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    Chapter 267: Employee Benefits

    The following morning, Chen Dashan, Lu Erlang, and a few others arrived with a few handcarts, still in the process of loading them up. At that moment, Grandma Zhao appeared with a chicken in her left hand and a basket of eggs in her right.

    Ever since the establishment of the provincial school's enrollment system, several private academies have sprung up within the city of She County. The tuition fees for these institutions, naturally, are far from affordable, and when coupled with the costs of textbooks, ink, brushes, and paper, the prospect of educating one's children in reading and writing becomes an unattainable dream for the vast majority of households.

    Being acutely aware of the situation, Mrs. Zhao found it particularly difficult to broach the subject upon meeting Sangluo. She stumbled over her words several times before finally expressing herself fully, hastily adding that should it prove inconvenient, Liuyae and Xiaojiu could instead teach their elder brother and sister at home.

    Sang Luo found it odd. "You're willing to spend the effort on this?"

    Sang Luo was well aware of the Zhao family's circumstances. They were the first family she had hired, and they had initially found her wages quite high. The Zhao family's eldest children had even helped plow their fields in the winter of Wuding Year Three. Later, when she introduced the plow, the brothers had come to assist with cultivating the mountain land and delivering saplings. Sang Luo still remembered them.

    The oldest of those six or seven children should now be an adult with his own plot of land. The other six or seven should also be strong contributors to the family's labor. Could they really bear to part with them?

    "I wouldn't dare deceive you, Madam. Sixth Girl and Little Nine were listening to the lesson yesterday when your trading convoy returned. We heard that after just a few days, the earnings from the commission alone were close to a hundred or nearly a thousand cash. It stirred our thoughts. If our children could learn some literacy and accounting skills from you, perhaps they might be considered for work here in the future. Of course, if not, it's no problem. Learning is always beneficial, whether it's for becoming a shop assistant in the city or anything else. It would certainly be better than solely relying on farming. We thought that since it's only one hour a day, their parents could grit their teeth and manage the workload. That's why I've mustered the courage to ask."

    As soon as these words were spoken, before Sang Luo could respond, two more women arrived together. They were the wives of the other two hired hands.

    Sang Luo observed how both families seemed to have discussed this beforehand, each bringing a chicken and a basket of eggs. Without asking, she could guess their intentions.

    Sure enough, after greeting Sang Luo, the two women turned to look at the chicken and eggs that Grandma Zhao and the other grandmother had set aside. They smiled awkwardly and asked Grandma Zhao if she also wanted to send more children to learn how to read and count.

    Seeing this, Sang Luo had no choice but to clarify the situation. "It's true that we earned a few hundred to nearly a thousand wen from yesterday's trading commission, but it was our first time finding merchants to sell our goods. The products they requested might take one or two months to sell, so such profits won't always be the case."

    In fact, the three families had discussed this matter the previous night. Grandma Zhao responded, "We understand."

    Sang Luo nodded. "Reading is good, but it's not as lucrative as you might think. However, it's commendable that you're willing to educate your children. Please take your items back for now. I'll give this some thought and get back to you in a couple of days."

    Upon hearing this, the three women felt a little embarrassed. Grandma Zhao said, "If it's inconvenient, don't trouble yourself over this matter. It was rude of me to bring it up. Actually, it would be the same if our older and younger ones learned together."

    Of course, it wouldn't be the same; otherwise, they wouldn't have made this trip.

    Sang Luo smiled. "It's not a troublesome matter, but farming is a top priority for us rural folk. Let me consider if there's a way to balance both. If possible, I'll inform you later."

    A way to balance both?

    Grandma Zhao and the two other peasant wives exchanged glances before they thanked her and said, "Then we'll await your news, Ma'am."

    Sang Luo smiled and sent them off. The three women refused to take back their offerings, but Sang Luo knew how much these items meant to a farming family. She insisted on returning them to each of their hands.

    "At home, we have some saved up. It's not easy to accumulate them, so there's no need to spend more. I'll keep this in mind, and I'll give you an answer in the next few days."

    After bidding farewell to the trio, Sang Luo called Chen Dashan, who was still loading goods.

    "I'm thinking, what if I provide an opportunity for our workshop or shop employees, as well as their children, to learn how to read and write?"

    Chen Dashan was taken aback. "That's quite a number, isn't it?"

    While Old Lady Zhao was talking to Sang Luo, Chen Dashan had been moving in and out with the goods, overhearing their conversation. Initially, when he heard Sang Luo say she needed more time to think, he assumed it was because accepting too many people would be inconvenient. He never expected her to consider including the workshop and shop staff as well.

    "And besides, how much time can adults spare for lessons? Children might be better suited."

    Sang Luo replied, "They can study at night. Younger children can come for half an hour during the day, while older ones who can help with farm work can attend a half-hour lesson at night if they're willing. What do you think?"

