Friday, November 2, 2012

The Vanguard

SY comes to find me as I finish lunch in the cafeteria. I'm always one of the last to finish; most of the other teachers have left, so I'm easy to spot.

"Hi, SY! What's up?"
"Um... nothing much! You?" He's catching on to the slang that I taught my students a few weeks ago.
"I'm good. Do you have any entrance exams this weekend?"
"Oh, no..." He grimaces, but I don't catch it.
"Well, that's great! Aren't you happy?"
"No, I'm very bad," he says, putting his head in his hands and sighing.

I get him to explain, with the help of my co-teacher, who is sitting with us. The majority of the second-years at my school have been stressed out about science university entrance examinations, which have been taking place on the weekends of September and October. They are short oral interviews that test applicants on anything ever covered in their science and math curricula. For students who want to get into the likes of KAIST, UNIST, and POSTECH, acceptance hinges on their results on these very difficult exams.

As it turns out, SY doesn't have any more exams, because he already sat for all those of the schools to which he'd applied. And he was not accepted to any of them.

My heart sinks at this news. I forget about my lunch and look across the table at the high school student sitting there, processing the fact that he will not be going to college next year.

But then I remember something: SY is a second-year. (He's only at the equivalence of junior year of high school.) I wonder to myself, did he really expect to be accepted into some of the most competitive institutions in the country one year ahead of the rest of his peers?

I guess SY's entire class of eighty had high hopes. They're the vanguard, after all. The first graduating class of Changwon Science High. They need to prove that this city's enormous investment into their education at this shiny new school was worth the millions. Everyone -- teachers, principals, parents, peers -- has been pushing them nonstop for two years, equipping them for the controversial early application process that many science high school students pursue. They cram as much physics, chemistry, and biology into their heads as humanly possible in two years and then take the entrance exams at the same time as the third-year students at other high schools. Are the odds stacked against them? Incredibly so. But the extremely confident -- and I would add starry-eyed -- faculty here project a minimum yield of thirty accepted students. This would catapult CSHS to a high spot in the science high school rankings. Everyone has high hopes.

But late October and November are times of anxiety and despair for many as they receive negative results. Some of my students have been accepted; I don't know who, because they seem to keep this information private. But the rest of them are now preparing for year three and a second chance.

"Hey, you know what? On the bright side, I can teach you for one more year now!"

Back to lunch, where I smile as hard as I can and try to steer the conversation away from the depressing topic of college rejection letters. Actually, SY remains optimistic despite his huge disappointment, because, he tells me with a small grin, his sore throat is finally getting better. He wants to begin practicing his gig for the school festival in December: lead vocals in the student band. He also wants to perform at Yongji Lake alongside the other buskers next summer. (Now that it's autumn, the weather is too cold.) But he's worried that I'll have already gone back to the U.S. by the time school lets out next July. He already knows that I have to go home for Christmas before the school festival takes place.

"Next year, can you go Yongji Lake?"

I tell SY to let me know whenever he goes downtown to jam at the lake. It doesn't matter if it's in the dead of winter. I'll be there.

Translate