In a small, poverty-stricken Chinese village in the high plains, a substitute teacher (thirteen year old Wei Minzhi) is placed in charge of a class of younger, unruly peasant children for one month. She's in over her head, since she only knows how to sing half of a song and copy lessons left by old Teacher Gao, who instructed her on how to conserve chalk by writing big enough for the children to see, but not too big as to waste it. Considering the state of the crumbling stone hut which functions as a schoolhouse and the lack of books and reading materials, chalk is a precious commodity to be prized and respected.

More importantly, Gao implores her to keep watch over the children and not let them run away from school to go work in the nearby city. He wants every student to still be there when he returns. "Not one less," he instructs, quietly, and agrees to pay her a little extra out of his own pocket if need be. Most deals among adults and children are negotiated in such a way, and even the classroom children understand and value the power of currency. Such is the life of rags and poverty.

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