Yesterday I wandered into the chaotic mass of bodies in the Seoul Metro Subway system and made my way across the city to Dogokdong, which is where my school is is situated along a long stretch of fir trees along the river. Dogokdong is beautiful, Gangnam being one of the most well-off parts of the city.
The next part is a hazy blur: the kids come screaming into the room but quickly settle down. One by one they noticed the bewildered-looking Canadian couple sitting in the head teacher’s classroom, and they stop with their playing and peer nervously around the corner into the room. They are inquisitive, but hesitant. As they are introduced, they one by one say hello, and proudly state their names in carefully constructed English sentences. I am introduced as Mister Michael, who will be one of their new teachers in a week, when they return from their all too brief summer break.
I sit in on my first class, a group of seven-year-olds who will soon be my own class, and am immediately stunned by their level of comprehension. The theme of the week is Oceans, and we’re discussing ocean animals. One of the girls, a theatrical and talkative student, explains the difference between the diets of ocean animals.
“Some ocean animals, like sharks, are carnivores. Others are herbivores which eat only plants, and some are omnivores who eat EVERYTHING!”
Omnivores? What seven year old in Canada can explain what an omnivore is? The last I recall, I studied the difference between the three in high school Biology. We head out to lunch with the head teacher, to an American style 50’s diner called Kraze Burger, and she explains the good and bad of the Korean education system: the students are among the most intelligent in the world, but at a price. For most kids, even the kindergarten students I am inheriting, the school day starts at 10am. Classes until 1pm. Then they are shuttled off to after-school programs of private tutoring and study until the mid-evening. Then they are whisked off to music classes, ballet, or other intensive extra-curricular activities. The day typically doesn’t end until around 11pm.
This explains the children in the park that I see playing soccer at midnight to one in the morning. This is the only time they have for themselves. Brilliance, but at a price. Thankfully, the philosophy of my school is less rigid than other Korean education centres and there is a heavy emphasis on keeping the kids from stressing out, making them relax and enjoy their morning, and why so much of my class time will be spent in simple storytelling and discussion. They are there to learn, yes, but they are also there to enjoy life.
I breathe a sigh of relief: this is a relief for myself as well, and I slowly loosen up and start to enjoy hanging out with the kids. It will take some time and mental reprogramming to get my own head wrapped around being a seven-year-old again, but I’ll get there. In the meantime, I have a week of rest to enjoy adjusting to life in Seoul.
It’s a long way to travel, but the journey has already been worth it.