Frank Li said he still lives with the memory of the chaotic years of his youth during China's Cultural Revolution.
"It was just unbelievable," Li said. "We were brainwashed, all of us."
The eighth-grade Mandarin Chinese teacher gave his account of the personal horrors he experienced in the 1970s to students in teacher Buddy Fisch's social studies class at North Hall Middle School Tuesday. They met in the North Hall Middle School media center.
Fisch said his class was studying "Red Scarf Girl," a novel that recounts the revolution from a young girl's point of view.
"I found out Mr. Li was about the same age as the girl was in the book," Fisch said.
"I thought this would be a great chance to have the students hear from someone who lived it."
The revolution began as an attempt by Chairman Mao Zedong to tighten his grip on power, Li said.
Students and workers formed groups of radical Red Guards and went on a rampage. Millions died in the ensuing violence and others were left mentally broken in the decade that followed.
Li was living in rural China in the 1970s, which he said differed from "Red Scarf Girl." The author, Ji-Li Jiang was in Shanghai.
Though the countryside was slightly more removed from politics, the revolution impacted every corner of China, he said.
Li showed the students a little red book he owned as a boy, with quotations from Mao. It was an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, read and carry it around at all times.
"You would read from it before you started eating," Li said, adding it was customary to read from the book during telephone calls.
Following the end of the revolution, Li said it took years for many to fully realize its tragic impacts.
He told the students about learning of Mao's death in 1976. Li was working in a field when he heard from a loudspeaker that the communist leader had died.
He said his first thought was that he would give his life to bring him back.
"We were so brainwashed, I was willing to die for him so that he could live. That was what was going through my mind," he said.
The students also viewed slides of the Red Guard, and some of the resulting brutalities. Among the methods used to humiliate victims, revolutionists gave what are called "Yin-Yang haircuts." They would shave odd patterns into a person's hair, he said.
Li said he had an extended uncle who was brutally beaten to death during that era.
"You could charge anyone at that time. If someone didn't like you, they could accuse you of being a reactionary," Li said. "They'd ask, ‘How can you prove you're not?'"
The students asked if the revolution had dashed Li's dreams, like it had the girl in "Red Scarf." In the book, Jiang wanted to become a doctor, but her classes became saturated with propaganda.
Li said he didn't have a dream until after the revolution. It was to continue his education.
"I wanted to go back to school in a real classroom. I never had a day like you, where the teacher was really trying to teach," he said.
Students also asked if Li had a girlfriend during the revolution.
Li said he had never talked to a girl during elementary, middle or high school.
"It wasn't that I didn't like girls, it was the culture," he said. "I didn't have a girlfriend until college, but even then we were underground because it was not allowed."
He added he only had one girlfriend in his life, and she's now his wife.
Li teaches Mandarin Chinese at North Hall Middle and North Hall High schools, and came to the U.S. in 1997 to pursue teaching.
Students said Li's speech hit them on an emotional level.
It also brought something unique to their reading assignment, seventh-grader Nick Whitmire said.
"It showed the corruption from a person's viewpoint, instead of just hearing it from a documentary," Whitmire said.
"He showed us how it felt to be there."