The thunder was loud and rolling over the dark summer sky. The storm was coming. Against the gusting winds of the incoming rain, I rode my bike through the winding streets of Shanghai to my review class.
During the Culture Revolution in 1978 – a movement that Mao started—colleges closed for ten years. My regular school education stopped when I was in fifth grade. Like every young person, I was sent to both the factory and the countryside as part of the “Learn from the Workers and the Peasants” campaign.
Since a child, I have always wanted to attend college one day. Reading was the love of my life.
The government decided to reopen the universities again after the extended shutdown. The college entrance exam was only two months away. Even though I did not feel ready, I wanted to prepare for it no matter how difficult it might be.
I was working in a motor manufactory as an apprentice. The working days were Monday to Saturday, from 7:30 am to 4 pm. At 4 o’clock every afternoon, when the smell of the metal dust was still thick in the air, I would run to the shower room for a quick wash and then jump on my bike to Auntie’s school.
My auntie was an English teacher in a high school that held a review class for the college entrance exam for the employee’s children. When it was announced, Auntie immediately put my name on the list. The review classes started at 6 pm. I had to hurry.
It was a hot and steamy summer. The sun was like a fireball, mercilessly grilling everything on the earth. I was sweating as soon as I left the huge cooling fan in the factory.
At 24 years old, I did not understand what failure was and did not fear any challenges. When I look back today, it seemed like an impossible task. But I knew I did not want to work in the factory for the rest of my life.
After ten years of not teaching college prep, these teachers were so excited to have the opportunity to help us - their children and their colleagues’ children get through the gate to higher education. The classes really helped me to jump from one level to another faster than I could ever imagine.
The teachers poured their hearts and energy into what they were doing. Forty-five minutes of class time was never enough for the lecture. Most of the time, I just copied the notes from the blackboard as fast as possible before the teacher erased them. I told myself: do not worry, I will go home to digest this.
The materials of review covered all the years of middle and high school. Much of the knowledge I had never been taught. We often had no question-and-answer session in the evening school because the teacher had so much to cover. With the overwhelming work, I felt like I was going to drown in an endless ocean. However, there was no one I could complain to, and I understood I was lucky to be enrolled in the review class. I had to take the opportunity and win the battle.
My geography teacher was a man with thin hair and thick glasses in his 50s. He reminded me of a big pineapple with smiling eyes. He was a fast talker and had the magic skill to draw maps on the blackboard as accurately as if removed from a textbook.
Concerning that the materials his students needed to learn were too much, he tried to analyze what topics would likely be included in the exam so that we would study those parts more intensively. But there were so many countries on the earth—how could he guess correctly?
On the exam day, the critical geography question was about Korea. We guessed and studied Albania in review. I can still recall the question: which side of the Korean Peninsula’s coastline elevation is higher than the other? I suddenly remembered what Mr. Geography mentioned in class: if the coastline was smooth on the map, most of the time, it was the higher elevation with mountains. The messy line was mainly the beach and sand. I answered the question accordingly.
A few days after, I met him on campus. I happily reported to him that I used his theory in the exam. He went to heaven! He taught us to be analytical and not to memorize only, a lesson that benefits me not only on the geography exam but also my whole life.
The workload made the review time feel longer than two months. Every evening at 9:30 pm, when the last class was dismissed, I jumped back on my bike and flew home. After 30 minutes of fast zigzagging between the buses and cars, I stopped at the front doors of my home. The heat from the ride would make my face red and my whole body burn. So hot!
After inhaling some dinner my mother had prepared for me, I ran straight to the roof deck to study again.
Even at 10 pm, it can still feel like an oven inside my home. The roof deck was heaven for me. I put a portable light on the pole. My lap was my desk.
My best friend’s mother, who lived next door, used to yell at me around midnight from her rooftop: “Go to sleep, baby. Don’t study too hard… “. I smiled and waved back, then continued.
With cool breezes washing over me, I re-reviewed what was taught that evening after midnight. Then, I sneaked quietly to bed so as not to wake up my parents. The next day I would be at the factory workshop again before 7:30 am. This daily routine was repeated day after day for two months.
During those summer nights, I finished large piles of books and endless exercises: math, science, literature, history, geography, and English.
At the end of the period, I grew more anxious, feeling it was impossible for me, a fifth grader in education, to master what would have taken years to learn. With the intensive review classes and my tiresome daily physical work, I was exhausted and wondered if I could do it.
Laying on my bed at night, I asked myself, “How can I ever be ready for this? It is too much work and impossible.”
Another voice would come to my head, “You must do it. You have nothing to lose but try.”
Without a doubt, I did not want to stay in the factory for the rest of my life. I must go on. Little by little, I was academically and psychologically prepared until the examination date. I got peace of mind by keeping going.
The exam occurred on some of the year’s hottest days before there was air conditioning in Shanghai. The whole test lasted for three days, morning and afternoon. It was 32 degree Celsius in the morning when I arrived at the classroom.
As the exam got closer, I found I had a fever. I had prayed not to get sick, but what could I do? This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who knows if I will be allowed to do it by the government next year? I must attend, even though I am sick.
On the first day, I swallowed a fever reduction pill with a big glass of water at home. Then I managed to wash down a piece of scallion pancake for energy.
Every subject of the test lasted three hours without a break. After one and a half hours, I felt the pill was working on me and had to go to the bathroom. I raised my hand. A young woman escorted me to the girl’s room on the same floor. She waited outside my toilet room, then followed me back to my classroom to continue my test. In the following days, I did not measure my temperature nor dare to take water. Thank God. My fever was over after that. When the three days passed, I was so relieved. I knew I had tried my best.
A few weeks later, I learned that I had passed the exam! After a month, I received an acceptance letter from my dream university!
It was a cycle of life for that whole summer. I will never forget this challenging but priceless experience in my young life. My curiosity about learning kept my spirit and energy high. I learned so much textbook knowledge over the two months. All I did was keep going and never look back. I told myself: one-inch advance is a one-inch success.
Practically, I learned what hard work meant physically and mentally. More importantly, I realized that if I tried hard, I could be victorious.