The PolyU Rescue Documentary Series: ‘I could see, but I couldn’t help.’ Principal’s Persistence Moved Student  Interview with Principal Ms Veronica Yau

PTU News Reporter

Among the debris, chaos, and marks of fire at PolyU, Yau watched as other principals left the campus with students in their arms. Growing more anxious, she kept looking around – until she saw her student slowly making his way down the stairs. Her student said he could not leave his comrades behind. She did not have the heart to see her kid stay, but she decided to respect his decision.

She gave him a hug and made him promise to reunite with her on campus. At midnight the following day, the student finally changed his mind and agreed to leave. Seeing their students safe was all these education professionals wanted.

Principals United for Students’ Safety
The city’s sole focus was on the clashes at PolyU on November 18th. Class was suspended at all secondary schools. Principal of Fanling Kau Yan College Ms Veronica Yau had students who stationed at PolyU in mind throughout her external meetings. When she was informed a group of principals and lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen were to call a press conference on the PolyU siege, she stopped working and left for the Legislative Council at once. ‘Rescuing students was all that was on my mind. One principal alone might not achieve anything, but together we were strong.’

After the press conference, the principals decided to go to PolyU immediately. As an executive committee member of The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, Yau was quickly informed other principals to meet were meeting at a hotel near PolyU. Short of time, Yau had no time to change out of her long skirt and heels before taking the cross-harbour ferry to PolyU.

There had already been clashes between citizens and the police in Tsim Sha Tsui when Yau arrived. Bricks on the pavement had been removed. Yau likened her journey to PolyU to ‘walking on the desert in high heels’. At the same time, the police had been firing tear gases continuously. Despite being indoors, the principals waiting at the hotel lobby could not escape from the tear gases and were all coughing.

Principal Tasted Tear Gas for the First Time
Thanks to collective efforts, the principals were allowed entry onto the PolyU campus. The first batch of around 20 principals walked up the stairs and saw a group of protesters at long last. Suspicious, the protesters started yelling and cursing at these ‘strangers’. ‘Students who swear are usually disciplined on campus. But at that moment, I did not feel any anger. As education professionals, we must try to understand the young,’ said Yau.

Protesters swiftly calmed down as principals explained their intention. The principals then split up to look for their own students and many of them were successful. They found and hugged their students. Many were in tears. At that moment, Yau’s student responded to her message, saying he was reluctant to leave. Yau replied, ‘I respect your decision, but can we at least meet?’ The kid agreed.

Yau Held Student in Her Arms
As they were waiting, tension suddenly arose. Some protesters did not want the principals to stay in the square and demanded them to leave. The principals then moved to the bottom of the staircase. By then, many principals had already left with their students. Yau was still waiting. At long last, she saw a young boy slowly making his way down the stairs. His exhaustion was apparent, but he still approached the principal with respect and manners.

‘It is of course my wish for you to leave PolyU with me, but I understand you do not wish to abandon your comrades and I respect your decision. But please keep in touch with us,’ Yau told the kid. They lowered their heads to pray together for his safety. He did not say much. Yau asked, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ He nodded. In tears, they held each other close. Yau brought with her the love and care from all the teachers and students at school. She wanted the kid to see that, in such bleak times, his teachers and fellow classmates cared about and supported him.

Student Who Could Not Leave Comrades Behind Finally Left the Next Day
As they bid farewells, Yau had the kid promise to reunite with her on campus and once again asked him to take care of himself before leaving PolyU. Yau well understood successful communication with young people took time, so she kept sending messages to her student and asked teachers who were close to him to stay in touch with him so that he would not feel isolated.

Finally, on Tuesday midnight, Yau received a message from lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen as she was preparing for the resumption of class on the following day, saying her student was getting ready to leave PolyU. Delighted, she immediately arranged for the student’s class teacher and his parents to pick him up. Yau herself and another teacher who lived near PolyU also left for the campus. She saw the boy outside PolyU. He looked even wearier than the day before and was shaking. His parents held him close as soon as they arrived. All were relieved.

‘Principals Were Not Heroes’
Yau reminisced, ‘At that moment, young people were no longer the kids in adults’ eyes. Communicating with the young is much more than getting a simple answer of yes or no. We as adults must at least listen to and respect them,’ The principals put their personal safety aside and entered the besieged campus. Yau was grateful to Ip and the rest of the rescue crew of lawyers, social workers, and the like. Recounting the rescue, Yau said, ‘It is only natural that education professionals care about their students. There is no need to glorify principals.’
On November 18th late night, Yau was allowed onto PolyU campus to bring her student ouf of the wood. Both lowered heads to pray. (Photo credits: Initium Media)

Principals’ Unique Role at PolyU

Having failed to pick her student up on the first day, Principal of Fanling Kau Yan College Ms Veronica Yau left PolyU and joined other principals and students at the hotel. The crowd grew bigger as principals brought student after student out of the wood. Yau took up the role as a caretaker, greeting students who were alone and contacting their parents.

Knowing she was onsite, other principals and teachers asked Yau to look for their students at PolyU. Yau set out on her search knowing only school and student names. Every time she found a student, she would have them record a voice message for their teacher for reassurance.

Police Sought Help from Principal
Onsite, the principals proved to be the most trustworthy. Some anxious parents, not knowing whether their children had been picked up by their principals, asked the police officers the whereabouts of their children. After repeated explanations to parents, police officers sought help from Yau. Yau helped calm parents down and showed them how to effectively communicate with and persuade their children to leave.

Yau succeeded in establishing a trusting relationship with these parents. Some of them reached out to Yau afterwards, telling her their children made it home safe. They also said they had learnt how to communicate with their children and would cherish their children from now on.