Page last updated at 16:51 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 17:51 UK

Dream lives on for quake students

Students in a tent
Students are disciplined, but many suffer nightmares and flashbacks

In China's rural heartland, 18-year-olds and their families see the national college entrance exam as the fast track out of poverty. But for tens of thousands of high school students traumatised by the Sichuan earthquake - competing this year demands extraordinary strength and courage, as Nick Mackie reports from the city of Deyang.

It is 6.30am and I have just arrived at the makeshift campus, or camp, for the sixth formers and teachers of Mianzhu's Nan Xuan Middle School.

Housed in the playground behind a modern four-storey Deyang primary school, 40km (25 miles) from home, some 500 teenagers are already washed and dressed, six students to each blue tent.

Walking past the rows of shoes, neatly lined up outside, I can pick out different passages from Chinese literature and history, as well as English words like "dream", "technological" and "achievement" being repeated to master the pronunciation.

Typically Chinese, all appear disciplined and focused.

There is even some playful banter as the 18-year-olds queue up by the outdoor kitchen in two long lines for a breakfast of steamed buns, rice porridge and vegetables.

English teacher Tan Dingbo explains that his school was lucky. Its building is too unsafe to use, but it never collapsed.

Nonetheless, many students and teachers have lost loved ones. They suffer nightmares and flashbacks. The frequent aftershocks terrify.

'No way out'

And against this, these sixth formers, mostly from rural areas, have to compete with the rest of the country for a ticket to a better life - China's National College Entrance Exam - scheduled for 7 and 8 June.

Up to Sunday 25 May:
62,664 people dead
358,816 injured
23,775 still missing
More than 5.4 million homeless
638,305 rescued and resettled
More than 8,000 aftershocks, biggest 6.0
69 dams faced danger of collapse, 310 in dangerous state and another 1,424 facing moderate risks
Source: Chinese government

The government has postponed the exam in the crisis area which covers 40 Sichuan counties.

But feelings are mixed over the postponement.

"If we take part in the examination right now, maybe some students can't have a good mark. But the longer we stay here, the more they will forget, " reflects Tan Dingbo.

"There's no ideal way out for the government."

One leading Chinese paper has floated the idea of assessing Sichuan's students on their past performance.

Zhu Mingli has stitches on his face and hands. He and his disabled parents survived the earthquake, but mum and dad lie injured in hospital. The boy is trying to revise but he cannot focus.

His family, however, depend on him for their future. He says that there is no choice but to be brave.

"I feel the stress, of course - but I must transform this stress into motivation."

Facing their fears

A tearful Lu Chi says his mother's last words were "I'm in so much pain", having been crushed by a falling wall.

Students face huge pressure to succeed, and to earn a better life

Like Zhu Mingli, he knows that exam success, despite suffering a huge trauma, is vital.

"We have to face it - we can't avoid it, we must face it."

It is difficult to remain composed.

But it is important to understand that, on the surface at least, this school is functioning. It is not an emotional wasteland.

There is a close, supportive bond between pupils and staff - plus everyone is well fed.

Teachers go from tent to tent, sitting cross-legged with their pupils, helping them with any problems - acting as a sounding board and assisting with their all-important studies.

Wang Qiang's father is still missing, presumed dead. But the boy tries to rationalise: deal with his worst fears and face reality.

Looking me in eye he says: "Faced with nature, human beings are too tiny. I must try to realise my dreams - for once in university, I can change my life and improve the life of my family."

'Dreams live on'

The day after earthquake, a mobile crane was lifting crushed bodies from the rubble of Hanwang Dong Qi Middle School.

Students in corridor
A corridor is a makeshift classroom in a world turned upside down

Of 900 pupils, 240 perished, as well as 14 teachers.

Some 130 sixth formers are now camped out behind another Deyang school.

Ye Shuying recalls how she was saved from falling concrete by an injured teacher who shielded her body.

She is thankful to be alive, but deeply saddened by the deaths of so many.

Now, there is a duty not only to herself and family to succeed, but also a duty to those departed.

"They never had the chance to realise their dream, to make a contribution to society," says Ye Shuying.

"We want to realise their dreams for them."

Best therapy

Her friend, Liu Jingwen, reflects on how quickly they have grown up since the earthquake.

Before, faced with the intense pressure from parents, there was a lot of bickering that left them fed-up.

"Now, we understand more that their hearts are in the right place - and we can help each other, along with classmates, and get through this together."

Chatting with a group of boys, resting in their tent for the afternoon break, these sentiments are shared.

The six tent-mates are alive because they skipped revision in a fourth floor classroom to play basketball in the yard. Li Heming is one of just 14 survivors from a class of 40.

He wants the exams out of the way sooner rather than later so that they can all have the chance to relax from studies.

"We also have to help rebuild our homes - and we want to visit the parents of our dead classmates."

Last week, Li Henming's parents had moved him to a school in the provincial capital Chengdu.

But in his new class, with no familiar faces, study was impossible. He insisted on coming back to the crisis zone.

Being among friends and mentors is giving him the strength and confidence to keep going - probably the best therapy for these young people at a time when academic decisions will soon be made regarding their futures.

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