Two weeks ago we had Sports Day. Sports Day is actually two days that consist of sports competitions where homeroom classes compete in different sports tourney-style, and a school festival (what might be more accurately termed a “talent show”) where students danced, sang, rapped, and cross-dressed in order to win the crown of Ms. School Festival.
One student told me that Sports Day was like their Prom. At first I took issue with this statement – Prom is a formal dance, and there is nothing formal about Sports Day. Sports Day is full of screaming high school students dressed in matching jerseys competing in various sports in the hot May sun, to claim that out of all the classes at their school their class is the BEST AT DODGEBALL. American Prom is not like Korean Sports Day at all. American pep rallies are more like Korean Sports Day. However, the sentence was not that “Prom is like Sports Day,” it was that “Sports Day is like Prom.” I was being too hasty. Sure, Sports Day and Prom are incredibly dissimilar, but the sentence still stands. Korean Sports Day is like American Prom, because it is the only school-wide event that all Korean schools have. It is the closest thing to American Prom just by default.
In terms of daily routines and student body make-up my school is a bit atypical. From what I can tell, in Korea for the most part you have lower-level high schools and upper-level high schools. Within the schools there are divisions based on ability, but for the most part everyone at an upper-level high school will go to a college (or a good college), and everyone at a lower-level high school will either go to a mediocre college or won’t go at all. My school has both: an advanced track full of absolutely brilliant students (example: I asked them to give me examples of superpowers, and one student said “telekinesis”), and also many students who have elementary-level English. This means that some students are shooting for the top 3 universities in Seoul (SKY), and some probably aren’t going to go to college.
The average day (for an advanced track student) at my high school consists of him or her getting to school anywhere between 7:30 and 8:30 am, and not leaving until 10 pm. She has her eight-or-so classes in a row, studies through her lunch period, and then takes supplemental classes in the evenings. After the supplemental classes she self-studies at school, then either takes the last bus home, walks, carpools with her homeroom teacher, or she goes to the dormitory where she decided to live because that means she can stay at school later. When she arrives at home, she studies some more. My host sister is an advanced-track student, and the only days my host sister comes home “early” (around 7 pm) it is because either she is too sick to stay at school for supplementary classes, or she has a meeting with her private tutor.
It’s easy to think that the non-advanced students have an easier time of it. Many of them don’t take supplementary classes, or leave as soon as those classes are done, and I’ll end up riding the bus home with them. However the non-advanced track students also have it pretty rough, because even if they get to leave earlier (“earlier” meaning a very few students leave at 3, but then most of them leave between 5 and 7) many of them have part time jobs and work until really late. I saw one of my students riding a motorbike delivering pizza to my apartment complex at 9 pm on a weekday. He stopped and chatted for a minute, and then told me that his shift ended at midnight. It always makes me sad, because the students who must have jobs have such a steep disadvantage compared to the advanced track kids who have the time and ability to spend all day studying.
The advanced-track students competed in an English essay contest. The essay prompt was “your school life.” All of the quotes below, are what my advanced students have to say about the Korean school system (these are direct quotes, though the bold emphasis is mine):
“…sometimes I feel, our school’s color is gray, mood of depression and silence, though general school life, the teens’ time, is green, mood of fresh and dynamic.”
“We students are still teens. We are not adults. We have to sleep for enough time to reset our brain (take a rest to our brain) and grow well both physical and mental. However we spend sleep time doing such difficult things, we don’t have enough sleep time, so we sleep in class.”
“Sometimes I think I’m like ‘A bird in the locked cage’. Yes I know, school is not cage but like preparing courses to fly away. However, in my opinion, we have not had any adversity or ‘real’ problems because we merely have learned many subjects to enter famous university from high school, we cannot fly away because we have not faced and not tried to solve this problems. We need real experiences, not superficial knowledge.”
“Nowadays I feel sometimes today is yesterday because it running always same pattern. Go to the school, attend the class, eat meals, and go to the self-study. I’m so tired that pattern.”
“My first wish is entered good university but it is not my only wish. I wanna be a prom queen and I wanna watch some movies with boyfriend but in real life I have to bear it down for a while. Oh not for a while, for 3 years! Grown ups told me that when I entered university in Seoul my life gonna stunning but I have to pay that in high school. “
However an underlying theme that every single student mentioned was how important their friends were, and how they would not be able to get through school without them.
“I’m sure that my airbag is my friends. When I’m stuck in my gloomy they come to me and cheer me up and makes me amused. This is can be because we play on the same team and they through the storm with me. The hands, what they give me could be a good windbreaker. We are competitor but we never think that we are rival. We play this little bit boring and annoying game together.”
This bond between students has never been more apparent than on Sports Day. When I arrived at school all the students were running around in brightly colored jerseys that they had designed and ordered for their homerooms, and the teachers were all wearing casual clothing and hats. Not a single student was late, and everyone was enthusiastically stretching and getting ready for the day. Normally when I come to school my students look like zombies, and one of the goals of my class is to have an activity that is so energetic that it helps wake them up for their next teacher. On Sports Day the students where more alive than I’ve ever seen them. As I was the foreign English teacher, I wasn’t given any duties so I was able to wander around and interact with my students outside of the classroom.
Sports Day was the absolute best thing I have experienced in Korea – it really showed me how talented, skilled and multi-dimensional my students are. Considering how much time they spend sitting and studying, my students are GREAT athletes! They also can rap, dance, and sing really well! Most of my interactions with the students happen in the classroom, and on average the English level at Sapgyo High School is pretty low. Many of my students become frustrated in the classroom because they feel that they are not able to communicate. Even my advanced-track students get frustrated, because they have all these great ideas or logically formulated opinions that they can perfectly express in Korean, but either cannot articulate, or are only able to do so poorly in English. I know from daily experience exactly how frustrating this can be. However, Sports Day meant that I got to hang out with the students not as my English students, but just as people. They explained the games to me, and showed off their skills. I also saw how many inter-homeroom class friendships there were, which was somewhat surprising because students spend so much time with their fellow homeroom students, but also a nice byproduct of teaching a school with only 500 students.
Sports Day pictures forthcoming.