When to put down the homework

By Ned Boudreau Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-25 19:43:00

We paddled out to the center of the lake in a canoe. It was after midnight during the dark of the moon in August.

I wanted to show my wife and stepson a night sky clear of pollution and city lights. We were on Lindsley Lake in Watersmeet, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the US. 

The sky was emblazoned with stars.

I said, "Look up." Lulu, 15, looked up over his shoulder: "What is that?"

It was the Milky Way as clear and bright as starlight could make it, a thick ribbon arcing from treetop to treetop.

We paddled up the lake, rejoicing in the star light, the utter silence but for loons singing.

This incident illustrates the difference between Chinese and American childhood and the respective educational systems.

Lulu is an elite student at his local Shanghai high school. But he had never seen the Milky Way, paddled a canoe or gone sailing.

By the time I was Lulu's age, I could handle firearms, bang in nails, and had survived a meter of snow on an isolated campsite with temperatures below freezing.

Plus I competed in sailboat races all over, from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to Lake St. Louis in Montreal. My brothers and I were Boy Scouts for years.

None of this prevented us from going to good schools: I graduated with highest honors from Boston College while my brothers went to Cornell and Princeton.

This is the sadness of the Chinese education system. There is, with the exception of musical instruments, little emphasis on extracurricular activities.

GPA and the National College Entrance Exam are all-important. But they simply kill childhood because - with all the extra classes - there is little time for anything else, for children simply to play.

My beloved Minmin, my wife's niece, is 11 years old. She often comes to visit on weekends for my wife's excellent cooking - and because she need not study all day.

We play silly games, go for pizza, watch TV. She crawled, weeping, into my arms one recent Sunday. She did not wish to go home, because her parents would make her study constantly.

Minmin is already an accomplished ballet dancer and calligrapher.

But her achievements are never enough and she has little time to play, to be a youngster enjoying life.

I would like to spirit Lulu and Minmin - all Chinese kids - away to a lake deep in forested mountains, or to a wild seacoast.

I would arrange for their required classes. But I would also teach them to swim, fish, and sail, to pitch a tent, chop wood, build and cook over a fire, and even to shoot - and to be children.

Ned Boudreau, an English teacher and tutor in Shanghai

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