” says her teacher, “but she does like to always be first.”
At home, Ziyuan and Heyun share a tricycle, one pedaling, the other riding on the little seat behind. Her brother insists on the front seat because he is taller. Sometimes Ziyuan gets off and runs alongside.
She likes to run. On the playground, Ziyuan is a whir of motion, dashing around, Heyun trailing close behind. Ziyuan is attuned to her classmates, too. When two girls ran into each other on the playground, and both fell down. Ziyuan rushed over to make sure they were okay. She’s like a “little teacher,” says her teacher. “Very independent and clever.”
Lately, Ziyuan has been organizing activities for her classmates—gathering a group to blow bubbles, or teaching everyone a song.
Ziyuan’s favorite song is called “The Doll of Clay.” “She’s got no loving Papa,” go the lyrics, “She’s got no loving Mama.” “But,” sings Ziyuan in her child’s voice, “I’ll be her Papa. I’ll be her Mama for every loving day.”
So Ziyuan carries on, singing, running, riding, learning to read, helping out at home. Smiling, most of the time. Being a little teacher. When she grows up, she says she’d like to be a bus driver, so she could pick up little kids and take them to preschool.
Her grandmother is very proud of Ziyuan’s studies, and—just like a grandma!–she thinks that Ziyuan is learning a lot more than the other kids! Whenever she can, she proudly tells Ziyuan’s parents about their little daughter’s progress.
But Ziyuan, like the bunnies in her favorite story, just wishes her mother would come home. Though most of the time she wears a smile, when Ziyuan thinks about missing her parents, a cloud passes over her face.
To help with Ziyuan’s disappointment, her teacher has been planning some special activities. In the next few months, she plans to give “the little teacher” some additional classroom duties. “Ziyuan has many strengths that I want to encourage,” her teacher says, “I am eager to see how she will respond and grow.”