The School House That Ye Built

You have heard so much about it already: the earthquake that stunned China. The municipal buildings survived because they were built to earthquake standards. But the public schools collapsed because they were not.

That is mostly true – with one exception: the schoolhouse that Ye built.

When Ye Zhiping became principal of the Sangzao Middle School several years ago, his first job was to inspect the school building. He found many smaller problems that could be corrected easily – exit lights that weren’t working, fire escapes that needed fixing, etc. But the biggest problem – the integrity of the building itself – needed more than a quick fix.

Zhiping went to work immediately, raising funds, drawing up plans, getting approvals, and supervising contractors. Over a two-year period, he raised 400,000 yen (about $60,000), which he used to reinforce the building’s concrete pillars and rebuild some floors that had been weakened by water damage.

After the earthquake, parents rushed to the school. Teachers lined the children up outside and conducted a head count. When it was complete, said Edward Wong, reporting for The New York Times, the “fate [of the children] was clear: all 2,323 were alive.”

Parents, covered in blood and dust, hugged their children. Everyone was crying happily. But no one was happier than Ye Zhiping. For in his heart, he knew he had saved them.

We won’t all have the chance to save schoolchildren from earthquakes, but we will – and do – have opportunities every day to make our world a little better than it is right now.

Look around you. At your desk right now. At your office, home, or community. Surely there is something you can do. Something that could be cleaned or fixed or in some other way improved.

That’s all Ye Zhiping did, if you think about it. He didn’t set out to save two thousand lives. He didn’t plan to be a hero. He simply noticed something that needed to be improved. And he did something about it.

What was special, if anything, about what Ye Zhiping did was his motive for acting. He didn’t fix the building because it was annoying him. He didn’t spend the money on leaky pipes or a bad heating system. The problem with the school building was one that could have easily been ignored. That’s what Zhiping’s predecessors had done – just shrugged their shoulders and hoped everything would be okay.

But instead of ignoring the problem, he went into action. To get the job done, he probably had to spend much of his spare time writing letters and filling out forms and holding fundraisers and cajoling politicians. He ignored his own comfort and risked the censure of school authorities because he believed it was somehow his duty. Not as a school principal, but as a human being.

My mother always said, “Leave the world a better place than you found it.” Your mother probably said that to you, too. Take a moment right now to think about what you are currently doing to make your world a better place. But remember – we’re not talking about things that make the world better for you. We’re talking about making it better for others.

That’s the essence of goodness, if goodness has any value at all: taking pains for other people.

So how, exactly, are you doing on that score?

[Ed. Note: What are you doing to help make the world a better place? Let us know in the comments section right here.  Maybe your actions can inspire others.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]