Before starlight faded away in the winter dawn, 8-year-old Ma Fengcai had already set out on a snaky road to school with a schoolbag on his back.
In the meantime, Ma Yanguo, 62, lit the stove to warm the classroom. His wife was boiling eggs.
The couple waited for the only student of the school in the village called Mataozi under the city of Wuzhong in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Every Monday morning, after having an egg, little Ma joins old Ma in a flag-raising ceremony. Having no audio equipment, old Ma sings the national anthem in his distinctive dialect tone and raises the national flag himself. Little Ma stands in earnest salute throughout the whole process.
"The ceremony must be held like in other schools, even if there is only one student," old Ma said.
The school was founded about a half-century ago, accommodating over 180 teachers and students in its heyday. However, as students have left with their parents migrating to work in cities, the school's enrollment has dwindled to a single pupil.
Little Ma's parents are trapped in the mountains due to poor health. The family lives off a piece of land, some cattle and sheep, and government subsidies.
Unlike his sister who is old enough to attend a boarding school in a nearby town, little Ma has to stay behind.
But old Ma has also chosen to stay, even though he should have retired two years ago.
"Kids like him have only knowledge to depend on to change their fate. A well-educated child can lift the whole family out of poverty," he said.
"We will keep the school open for as long as it is needed," said Shi Yanyu, deputy head of the education bureau of Tongxin County that governs the village.
The Chinese government has seen to it that every child finishes their nine-year compulsory education. As of 2018, there were about 101,400 minischools like Ma's in China's vast rural areas.
Despite the small number of students in these schools, more favorable policies and funding have been invested to support their operation. Internet access has been installed, teaching equipment upgraded and teachers' incomes improved.
In 2018, the Ministry of Education issued a plan to encourage retired teachers to support education in rural areas. Ma Yanguo is one of them. They receive an annual allowance of 20,000 yuan.
Though Ma is unable to teach music or art himself, little Ma can still attend recorded lessons thanks to a remote education system.
Through the system, the boy is able to pronounce standard Mandarin, standing in stark contrast to the heavy accent of his teacher. But he is shy and silent most of the time, as a result of a lack of contact with the outside world.
"I try hard to encourage him to speak more by asking questions in class, and I want him to be as lively as his peers," said old Ma, who always walks the boy home when it rains or snows.
To take care of the school and its only student, the couple, who were supposed to take care of their grandson in the city, moved to live on the school grounds.