In Search of Haygood School

Laura Haygood School

Note: The Laura Haygood Memorial building is still in use by Soochow University, where it is now called the Red Mansion Conference Center.

In 2000, Kate's daughter Ruth went to China on a tour that included several days in Suzhou. While there she managed to carry out her own personal quest:

The most exciting part of the trip for me was an unscheduled event. I had told our national guide, a mild gentle man with exquisite manners, about the school in which Mama had taught. On the one evening when we were in Suzhou he came to me after dinner and offered to take me on a walking tour of the alleys and canals in the ancient part of the city where the school was. Karen was too tired to go, but a good friend of mine who also was on the trip took the walk with us. The alleys followed the canals with arched bridges that had not changed for centuries. Suzhou is called the Venice of the East. On each side were compounds of tiny sparsely furnished apartments, each compound with a common small stone courtyard. Once in a while we would pass a minute stand with odds and ends for sale.

We passed one home where the door was open with several adults eating peanuts at their table which took up most of the common living/kitchen room with barely maneuvering space around it. We stopped and Jim Xing explained that we were looking for the Laura Haygood School for Women where Mama had taught 90 years ago. He pointed to me, and the people immediately invited us to come sit down, giving Inge and me their only two chairs. Other members of the family began appearing out of the woodwork until there were three generations. They did not know of the school, but were extremely gracious--with sign language and interpretation by Jim.

Ruth and Inge welcomed by a family in Suzhou

We started into the dark again on our quest, stopping at a stand for a treat from Jim, and other queries. The owner had his ancient mother come out, and others appeared from nowhere. The same questions and the same answer, no knowledge of the school. Jim took our pictures together and we started again. At one juncture we crossed an arched bridge for more snapshots. The bicycles and motorbikes dodged us as we walked the alley. Jim told us about the life along the canal, how the people used chamber pots at night-no running water or sewers, but a common neighborhood toilet by the canal. He said that early in the morning the area around the toilet and the ramp to the canal was busy with the whole neighborhood emptying their pots in the toilet and then cleaning them in the canal. Later we came to an open pavilion similar to a large gazebo where the families would convene for neighborly interchanges and the old people would chat during the day. Jim asked one man along the way to show us the courtyard of his compound. He led us through a dark open passageway about 3 feet wide so that we could see the doors opening onto the court, to get the feeling of the life along the canal.

A little farther on Jim had to use one of the toilets and here we were, two old Caucasian women alone in a dark alley. A young Chinese man came by and said "Hello". He began chatting to have an opportunity to practice his broken English. In any city in the USA we would have been terribly frightened, but we had been accepted so kindly here that we enjoyed the conversation.

Finally we made our way to Shoochow University. It retains the old spelling of the city which Mama had known. I have a picture that she had taken on the campus. Jim talked with the guard at the gate who let us in after he explained the situation. A young girl who was studying English had been talking with the guard and volunteered to take us around the campus. We found the old building that Mama had photographed still standing at the center of the campus facing a long green lawn. More pictures, but it was much too dark to get a picture of the building.

When we reached the gate again Jim asked us to stay there while he went searching for Mama's school. When he returned with a 14 year old boy he told us that he had knocked on ten doors awakening the families within to ask if they had any elderly members who might know of the school. Finally this boy said that he knew where it was, he had gone to school there which is now run by the Chinese and he had a book with the history of the place. Jim asked him to lead us to it which he did--another long walk.

When we arrived at the walls of the huge school compound Jim aroused the guard at the gate and asked for permission for us to come in to look around. We could see one building about 100 years old through the gate. The guard said that it was too late to come in through this back gate, we would have to walk another 20 minutes to reach the front gate which we had passed about an hour earlier en route to the University. Inge and I were so terribly tired that we could not walk any further--we had walked all day. I had to make a decision that we needed to go back to the hotel, but we had found the school and I was elated.

At the gate of Laura Haygood School