Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Graduation Situation

CSHS' 1st graduating class! Congratulations!
Yesterday I escaped from -16°C Seoul to visit sunny Changwon. Well, Changwon was sunny, but it was still cold. The reason for my visit was twofold: 1) to visit my homestay, give them gifts and grab some extra clothes, and 2) to attend Changwon Science High School's graduation ceremony (졸업식/jeoleopshik).

As a reminder to my readers unfamiliar with the Korean education system, the school year begins in March and ends in December. Graduation, however, usually occurs in February, before the new year. Since I've been absent from my school for the past month and a half due to Fulbright winter vacation, I really wanted to go back and visit. Furthermore, my school is so new that this graduation ceremony was actually its first ever. Some of my second-year students whom I taught last fall were among CSHS's first graduating class, and I wanted to be there for this special occasion.

"Second-year?" you might ask. "Aren't Korean secondary schools three years long?" Yes, that is true: Normal middle and high schools are three years long. However, my school is caught up in the recent trend for specialized science high schools to put students on a fast track through an intense science and math curriculum that only takes two years (and does not include the 수능). It's increasingly becoming the norm that these students will apply to universities during their second year and even be accepted. In fact, science high schools are now evaluated by how many students they can get accepted into university early.

CSHS's first graduating class numbers 56. That's fifty-six second-year students who were accepted into college early. They're leaving behind 33 of their peers who were not accepted and must remain in high school to complete their third year.

This is all that I knew going into the ceremony, which began at 10:00am in my school's auditorium. I didn't know what else to expect, so, per my usual attitude, I just went in expecting nothing.

The first thing I really took note of was the group of students sitting in the front and center, fifty-six students dressed in maroon caps and gowns, and it made me do a double take. I fully realized then that this was a graduation ceremony: I wasn't here just to see my students, but to see them finally take that huge step out of high school and into the world beyond. Eleven years of extremely intense education and thousands of hours of studying and research projects was culminating in this. When I saw my students in their graduation garb, I was amazed. That, plus their new hairstyles and, for some, their new double-eyelids (thanks to plastic surgery), made them all look so grown-up.

Then, I greeted the other teachers, all of whom were pretty excited to see me. After all, I hadn't been on campus for almost two months. The small commotion caught the attention of the students, who were sitting ahead of us, and there was lots of head-turning and whispering: "Oh! Andrew Teacher is here!"

Finally, the ceremony started. The vice principal gave a speech explaining the (short) history of the school, the students' names were read, and they went up to get their diploma. This was followed by individual prizes and then maybe half a dozen more speeches, given by our school principal and a bunch of representatives from the various prestigious universities to which the students had been accepted. During these speeches, I obviously couldn't understand anything, so the gym teacher, next to whom I was sitting, tried whispering into my ear what was going on, but he didn't get very far, as English is not his forte. He then leaned over and whisper-asked me what "graduation situations" were like in the US. There were two things that struck me as being very different from a typical American high school graduation.

The first was that it was very calm and quiet for the entire hour. At my high school graduation, friends and family brought air horns, pots and pans, and posters and screamed in appreciation when their graduate's name was called and they walked across the stage. Here, there was merely polite applause. It was almost boring. I was later told by my co-teacher that many Korean high schools also had more boisterous (even violent, sometimes) graduation ceremonies and that CSHS was an outlier in its placidity.

The second thing that I had to wrap my head around was the heavy emphasis on college throughout the whole event. The graduation program didn't include a list of the graduates' names, only a table of statistics on how many students the school had and how many had been accepted into university. There was also a table that detailed how many graduates were going to which of the top research institutions in the country: Seoul National University (one), Yonsei University (three), Ewha (three), KAIST (nineteen), Postech (four or five), GIST (two), UNIST (two or three), and more. Then there were all the speeches. Every prestigious university offered congratulatory remarks, some gave awards, and no one could refrain from mentioning how wonderful and impressive it was for these students to have been so successful in the college application process.

All I could think about was how much that sucked for the thirty-three third-year students-to-be. Essentially, they were being subjected to a celebration of their peers' achievements and a reminder of their own "failure" at the same time.

There were, however, some touching moments. One representative from the first-year class, JP, gave a speech (which I didn't understand, but it elicited laughs from the audience from time to time) about his 선배들 (seonbaedeul/upperclassmen), and one of the graduates, YS, also gave a few words. At the end, there was a short slideshow video (set to Vitamin C's "Graduation Song", obviously) that gave everyone the feel-good vibes. But on the whole, this high school graduation was overwhelmingly... formal and stiff. It was ceremonial in the blander sense of the word.

Until the ceremony ended, however. Then, the picture-taking began, and everyone got their smartphones out to snap away nonstop. (This only added to the crazy number of cameras and video cameras already in the auditorium courtesy of local news agencies who were here to cover this important occasion. Yes, the first 졸업식 for this city's first specialized high school is totally newsworthy!)

Eventually, my students caught sight of me and dragged me into a bunch of photos. Quite a few of them were rather emotional, and all they could get out in English was, "Teacher, I miss you! Take a picture? I will really miss you!" And I am going to miss them all, too. My college prep students! Finally going off to college! It's such a grand milestone, and I am very gratified for having been able to witness it and share in it partly with them.

"Congratulations!" I said to every student I saw. "How do you feel right now?"

"So happy," said JY, who was in tears. He couldn't say anything else, but simply gave me a big hug.

"I'm... I'm... I'm sorry, Teacher," said YG. "I can't speak English well. I feel confused; I am happy and sad."

"Good," said WJ. "This is just commencement. It's the start of something new."

Translate