Mirro Ren studied at a prestigious foreign language middle school in Southwest China, and she was miserable. Daily classes Monday through Saturday were broken into three sections—7:20 a.m. to noon; 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. After that, she had homework to complete, which she could work on during her lunch break, and on Sundays she spent two hours in “cram school” tutoring sessions.
But Ren wasn’t good at test-taking, and in a system revolving around the college exam, or gaokao, she felt out of place and depressed. Teachers didn’t like her because of her low scores, and she had no friends. Her parents started scrambling for a solution and considered sending Ren to America. But they worried about the high cost and the dangers of their young girl living abroad. They wanted the best for Ren, but didn’t know where to turn.
About the same time, her dad started attending church in the nearby city of Chengdu, and Ren saw changes in his character because of his new-found faith. Curious, she went to church with him and professed Christ at 16. One day at church, they heard the pastor announce that Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church would be starting its own classical Christian school, one of a growing number of such institutions in secular China. Ren knew that was where she and her 6-year-old brother needed to be. They enrolled in the school’s first class last year, and the entire family moved to Chengdu. Since moving, Ren’s mother has also come to profess Christ.
The first year was a thrilling change for the then-17-year-old. Rather than completing worksheets and take practice tests, she read Chinese classics, Greek philosophers, Western literature, and the Bible. Rather than being told what to believe, classes included discussions and students were allowed to disagree with teachers, a new experience for Ren.
“Before I didn’t like learning, but now I’ve developed reasoning skills, which is very important,” Ren, now 18, said. “Also Chinese textbooks have a lot of falsehoods, but now we’re learning from the classics, which changes our perspective. How we look at things is different than how others see things.”
As one of the oldest pupils at the 32-student school, she was placed in the middle school class with 13- to 16-year-olds. But the teacher covered material and books Ren had never learned. Some of the other students had been homeschooled, so they were more familiar with this teaching style than Ren. After a semester, she’s advanced to the school’s nascent “college,” which means she takes some classes with the middle schoolers, some with the church’s seminary, and does other outside assignments from teachers. Classes now run a more manageable 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with homework assignments of reading, papers, and memorization of poetry and Scripture.
Her former classmates think she’s taken a strange path.
“They want to go to a good university so when they graduate from school they can get a good job,” she said. “They think I can’t a get a good job when I graduate.”
To top it off, “they think that anything that has to do with the church is dangerous.” In response she poses questions to her friends to make them reassess their own lives: Why do you work so hard and study so hard? What’s the purpose of it all? Usually her friends admit that they don’t know, but have to do it because it’s what everyone else does.
Ren wants to continue her liberal arts college education and eventually teach at Early Rain’s school. The one other college student is a 20-year-old who originally hoped to train professionally as an opera singer. But after he started attending church, his baptism conflicted with a major singing competition, and his vocal coach gave him an ultimatum—he could either choose church or singing. In the end, he joined Ren to form the church’s first college class and hopes to become an evangelist in the future. On Sundays, he plays the piano during worship.
Ren sees the difference in the education her little brother is receiving compared to what she’s been through. He’s lucky, she said, because he’s still young and it’s easy for him to memorize large amounts of material that can help him form an expansive worldview. And while the school provides different challenges, he’ll never face the intense pressures to test well or regurgitate propaganda like Ren did at her secular school.
“China’s education is focused on getting good grades to get into a good college so you can get a good job,” Ren said. “But at our school, the most important part isn’t taking tests or doing worksheets, but learning to reason and think for ourselves.”