A glimmer of hope

Wyatt Bruton (center) with his students. Alex, top row, far right, is wearing a gray shirt with white sleeves and flashing the peace sign.

Every morning, I stand in front of 80 Chinese 7th graders and see students at all ends of the spectrum — the few with nearly perfect scores have a great shot at getting into a good high school and maybe going to college one day. And then there are those who have been left behind by a challenging, fast-paced education system where only the strongest survive. They are disillusioned, apathetic and bitter.

Alex is one of those students. At the beginning of the year, I quickly learned Alex didn’t know a word of English. Though students in Guangdong Province start studying English in 3rd grade, it seemed as if he hadn’t learned anything.

As we began to sit down every morning before class, Alex seemed shocked that we were taking the time to work with him one-on-one. “I’ve been ignored by every teacher I’ve ever had,” he told us. And yet after three weeks, Alex could read, write and say the entire alphabet. Alex can learn just like any other student, just not at the same pace or in the same way.

We are constantly shocked by the overwhelming amount of tedious, difficult content we have to cover this semester and year, and students like Alex are struggling to keep up.

For his entire life as a student, Alex has been ignored and his current attitude reflects it; I can’t blame him for that.

This afternoon, I sat down with Alex for about an hour. Though my broken Mandarin sometimes puts some roadblocks in the way when we communicate, today I saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes as I realized that Alex, just like all of us do at some point and throughout our lives, is trying to figure out who he is, why he’s here, and what he’s supposed to do with his life.

I am hoping that my time with Alex as his teacher and advocate will help him find the answer to those ever-important questions.

Whatever happens with Alex’s test score this year, I hope Alex begins to believe perhaps for the first time that he is an intelligent, capable young man who has a great capacity to achieve big things in his life.

I teach for Alex. I teach for China.

[ By Wyatt Bruton ’11, a 2011 UNC graduate who received an undergraduate major in journalism and mass communication and a minor in entrepreneurship. He was also a UNC Phillips Ambassador. Today Bruton is serving as a fellow with Teach for China. Follow his teaching adventures at Zhiying Middle School, located in a small village in eastern Guangdong Province, by visiting http://wyattinasia.com/. This essay appears in the spring ’12 issue ofCarolina Arts & Sciences magazine. ]