After she found herself in a fight once again with her classmates, first-grader Lei Mengjia (雷梦佳) of Menglu County (孟津县) in Henan Province was subjected to a peculiar form of punishment — the head of the class organized a “democratic vote” by the whole class to determine whether she would stay or go. Two-thirds of the student voted for her to leave. Three days later, Lei’s body was found in a canal behind the school [and it was found that she had committed suicide].
The incident provides a glimpse into wrong ideas of democracy being taught in our schools. Democracy is a political concept, and it is a method citizens apply for the handling of public affairs. It does not mean, as the class head mistakenly believed, that all “major matters” needing resolution can be decided by a vote. Even in the context of political affairs, democracy must have as a precondition respect for the individual’s personal dignity and basic freedoms. Many editorials responding to this recent case have noted this point.
But I have also noticed that none of these editorials express skepticism about whether Lei Mengjia was in fact a “problem girl.” The discussion has focused on how to deal with and help these “problem students,” not on how they should be seen or understood.
All those in Lei Mengjia’s life — whether we’re talking about her classmates, teachers and schoolmaster, or her parents and friends — seem to have accepted the label “problem girl” that had been hung over her neck. This was because she spoke loudly, walked upright with her chest held high, her hands thrust into the pockets of her blue jeans — “Just looking at her, you knew she wasn’t a good student.” Moreover, she seemed to enjoy getting into scrapes, and drinking alcohol with the boys.
It seems that everyone believes schools tend to be divided into the good students and the bad students. In the past, schools even openly determined and selected which students were “excellent students” (优等生) and which were “substandard students” (差等生). There is a fixed system of benchmarks for determining whether students are good or bad — are their scholastic achievements good or bad, do they listen and follow instructions, are boy students honest, are girl students quiet and demure?
Sure, the head of Lei Mengjia’s class believes that all the other students in the class are better than Lei Mengjia. But what these students don’t understand is that to cooperate with their teacher in using a vote to send a classmate out of school, ultimately causing her the commit suicide, this is a something very wrong. Some students wrote kind words for Lei Mengjia on greeting cards they left for her, but still they voted to have her leave, and then later they even explained to reporters: “Those things I wrote on the greeting card were just words, I didn’t mean them.” This is not at all how good students should behave.
My point is not to drag these students down into the ranks of the “bad students.” It’s this notion itself that’s wrong. Everyone will stumble across problems in the process of growing up. Some people have more problems, some have less. What teachers should do is to help students work through their problems — their focus should not be on resolving “problem students.”
The concept of the “problem student” is itself a problem.
The most important thing is to work out what are problems and what are not. This is something that really needs to be talked about. Fighting is of course a problem, but for a girl to walk in a way that’s not seen as sufficiently delicate, far from being a problem, might point, if seen in another way, as a sign of her uniqueness and individuality, and as a significant personal strength. Perhaps it was prejudices about gender roles and differences that led to the discrimination and exclusion of Lei Mengjia, and which led to her own errors in using fights as a means of resistance.
It could be said that it was this standardized education system that not only forced Lei Mengjia to her death but also poisoned her classmates. They don’t understand how to tolerate those who are different. They do not understand the principle of democracy. They know nothing of remorse and responsibility. And they see all of these as hallmarks of the good student.
Some people will say, well, for so many people to have disliked Lei Mengjia — that’s just a fact. But we should not forget that this “fact” too is the product of education. That vote which decided whether she would stay or go, and ultimately whether she would live or die, was in fact also a directed result. The class head enumerated Lei Mengjia’s “record” and hoped all of her classmates would cast their vote “according to her prior behavior.” For these young boys and girls who were taught for so long that listening (and not independent thinking) is the mark of a good student, there was certainly a great deal implied [by the class head’s actions]. Just imagine, if the class head had spoken instead about how Lei Mengjia was not a bad person, but was only different, and that everyone should treat her fairly, would so many students have voted to have her leave?
There is a film called Juno that deals with a lot of problems in growing up, and that tries to provide people with better ways of explaining these problems. Juno, a female high school student, tastes forbidden fruit and ends of getting pregnant. Naturally, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with, but it is after all only a problem. Juno is not branded as a “problem girl.” Her parents gently blame her for being careless, and she is not censured as immoral by her teachers and classmates. She goes off to classes with her big tummy, and inconvenience much the same as a carelessly broken leg. She opts against abortion because she feels for the baby, but nor is she prepared to be a mother. So she finds a couple that is willing to adopt the baby. The important message conveyed by this film is that in the process of working through her problems Juno becomes more mature and more confident, and those around her become more rational and tolerant.
This editorial was originally published in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.