Archive for the ‘CPHS’ Category

My Daily Commute

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Let me paint you a picture of my daily commute. I leave my two story apartment when the sun is already in the sky, and run down the stairs as fast as I can without making excessive noise. Failing to arrest my forward momentum, I burst out the front door like water over a seawall, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket as I fail to let go of the handle. The taekwondo building directly across from my apartment building’s entrance is closed and padlocked, and there’s no movement in the small alleyway.

I take a left turn, walk a few steps, and then make a right turn at the creepy convenience store I’ve avoided going into ever since the man inside yelled at me for buying his products two years ago. This street is busier, with one or two cars coming every few minutes, and it’s lined with stores that are still closed or preparing to open. CP doesn’t have any sidewalks, so amidst the muffled noises coming from inside the barred and locked storefronts I walk in the street dodging parked cars, moving cars, and the odd person or two shuffling along. I pass by two chicken restaurants, a bank, a small grocery store, a coffee shop, a shoe shop that hasn’t received a new shipment in what seems to be years, and a barber shop whose only patrons seem to be  my students.

After a few minutes I arrive at an intersection where I can continue going straight, or turn right. I look straight at the road leading out of town, and marvel at how the trees that mark the boundary between my town and country road it look so different now that they have leaves again. I turn right.

I pass by the marketplace, so deserted most days that trash and dust roll down the street the way a tumbleweed does in every western movie you’ve ever seen. Today it’s filled with people from the five day market selling every agricultural product you could possibly imagine, ranging from potted herbs to potted trees, tomatoes to pumpkins, and live chickens, dogs, cats, ducks, and even rabbits. They cover the whole plaza and spill out onto the street in an effort to make the most of their selling space. They pay me no attention as I sidestep their wares, trying my best not to get hit by one of the cars with an ill-tempered driver who would probably not think twice about running over a squash, let alone me.

I make it out of the marketplace, and pass by the butcher shop on the right, which during the day has an unfortunate tendency to blast Lady Gaga but is currently closed and silent, and then I pass by Sloth’s Coffee. A little further to the left is the entrance to CP High School’s campus and after my morning adventures, I am quite content to cross the street, leave the rest of CP behind, and begin my day at work.

When I leave my school in the afternoon, before I start my morning commute in reverse and hurt my already sore throat by screaming “GOODBYE” at the students milling around the soccer field, I like to pause at the main building’s entrance and stare out at CP. The mountains look so large,  the sky so wide, and CP so small, that it’s easy to forget that there are people who exist outside of the mountains that encase us and embrace us. I breathe in, breathe out, then walk down the stairs.

Graduation

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

I’m back at CPHS for the first time in over a month and screams are echoing through the halls. It’s graduation day, so spirits are high. First and second grade students are running around in the halls like wild things (though, let’s be frank, when do they not), and the third grade students are almost unrecognizable covered in makeup, wearing street clothes, and with their dyed hair and contact lenses. It’s almost frightening to think that in March I could run into one of my former students in the street, at a coffee shop, or heaven forbid a bar, and fail to recognize them.

I just received the paper that lists the statistics and facts surrounding graduation (the number of students going to the top schools, the exact day and date of each graduation in the history of CPHS, who will scholarships) and something struck me – every single student graduated. Every student. My high school is a high-achieving magnet school so there’s no reason anyone should fail, but I compare that with my high school and I’m flabbergasted. The students that will graduate are the first group of students I taught at CPHS, and though I only taught them for a semester I really enjoyed that experience. They got me when I was new to CPHS and still learning the ropes, and not at my best, but they were great to me anyway. Across the country, another group of students dear to my heart has graduated, or will graduate soon. That group of students are the students I taught as first graders at SGHS, and my host sister is one of the many who will be graduating. The CPHS graduation ceremony starts in less than thirty minutes, and though it was a long trip from Seoul, and though I’m missing a day of Korean classes, I’m so thrilled to be here.

On Rice Cakes, Traditional Rice Taffy, and Hot 6

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Today was the 수능 (Suneung – the college entrance exam), and life here in CP went on like normal. You’d think on a day that determined the future of so many young people you’d be able to feel it in the air, the very atmosphere would be crackling with electricity and you could smell the standardized tests from miles away, but if you didn’t know you’d assume it was a day just like any other. If you live in a city you can tell. Planes aren’t allowed to take off or land, all high schools and some middle schools are closed, the police escort late risers to testing sites, and parents often spend the entire day in prayer. However in sleepy sleepy CP, less than a mile from my high school where all of the third grade boys in the county were taking the exam, the cars trundled along as per usual and the old people sat and chatted on the street corner for hours.

