When I met Virgil (李忠良), he was a 12 year old seventh grader at Pingcun Middle School, a small village school that was a nine hour drive into the mountains from the nearest city. He was dark skinned, tall for his age, and had a giant poof of untamed black hair on top of his head. He also had a goofy, toothy smile he was self-conscience of, as only a middle school boy can be.
I had just started my first day as a teacher in the countryside of China. I felt a million miles from home, and was overwhelmed walking into my school. There was barely-working electricity, no hot water, broken windows, and, not least of all, a class of 47 seventh grade students I needed to teach English to, starting from their ABC’s.
Of those 47 students, Virgil stood out as something special. He was quiet in class, but always respectful, friendly, and he had a keen intellect. He treated English like a puzzle that he could always solve, and he did well those first weeks, rising quickly to be one of the top ten students in our class. You’re not supposed to have ‘favorites’ as a teacher, but he had a dignity and can-do attitude that you couldn’t help but love and find inspiration in.
After a month of class, and a seat-rearrangement that took Virgil to the back of the classroom, I noticed him squinting and straining to copy his notes. Our classroom resources were minimal, and almost all learning content was put on the blackboard for students to copy for the lesson. Looking across my classroom, I saw many of my other students were going through the same struggle as Virgil.
After another day of this, it was easy to see Virgil’s pace was lagging behind his classmates, and so I asked for anyone who couldn’t see clearly to come to the front of the class to copy the blackboard.
A flood of students came down to the front row.
While this worked for a time, it just wasn’t sustainable, and after a little while, the burden on Virgil and his nearsighted eyes began to get to him. His note taking lagged behind his classmates, and many of his notes were copied wrong. Slowly at first, but then faster as his eyesight deteriorated, his grades began to drop. He went from being in the top ten, to the top twenty, and then to the bottom half of the class.
He struggled every day with his poor vision, but as a first year teacher still trying to get my bearings, I didn’t put in the time needed to help understand and really fix the problem for him. As his grades drops lower, his frustration grew, and his behavior in class got worse. Slowly, he was giving up.
The final straw came after he had misbehaved one too many times in class, and was moved to a permanent seat in the back row, where all the other troublemakers went. For him, with his poor vision, it was the worst thing that could have happened.
In the spring of 2011, at the age of 13, Virgil dropped out of the seventh grade, and he never came back.
I failed him.
I know that if Virgil had gotten the eyeglasses he needed at the beginning of that year, or even the middle, his life would be on a completely different trajectory now. He would be graduating from high school, and looking towards college.
His experience woke me up to just how important clear vision was for my students, and also that there were literally millions of students like Virgil who weren’t getting the glasses they needed.
The next year, we got glasses for every student in my school. Over 100 students out of 600 needed eyeglasses, and only 6 already had them.
I know now that there is nothing more meaningful you can do for a student in rural China than give them eyeglasses if they have poor vision. Nothing else comes close to helping as much.
Seeing their impact at my school made me ask a question that still guides Education In Sight to this day, and gives us the hope we need to keep going.
What if every child in the countryside had the eyeglasses they needed to see clearly? What would China be like?
-Andrew Shirman, Summer 2016