From School to the World
Whenever I had to define myself in a sentence I used to choose ‘an outsider teenager from school’ since I was eighteen till I became an adult. At the moment I finished my ten-year school life on the last day of the first grade in high school, handing in the paper on which the letters ‘Withdrawal Letter’ seeming as large as 18 point font were printed, something unexplainable surged up in me like a whirlwind. I felt relieved but sorry, regretful but somehow free; this sort of subtle feeling was so enormous and complicated that I could not write it down on a sheet of A4-sized paper.
I had never imagined dropping out of ‘school’ in Korean society, and much more the high school almost everybody graduates from! I had not written down such a ‘horrible’ plan like ‘high school withdrawal’ anywhere on my annual schedule of the year’s goal or future plan. (Who would plan such a thing?) Rather, I had been more of a common Korean high school girl printing the admission guidelines for the colleges I’d like to enter and sticking it on the wall every year and expecting to enter the colleges in Seoul.
So to be honest, I had been more like but not exactly like an extremely common girl according to the people around me. I had spent a large amount of time both in hospitals and home since I entered middle school. I’m not sure why but it must have been because I had had a sensitive and odd character since my childhood to some extent. A sudden faint, fake nausea, numbness or heartache was not unusual to me. When I had no physical pain, I suffered mentally. Extreme depressive disorder, morbid anxiety and unexplainable sunconfusion led me into the bottom of the abyss. It was like I was sinking somewhere in the dark sea where I was not able to see anything, trembling and struggling alone.
It was my mother, a high school teacher, who recommended the girl in the situation to withdraw, saying: You should not trap yourself in the system squeezing your body and soul. You may do well wherever you go so how about dropping out of it? Her eyes shone with a firm belief. And I spent my summer vacation as a first grader with the surfers in Yangyang, and as I saw the surfers endure, care for each other and yield themselves before the unpredictable waves and love the sea like friends did, I finally came to understand the true meaning of life. They waited for the wave fit for themselves and enjoyed it; if they faced the wave too high, they had better accept it as it was and practiced themselves to be better surfers, finally made into one with the infinite, enormous sea. Thanks to the gorgeous surfers I took courage to step into a brand new way.
And after a half year passed, I accepted Mother’s proposal. This was the start of the process of ‘teenager’ instead of ‘a Korean high school student’.
The World Is the Real School
Two years and a half (already!) have passed since then. Want to know what I have done? Long-term traveling two times, cycling around Jeju Island, three part-time jobs, TV program interview, various lectures, conferences, publishing contract, an NGO project chief director etc….. I challenged as much as possible. In the process I experienced tens of despair and hundreds of distress and it was so obvious that I had weakness and lack in ability. But it was true that if it’s necessary you may escape from it and from that escape a new adventure will start, which is what Mother told me before. And the life made up by my choices not by others’, soon tightened and strengthened myself. Like beating the stages in a computer game, I could feel myself growing up whenever I went through the diverse phases. The unprecedented epidemic, COVID-19 tore into pieces the last year of my teenage life I had ambitiously planned before, but rather in the process I was able to vividly feel my activeness deeply rooted inside me. In addition, even though I crashed into a wall I could overcome the difficulties in a constructive way, consoling and cheering my soul. I got the strong will to stand up when I fell down and the courage not to go back in any situation.
And at the same time many exciting people from various experiences came to meet me. The people considered to be quite interesting were connected to this strange mutation(a.k.a. me) and I could see the infinity of the world through them. When I worked at a fast food shop, I met some people who were adults only by their appearance and age but not in attitude, breaking my love for humanity into pieces but I met many, ‘real adults’ treating me as an equal man and subject regardless of my age. They constantly reminded me that one’s academic background or career Korean society insists upon does not prove what one can do or who he is and made me learn that if you have a mind and show how capable you are you may have your chance and become a friend regardless of your background. Their life was like a textbook in school to me. I indirectly experienced great stories and a grand world that could be compared with the palm-sized books I had looked into sitting on the classroom chair thanks to them. Besides, the foreign lands where I went to with only a backpack on my shoulders and stayed together with native friends, the places where I worked and faced various sorts of people and every single part of Jeju Island I sensed with my whole body cycling with some in-between meditation, those were the classroom to me. And all the people inspiring me, though we came across like passers by, were my teachers. At the moment I happened to see: this society, the whole world making me learn how to trust and love myself as much as can be, unnoticeably became a school to me in no time.
