The three-day national college entrance exam started on Thursday for 120,000 students in areas hard hit by the May 12 earthquake, weeks after their peers elsewhere in the nation took the crucial test.
Huang Qian, 18, wore freshly washed jeans that were bought by her mother, who died in the quake that claimed nearly 70,000 lives. Huang looked a bit nervous, and her teacher patted her on the shoulder before she entered the exam room.
"Relax, I will wait for you outside. Don't forget to sign your name on the paper," the teacher advised.
The girl nodded and strode into the makeshift classroom where she did her final cram sessions over the past month.
The first exam was Chinese, and the composition title was "The Story I Most Want To Tell". Huang wrote quickly, crying. After finishing the test at 11:30 a.m., she said her essay covered her own rescue from the quake.
Huang was among 96,000 students from 45 counties in Sichuan Province and 24,000 from 17 counties in Gansu Province taking the belated test. The two groups comprise 1.1 percent of all senior high school graduates who took the college entrance exam this year.
About 78 percent are taking the most important exam of their lives in makeshift classrooms, which were fitted with air conditioners.
Many of these teens, most of whom were only children, are recovering from the biggest trauma of their lives and the deaths of relatives and friends. Reports said about 7,000 students died in the disaster, many buried by badly built school buildings.
Many schools provided counseling for teachers and students during the preparation period to help them cope.
"Do not talk with the examinees about the earthquake" is the advice given to proctors in a manual.
In the Changhong Training Center venue in Mianyang City, Sichuan, 935 examinees from the worst-hit Beichuan County sat for the exam.
"What they are faced with is not only the exam but dreadful memories of the earthquake," said a proctor surnamed Liu.
He and other proctors were trained in evacuation procedures. If an aftershock occurs, two proctors in each makeshift classroom will lead examinees outside and take custody of their exam papers.
Helicopters were used for the first time to take the exam papers to 13 test sites in Aba Prefecture, Sichuan, said Zhou Xinbin, an official with the provincial education and examination institute.
"Roads to these venues were either blocked or threatened by the earthquake, and we are afraid landslides and cave-ins may occur while transporting exam papers," Zhou said.
Four helicopters carried 4,000 sets of exam papers to these areas, and armed police guarded them before the exam started.
The earthquake zones have been granted a college enrollment rate of 2 percent more than the previous plan. The Ministry of Education has asked the country's 1,000-plus institutions of higher learning to increase their enrollment quota for the quake-hit areas.