    Chen Dashan finally understood. This was similar to what he and his wife did with their younger siblings, except they taught them at home.

    "That could work, but I'm afraid not many will be interested in learning."

    Back a few years, he didn't see the need to learn reading and accounting. It wasn't until their families started doing business together and required contracts that Chen Dashan realized hunting and farming were no longer sufficient. His recent trading trip further emphasized this; if he hadn't brought Shen Jin and Er Shan along, he might not have been able to properly understand the agreements with Lu Erlang and San Lang.

    He was one of the early learners; unlike Lu Erlang, who only realized the importance during this trading trip. Today, he hung a cloth bag on his empty cart, the same one that Ah Wei used for his initial literacy lessons.

    Even Grandma Zhao and the others saw the potential prospects in Sangluo's business for those who could read and calculate, which is why they dared to bring out their grandsons who could work.

    Most people only became aware of this when they were close to the situation.

    Sangluo nodded. "That's true, but let's ask around anyway. Every bit counts, and it can be considered an extra benefit for our workers. Besides, if we really need more manpower in the future, it would be beneficial."

    In reality, with only two shops, a workshop, and a trading team, Sangluo was already feeling the strain in her need for talent. For instance, Xinning, who worked at the Daxing Village Specialty Shop, didn't have extensive literacy. Although the products had price tags, she could only recognize half of the characters when the shop first opened. Initially, she relied solely on memory for prices.

    Naturally, it was manageable with a limited number of items in the shop, but not so much with an expanded inventory. Because of this, Shen Ning had to dedicate more time to bookkeeping and reconciliation during the first few months.

    Grandma Zhao's words had sparked an idea in Sangluo. If the Zhao family wanted their children to work for her in the future, then conversely, as her business grew, it would be crucial to nurture a skilled workforce beforehand. Even if her business didn't expand, it could enhance the loyalty of her current employees to the workshop.

    Chen Dashan seemed to grasp the notion and suggested, "That makes sense. Should I go to the workshop later and ask my grandma?"

    However, Sangluo didn't immediately agree. "Let me think about it further. If there are only a few, we can teach them along the way. But if there are many, we'll need a proper system. There should be limits on how many family members each worker can bring. We can't have everyone from one family rushing over. Not only would it be chaotic, but we might also lack space."

    Although Sangluo believed such a scenario was highly unlikely, and Grandma Zhao was an exception rather than the norm, it was always better to consider all possibilities in business.

    "Very well, you've thought it through. Just tell us if there's anything we need to do."

    After loading the goods, the four of them split into groups and set off for various southern and northern counties.

    ...

    Sang Luo earnestly took up the matter of establishing a school. During the day, she discussed with Shen Ning how to allocate the spots.

    Including the workshop, shop, trading team, and hired laborers, there were over fifty people under Sang Luo's management.

    As Chen Dashan had pointed out, not everyone would be interested in reading, writing, or learning arithmetic. Thus, even if only a few of these fifty-plus individuals were willing to attend, they would be considered ambitious. If the spots were given to their children, older ones capable of working might not be willing to part with the opportunity, while younger ones might have a chance.

    "One spot per person?"

    "But what if someone is self-motivated and also wants their child to learn?"

    In the end, they decided on two spots per person, regardless of whether it was for an adult or a child, with the condition that the youngest must be at least seven years old.

    "Sister-in-law, won't students admitted at different times have varying levels of progress? Shouldn't we add another class?"

    Sang Luo pondered for a moment and suggested, "Let's divide them into three classes: literacy class, beginner class, and advanced class. The literacy class will focus on basic literacy and arithmetic, held in the evenings as night classes. The beginner class will be the same as the one you've been teaching, while the advanced class will consist of your elder brother and Yun Zheng's small group."

    She continued, "Since this is a benefit for the workers, we won't be collecting tuition fees anymore. You teachers for the beginner and literacy classes can come to me to receive a salary."

    Shen Ning's eyes sparkled. "We'll get paid?"

    "Why not? Have I ever asked you to work for free?"

    "No, Sister-in-law has never done that to us before."

    Even before, they had received modest stipends, which, though not substantial, had given them a sense of accomplishment as teachers. Now, with a salary, it would be even more different. Shen Ning's eyes curved into a smile. "I'll tell Wen Yin and the other girls later."

    The four little money enthusiasts now each had their own small savings. The earnings from making brushes were given to Shen Ning to keep, while Xue Manager had entrusted the money to Xu Wenying. Upon hearing this, the Chen and Shi families followed suit, allowing Chen Xiaoya and Shi Qiaoer to manage their shares.

    Night classes wouldn't be suitable at the Shen residence with two children around. After discussing with Shen Yin, the three brothers decided to convert a room at their place into a classroom, finalizing the arrangement.

    Shen Ning was the one who informed Old Lady Chen about the new plan, who then relayed the news. While others were still processing the information, the two Zhao family wives were ecstatic, their faces glowing with delight.