School to the World
I am afraid many of you might be quite a bit embarrassed reading this, an adventurous life story of the reckless twenty-year-old girl living an ‘out of box’ life and think it should have been enough if I had insisted on educational innovation and the direction of the future education. But how much longer should we discuss ‘innovation’, build ‘another college’ as a substitution for the existing colleges and talk about the ‘future’ generation? Why not focus on the present problems? Every moment a human being learns and grows up. One may be upgraded in knowledge not only when in school and it is an out-of-date idea that the space and system of school should be the only learning place for life in some aspect. Now we need to get out of that idea. We do not need such a school like ‘New Normal School’ which gives only confusion and is nothing but changing the title of it into a ‘fancy’ one; it’s just like changing wrapping paper or like wearing a bigger pair of shoes to make believe that a step was made further. It is inevitable to have the conversion of viewpoint to make the students know there are so many lives and the universe exists above us. And now I define it in three forms.
First, the school toward the world: It is the most fundamental action to widen the students’ sight to see not only the school inside but also the outside world. We should not be afraid to talk about various aspects of life along with social and political problems. Do not interpret silence as the same context of adhering to neutrality. And it is the essential starting point of the active and subjective school culture to give them a chance to think by themselves and discuss freely. (For instance, the German friends traveling with me around Eastern Asia were never reluctant to share their opinions on sensitive social issues, which was also the open progressive culture the German education on politics has created.)
Second, the world can be a school: We should not hesitate in seeking relations to society to make the students’ learning not only in places like school but the whole world, opening the place of knowledge in various forms. As what widened my sight was the experiences and the people I met in society, we have to let them know that there are many kinds of different flames in them by giving them chances to reveal each one’s talent and creativity on the basis of the connection to the world instead of uniform education.
Third, the school open to the world: It was the chronic problem in Korean society to ignore the complaints about the educational system and the school curriculum and to consolidate the college admission system. But now it is important to listen to the students who are the concerned, actually being educated in the field and to receive more opinions and directions.
I have made good experiences during middle and high school days, moments that some might feel short and others might feel long, and met many teachers who were my guides for my life, but the world I faced after I had withdrawn was so different in size and texture from the one in the school system. In the process the greater world became my school along with the more diverse teachers in the more interesting classrooms. Of course I am just twenty and not yet a college student; nevertheless I feel joy and enthusiasm incomparable to anything else, for I had at least the attitude to enjoy ‘life’s adventures,’ ‘the mind to take my life as mine,’ and accordingly ‘the heart to share my love with more people’. I dare say that not only learning for college or a secure life but also ‘learning the world’ dashing directly and going forth in reality is not limited to the unusual mutation like me but is necessary more than any other time for the students of the present to prepare the future under the guidance of the past.
Some of my friends became college students and others are supposed to take the exam again. And I am in the US. I wrestled alone for several months to enter a college in Denmark though the college gives no certificate for degree and it turned out to be impossible due to the pandemic. And at the same time a mysterious chance has come and I answered it without hesitation; I strived for it for the full half year and I made it. Here in the US I am neither a college student nor preparing to enter it; so someone might say I am wasting my time. But as the things I can do by myself increase more and more I am full of courage and hope; and I am thankful and happy for every day when I connect them together making a new fate.
So I, the girl whom society has raised and the world has brought up, also today continue the life lessons in this wide school, praying that I also could be both a teacher and school for someone someday.
Ham Eun-se / Translated by Park Eun-sun