Zhang Guimei, principal of Huaping Senior High School for Girls, sings song with her students on December 3, 2020. Huaping Senior High school is the country 's first public high school that provides free education for female students, in the city of Lijiang, southwest China's Yunnan Province. (Xinhua/Chen Xinbo)
by Xinhua writers Li Yin, Zhao Jiasong, Pang Mingguang, Yang Muyuan
KUNMING, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- Without a house of her own, 63-year-old Zhang Guimei has lived in a student dormitory for the past 12 years.
Zhang is the principal of the Huaping Senior High School for Girls, the country's first public high school that provides free education for female students, in the city of Lijiang, southwest China's Yunnan Province.
She has been educating and aiding students in need, most living in isolated and poor areas. The school, led by Zhang, has created a miracle for the girls: 1,804 graduates have been admitted to colleges.
A girl was crying and snuggling in Zhang's arm. She was immersed in grief over her father's death.
"Don't cry, sweetheart. Tell me if you have any difficulty," Zhang said, comforting the girl.
Zhang handed the girl's mother an envelope containing 10,000 yuan (about 1,500 U.S. dollars) because she knew that the loss of a father, a husband and a breadwinner would be a terrible blow to the family.
The money was from the Ministry of Education for her to use on medical treatment, as she suffers from more than 20 diseases.
Girls always address their teacher as "Mom Zhang," as the woman has changed their fates by playing an indispensable role in their lives.
Zhang used to teach with her husband in a middle school in the city of Dali. In 1994, her husband died of stomach cancer. The heartbroken Zhang asked to be transferred to a remote school in Huaping County to escape her memories two years later.
When arriving in Huaping, Zhang found that many girls quit school to do farm work or part-time work to support their families. Parents would rather keep the girls at home instead of sending them to further their education due to their outdated views and poor family conditions.
In 2001, Huaping County established a home for homeless children and Zhang became the president. She found that many girls in the home were abandoned by their parents.
Since then, she bore in mind a wish of building a free high school, which could enable all the girls in the deep mountains to receive an education.
In September 2008, the Huaping Senior High School for Girls officially opened, enrolling 100 girls in its first year.
On opening day, Zhang stood in front of the only teaching building, tears streaming down her face.
From the first day of school, Zhang set the rules: All the tuition and accommodation fees are exempted; all the students from poor families have access to the school.
The "no-threshold" school was far from perfect considering the poor conditions -- no walls, no canteen, no toilet and the ground was full of weeds. Students took classes in one classroom and slept in another, and they had to go to the neighboring school for meals and to use the toilet.
Despite the harsh environment, Zhang chose to take care of almost everything for the girls. She lived at the school and tailored special schedules for effective and healthy school life.
In 2016, the school was equipped with all the facilities -- a canteen, dormitories and sports equipment.
Now, the school offers nine classes in three grades with 464 students. To acknowledge the needs and conditions of different families, Zhang has been making visits to students' homes for years, having walked tens of thousands of kilometers.
The all-girls school has seen 10 batches of graduates, and their scores in the national college entrance examination have been leading in the city of Lijiang for years.
In February, students had to take online classes at home due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and Zhang would always lay a camp bed outside the classroom to accompany other teachers.
"When I was teaching online, I often heard her making sounds in pain, but she never mentioned it," said Wei Tangyun, a Chinese-language teacher.
Wei said that students are performing better academically, but Zhang is getting weaker. Her body was covered in bandages, and it is very challenging for her to climb the stairs.
"She has many diseases -- osteoma, hemangioma and emphysema. Her weight has dropped from over 65 kg to only about 40 kg," said Wang Xiuli, a friend of Zhang.
Zhou Yunli is among the first group that graduated from the high school.
In July 2015, Zhou completed her college education and had been admitted to a middle school as a teacher in a county near Huaping.
However, when she heard that her alma mater was short of teachers, she gave up her formal post and returned to Zhang's school as a substitute teacher.
One year later, she became a formal member of the faculty after passing a test.
Zhou's mother passed away during her childhood. Her father with disabilities and old grandmother farmed and sold grains, struggling to support the education for her and her elder sister.
"When I heard a kind-hearted teacher set up a free high school, it was like catching a lifeline," said Zhou.
"With this all-girls high school, I could pursue further education, and my elder sister and I could go to college," said Zhou. "So I want to help girls from poor families like me. Zhang also told us that if we had power, we should help others."
Every June, when the graduation season comes, is the happiest time for Zhang. All the good news will flood to her from her students, and Zhang will always share with her friends which students will go to do research and which students will support teaching in remote regions.
Earlier this month, Zhang was honored with the title "Role Model of the Times" by Chinese authorities in recognition of her dedication to education for girls.
"I count the days to live," Zhang said. "As one day passes, I 'earned' that day, for I can accompany my girls for one more day." ■