    "Our lady has agreed," they exclaimed.

    Some of the women with children at home lit up with interest.

    Chen Po smiled and said, "Those who want to enroll their kids should go to the manor after work these next two evenings and register with Ah Ning. But before you do, make sure to ask your child if they're willing. It wouldn't be right for them to cause a ruckus or play around, disrupting others' studies."

    The group of women nodded and smiled, agreeing. Once Chen Po left, the workshop buzzed with conversation. "Are we really allowed to send our kids to learn how to read?"

    Zhao's eldest daughter-in-law nodded. "Can Sang Mother lie about something like that? All the kids in Da Xing Village can read and write. Our family has been working for Sang Mother for a long time. My sixth daughter, Six Ya, and my nephew have already been studying there for half a year. They can recognize quite a few characters now."

    "Sending girls to learn too? How much will it cost for books, brushes, ink, and paper? And won't the girls need to help out at home?" asked one woman.

    Zhao's eldest daughter-in-law gave her a look. "What's wrong with girls? The teacher who instructs Six Ya is a young lady herself, and there are several others just like her. The youngest is only ten this year; she was nine last year."

    "Ahh?" The woman was stunned. "Nine years old and already a teacher?"

    "Well, she has more than enough knowledge to teach Six Ya and Little Nine. She reads beautifully, and not many adults in the village can compare to those young ladies," replied Zhao's eldest daughter-in-law.

    "What about the brushes, ink, and paper? Does that not cost anything?" someone else pressed.

    "No need for paper. We can make bamboo slips at home, buy some brushes and ink, and ask Ah Ning to copy the books for us. For daily practice, we can use a sandbox for writing, and in summer, water and stone slates. They'll only attend class for half a day, so it won't affect household chores much. Knowing how to read and write is incredibly useful."

    What use is it? Mrs. Zhao fell silent, not daring to say more.

    Whether one chooses to learn or not, it's quite pretentious to look down on a young maid, isn't it? The female clerks at Daxing Village Specialty Shop are not worthy of respect? Lady Sang is not a young lady? She has now been ennobled as a rural noble by the emperor himself; and isn't Lady An-ning also a young lady? She manages both her household and the entire business with remarkable clarity and competence.

    Wife Zhao had made up her mind. With eight slots available for the family, apart from enrolling her son, she would definitely secure a spot for her eldest daughter as well.

    At another workstation nearby were two young women, one of whom, Zheng Datong, had never regained her former plumpness over the years, and the other, with faint scars on her left cheek, was the second son's wife of the Gans.

    Both women had overheard Auntie Zhao's conversation. Lowering her voice, Zheng Datou's wife asked Ganniang's wife, "Sister Ganniang, are you going to report this to your mother-in-law?"

    Gan Erlang and his wife now have a son and a daughter. The son is quite young, born after his father's return from the mountains, while their daughter is eight years old.

    "I have always admired your cousin for her scholarly pursuits and have also picked up a bit by copying books. Not only am I enrolling Panlang in this, but I wish to enroll myself as well."

    "You're studying it too?"

    Gan Erlang's wife nodded. "I have a feeling that Madam Sang's business will only expand in the future. Right now, she's hiring female workers for her workshop. But what about later? Learning never hurts, and I advise you to give it a try."

    Over the past few years, Zheng Datong had not remarried, and she had turned away all matchmakers who came knocking. No matter how well her parents and elder siblings treated her, she knew she needed to stand on her own two feet ultimately.

    Thoughts of that fateful day led the wife of Gan Erlang to instinctively touch her left cheek, which had been disfigured when she was pushed towards the wolves. Would learning literacy and numeracy still allow her to work as a female assistant?

    She wasn't sure, but she figured that if she excelled, she could at least teach her husband and children.

    ...

    As evening fell and the fan workshop closed, others might have gone home to discuss whether their children could attend and who would take the spots. However, the wife of Gan Erlang and Zheng Daniu went straight to the Shen household together.

    The wife of Gan Erlang registered for herself and her daughter, while Zheng Daniu signed up for herself and inquired about her nephew. "I've heard that each person gets two spots. Can I give the other one to my nephew?"

    "Certainly, as long as he's seven years old or older."

    "He is. My elder nephew meets the age requirement."

    Happy with the information, she asked about necessary preparations before thanking Sangluo and leaving the Shen residence alongside the wife of Gan Erlang.

    As they walked, Lu Dalang, carrying his hoe, descended from the mountain. They crossed paths. The wife of Gan Erlang's scarred face made Lu Dalang avert his gaze after a quick glance. However, Zheng Daniu was unfamiliar to him, and he paused to study her more closely.

    Zheng Daniu was sensitive to gazes and caught sight of Lu Dalang. Not recognizing him, she felt uncomfortable under his scrutiny and frowned. Taking the wife of Gan Erlang's hand, she quickened their pace.

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