Last Night's TV: Absorbing scenes from a class struggle
Chinese School, BBC4; Massacre at Virginia Tech: This World, BBC2; The Killing of Sally Anne Bowman – a crimewatch special, BBC1
Wednesday 09 April 2008
Anyone uncertain about China's future standing in the world should take a look at the standard school day at Xiuning high school, as revealed in BBC4's engrossing series Chinese School. The pupils get up at 5.45am and are in the classroom by 6am for 45 minutes of "self-study". After that, they break for 30 minutes of aerobics and breakfast at 7.30am, heading back to the classroom at 8am. Lessons run through to 11.30am, when they get lunch and 90 minutes of free time, and then it's back to the classroom from 1pm till 5pm. Another break for supper and then they squeeze in another two-and-quarter hours of schoolwork before finally shutting their books at 10.15pm. At that point, the indolent slackers call it a day, though really dedicated bookworms, such as Wu Yufei, a 17-year-old who is aiming at exam gold, will add a couple more hours of revision before grabbing a few hours' sleep and starting all over again.
Granted, Xiuning high school is for high performers, and they are cramming for the Gao Kao, a dreaded public examination that will determine whether they get university place or not. It's true, too, that the headmaster murmured some unconvincing noises to the assembled parents about not putting too much pressure on their children. But it was advice he didn't appear to believe applied to himself. "You must shoulder your parents' expectations, the great trust of your school and the hope of our Motherland," he told the students. And the parents hadn't been listening, anyway. "He carries all our family's hopes and dreams," said the mother of another boy, during a trip to the family grave to plead with her ancestors to do their bit in boosting him up the results tables. Meanwhile, Wu Yufei's mother had given up work for a year, in order to take her daughter home-cooked meals twice a day and nutritionally bolster her academic chances. The overwhelming impression was of a society almost fanatically dedicated to maximising its potential.
The discipline starts early, if Ping Min primary is at all representative. A kind of Chinese Montessori school, run as a charity for disadvantaged children, Ping Min expects its pupils not only to behave perfectly in class but also to clean the school and work in vegetable gardens fertilised with their own night soil. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if it had been revealed that they put in an eight-hour shift at a television factory as well, such was the regimen. Not that they don't have the odd problem. One small boy found himself hauled up for a bit of self-criticism after his pencil eraser was voted the most ill-used in the class. "Do you think the eraser's happy to be full of holes?" he was asked, before being forced to put on a shabby jumper as a badge of his eraser-torturing shame. As tears rolled down the boy's cheeks, the teacher beamed approvingly at the way his fellow pupils had helped to bring this antisocial element to his senses before his stationery-abusing tendencies had got out of hand.
Massacre at Virginia Tech, a This World film about the biggest school shooting in US history, began with a pastiche of the Halloween music on the soundtrack, as if to nudge the viewer towards a thriller take on the collision between inexplicable evil and mid-American normality. In what followed, though, Seung-Hui Cho steadily diminished from monster into a more familiar kind of maniac: a troubled child whose crippling shyness had slowly turned septic. This wasn't a killer who had given no clues as to the turbulence within. At school, he was diagnosed with selective mutism and had four years of therapy, but being the shy, retiring type, seems to have fitted pretty well with South Korean social expectations. "We just thought he was docile," said his grandmother. At Virginia Tech, he flickered between the wrong kind of extroversion – harassing female students and elaborating alternative personas for himself – and an introversion so fierce that many people took it for indifference. And when neither of those worked to ease pain, he spewed the words he'd bottled up for years on to self-justifying video-tapes, posted them to the media, and exploded, taking 32 people with him.
The Killing of Sally Anne Bowman was a much shabbier affair, dubiously illustrated with dime-novel graphics and offering little more than prurient narrative and an opportunity to watch the killer saying "No comment" a lot during his police interrogation. There wasn't a lot of narrative either, since Mark Dixie's eventual arrest was not the result of painstaking detective work but his own stupidity in getting into a pub fight, after which his DNA was swabbed and discovered to be a match for a case that had been steadily going cold for nine months. I was intrigued by one remark from the detective who'd headed up the case, though. "We described it as a frenzied knife attack," he said, "but a controlled frenzied knife attack."
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