The first group of students that I really connected with, the students that were first graders back when I was a first year teacher, took the Suneung today. One of them was my host sister, who I have only seen twice since leaving Yesan at the end of my first year. We’ve tried to keep in touch through kakaotalk and skype, but with both of our schedules it’s been difficult. When I first moved in she was one semester into high school, and in February she’ll graduate and, depending on the results of this test, go on to the university of her dreams, or to a university she had to settle for. I want her to do well. I Miss You SO Much(e) Boy also took the Suneung. I also hope he did well. Same with all of the students who stood on their desks and shouted OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN, all of the students in class 2.2 of SGHS I did the pen pal exchange with, the girls in my club class my first fall at CPHS, my thousand kilowatt senior, and so many more. I want them all to do well.

Unfortunately, they can’t. The nature of this test, and the way that it’s scored, is that in order for someone to do well, someone has to fail. You receive a percentile ranking, which is one of the things that makes this test so competitive. If it’s not my students that do poorly, it’ll be someone else’s students.

The students all know this, and though they are friendly and support each other, though they’ve spent the last three years eating, and sleeping, and studying, and playing with their classmates, when they walk into the classroom on Suneung day they know they are walking shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors. On this day, a senior has no friends. The first and second grade students recognize and understand this burden and cheer on their seniors, knowing that in one or two years the same will be done for them. This goes beyond the actual testing day – you can see it all year. On an average day at CPHS, you’ll see the second grade class captains standing in the stairwell of the main building during lunchtime, two boys and two girls. They rotate this duty so that different students do it on different days, but it’s always four students standing there, ready to shush the loud first graders as they run up to their classrooms after lunch, because the third graders need lunchtime to study without any distractions. The first and second graders, though they dislike each other, take note of and respect the third graders’ drive to succeed, and do their best to help them along.

Korea has a lot of superstitions about tests, more so than Americans do, at least to my knowledge. As there’s a lot more emphasis on testing, this isn’t all that surprising. On a test day, you’re not supposed to wash your hair, because then you’ll wash all the answers out of your brain. Another superstition, is that you cannot eat 미역국 (miyeokguk – seaweed soup) before an exam. The seaweed soup is so slippery that it will cause you to do badly. This belief is so prevalent that an idiomatic expression for failing a test is 미역국을 먹다 – I ate seaweed soup. A surprisingly logical reaction to this superstition is the idea that if you eat sticky food, you will do well on the test. Therefore, it’s thought that eating 떡 (deok – rice cake) or 엿 (yeot – a traditional and very sticky rice taffy, normally eaten by the older generation) is optimal test food.

On Tuesday I ran into multiple students leaving school. I walked with a first grade girl for part of the way to the market, where she was buying rice taffy. I asked if it was for her, and she giggled and said that it was for the seniors taking the test. She mimed chewing rigorously, and then explained that it would help all of the things that they had studied stick in their brains on Thursday. I told her that if flavor didn’t matter she should get the pumpkin because it was the best, and she giggled and raced off. The second student I ran into, a second grade boy, was also buying presents for the seniors. Instead of rice cake or taffy he was buying Hot Six, a ridiculously powerful energy drink. I was struck by the differences between the two gifts – one, a traditional and difficult-to-eat snack that followed superstition, and one, a very modern invention guaranteed to take years off your life. However, more than that I was struck by the effort the students went to in order to support their seniors.

The Suneung is over, for most of the third graders. Some of the students that scored very poorly will elect to take off a year and study again. They’ll take classes in the city at an academy designed to prep students to retake the Suneung, and rent rooms roughly the size of closets near these academies to reduce distractions. For the ones that receive good test scores, or scores that are good enough, they’ll embark on the time-consuming task of applying to university, but also they’ll find themselves surprisingly free. If they hang out of the windows of their homerooms it’ll be to breathe in the fresh air, and gaze at their surroundings, instead of to keep themselves awake while studying. If they stay awake late at night, it’ll be to talk to friends instead of cramming for the practice test. If they go into the nearby city, it’ll be to go to academies that fulfill their own interests, or to get their driver’s license, instead of to study math or any other core subject. They’ll get perms and dye their hair, join gyms to throw off the weight they’ve gained studying, buy new clothes for university, and some of them will get plastic surgery. As they slowly come to life again, the second graders – my CPHS babies, my life for the past year and a half – will slowly start to fade into the 360-odd day “final” push to the Suneung, something that seemed so far away when they first entered high school.

This is my final Suneung as a teacher in Korea, I’ll leave six months after my host sister graduates. That’s good, because I don’t think I can take another one. It makes me sad that I won’t see Hongdae, Solomon, Fistbump Kid, EC, or any of my other CPHS students (or the SGHS students I was only able to teach for a semester) graduate, and I’m sad I won’t be there to support them through this process, but I’m also happy I don’t have to see them go through the pressures of Suneung day. I’m also happy to know that their juniors, the students who come after them, will support them.