Pre-수능 Assembly

Some Necessary Background

The suneung (수능) is South Korea’s 8-hour long college entrance exam, notorious for silencing the entire country during the English listening section – planes are not allowed to take off and many businesses open an hour later – and English questions that even native English speakers struggle to understand. It has been called the Korean SAT, but since when was the SAT this difficult? Don’t make me laugh. This year the suneung was November 13th.

Wednesday, November 12

The day before the suneung  is a half day. On a calendar, it appears deceptively light-hearted – a half day mostly filled with a morning ceremony, so I’m told I maybe won’t have any classes that day. I try to confirm, so I won’t have any classes tomorrow? No, they tell me with a smile. (I did.)

But after first period, the students are called outside to assemble in the courtyard, which my co-teachers call a “playground” in English, but is only a field of packed dirt. This is my first time witnessing a school-wide affair. The students are grouped by grade and class, second grade on the left, first grade on the right, third grade in the center. This is the longest amount of time that I’ve set eyes on a third grader. They are armed with coats, backpacks and their outdoor shoes, prepared to leave immediately after the assembly, to visit the sites where they’ll take the most important exam of their lives. My school’s students, as well as proctoring teachers, will be scattered across the surrounding area tomorrow, some in Gimhae, others trickling into Busan.

But here they must first go through the formalities. The school’s anthem is played, and we face the flags to the right, hands over our hearts.The mood, at least here, at the top of the steps and amongst the teachers, is light.

The vice principal is wearing a bright red coat. Mine is a similarly-bold shade of blue, and so she urges me to stand next to her. I rationalize this by noting that red and blue are South Korea’s colors.  She responds with ample amusement, and we coax two more teachers into joining our band, one wearing black and the other white – the whole Korean flag.

The principal gives a speech. At one point I wonder why he is speaking so slowly, and later learn he was reading a poem. It is about harvest. After 12 years of school, he tells the third graders, tomorrow will be your harvest day.

The ceremony grows more and more touching, as each stage is a show of solidarity and support for our third graders, who are bravely facing what can only be a terrifying experience.

Second grader TaeWoo gives a speech. The third grade girls hassle him, calling out “Jalsengyusu!” as he steps in front of the mic. (“Good-looking!”) Two first graders sing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables – they’ve been learning songs from the film in their music class all semester – and an enthusiastic class of second grade girls sings along loudly (and a little out of tune). We move on to sing Korea’s national anthem.

This is a happy ceremony, on the surface. But tension ripples across the surface of our mood, and I begin to feel it. Gamely, the school, but mostly the students, move on. The tension won’t break. Not now.

In a final show of support, the first and second graders form two lines from the field to the school entrance. Between these lines of clapping, cheering students, the third graders run, or more like jog, or walk briskly, except for the girl on crutches who makes her way through the lines slowly, two friends at her side. Although most teachers have already begun to trickle back into the building, Ms. Yi urges me toward the line with her. We join the line of first and second graders and clap. One of Ms Yi’s daughters will also taking the test tomorrow. When all the third graders have left, we cross the dirt field and head back inside. I begin to make conversation with Ms. Yi, giving my unsolicited observations, asking about this and that, until I notice. She has tears in her eyes.

A Third Grader

*Note: Here “third grade” refers to the third or final year in a Korean high school.


Tuesday. October 28. 1:17pm. I sit in an empty classroom with faded words on the black whiteboard that I cannot find the markers for. English Cafe. The English teachers across the hall have encouraged me to wait 5 or 10 minutes at the most, and then join them for coffee in the office. Some days, I oblige. Happily. Who am I to turn down freshly ground coffee?

But today I am making up for yesterday. So I sit in the empty classroom.

I don’t mind really. I usually read. “Korea: The Impossible Country,” a book the English teacher across the hall has lent to me. I like the quiet. I like to read in it.

But today a new student stops by. She has my immediate fascination, as she is a third grader, a class of students who seem, at times, like mythical creatures, hidden away in anxious preparation for the suneung. It is the part of Korean education that I have heard the most about, but the part from which I am perhaps the most detached. I don’t teach these third graders, these students who have red stripes on their uniforms instead of blue or yellow, are slightly bigger than the other students and seem to have an air of maturity about them.

But one stops by the empty classroom. She is pretty; I notice her eyes and long lashes. She is not shy although when I mention her English she shakes her head and holds her thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. A little. She is a sudden bubbling of energy, graceful, a butterfly that has landed in my English cafe.

She tells me that she is studying nail art, motioning at the large, floppy workbook in her lap, and that it is difficult. She flips it open and there are anatomical diagrams of the hand. I see what she means. She wants to do nail art, and skincare, she tells me through a series of short statements, smoothly tumbling into silences as she pauses to review the English in her mind before handing it to me. Cosmetics too, she says with a smile, but not hair, even as I started to gesture toward my own, brushing the beginnings of a question.

The nailcare test is soon, she tells me, 11/16, D-20 days – she jots these down to show me. But the third grade test is even sooner, the suneung. I nod with familiarity. 11/13, she jots, D-17. Circles around the 17. The dreaded suneung, then, only a few days later, the nail care test. She communicates this to me with the same pause and go, cheerful, halting but somehow smooth way of speaking English.

Some insignificant conversation passes by until she excuses herself to study. I am left in my empty classroom, alone but smiling at our chance encounter.