One thing that surprises me about public schools in South Korea is that they are actually public. Sounds like one of those ‘well duuuuh Byron’ comments except that I mean this literally. Today five former students with a day off from high school came back to catch up with former teachers and younger friends. There is nothing particularly rare about that, I think most people, at some point or other find themselves back at a past school. The reasons vary but invariably something makes a student return to old stomping grounds; to catch up, to get some information, to vote, for a meeting. These aren’t the visits I’m talking about.
Today at lunch I went for a walk around the rather small grounds of this tiny, rural school and saw what I thought were some teachers squatting under some trees and rooting through the fallen leaves for something or other. When I approached, because curiosity often drives me, I realized they were not teachers or groundskeepers but an elderly couple pawing through the leaves and picked up some sort of berry. And this is perfectly acceptable in Korea. A far cry from North America where venturing foot on school property can be a punishable offense and someone in authority will ask straight away about what business brings an unknown person to the school. Even loitering around a school is a touchy subject. Not here though. The couple never even looked up at me as I strolled past them. I plucked a slightly withered orange wrinkled round berry from the ground and tucked it in my jacket pocket.
I found the science teacher if this was the berries the pair gathered and he nodded. I wasn’t positive since they the layer of leaves obscured my view of their exact details. After some conversation, the science teacher’s English is… passable… I found out that they are collecting 은행 (eunhaeng) which Google Translate informs me means ginkgo. Ginkgo nuts, like many foods in Korea are said ‘to be good for your body.’ This is Korean code for, ‘probably tastes bad.’ Fresh ginkgo nuts certainly smell putrid. These will be roasted until the inner nut pops and it is said that the ginkgo nut is ‘good for your lungs.’ (Apparently I am not allergic to the fleshy outer coating as I have no blisters.)
During the sweltering heat of summer, a platoon of 20-30 Korean soldiers took shade under these self-same ginko trees, but I didn’t ask about it at the time… probably because they had automatic machine guns so even if they weren’t permitted on the grounds I wasn’t about to remind them of that.
I’ve seen the ubiquitous ‘roving sale’s trucks’ – selling everything from fresh seafood to home hardware – briefly pull into our school.
This goes the other way too, since one night one of the students returned to school at 1:00AM to steal some cigarettes he’d seen. Of course, it because he’s not a bright boy he was caught by the caretaker and then spent the next week doing the best punishment I’ve ever seen. His two friends who DON’T go to this school escaped unpunished because… they Don’t Go To This School! However, he was pulled from all classes and forced to scrub down the entire school; mop the floors, wash all the windows, and likely a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten.
In South Korea, class is always in session.
And no one is too old to go back to school.