March 24, Realities of Life

My tiny travel school is up a mountain as the groaning of my thighs reminded me. At the school locker entrance, I proudly slipped on my Emart slides and cast away the school slippers that were so loose I tripped going both up and down the stairs last week.

These kids are definitely a little more rough than those of my main school. Yana and I talked at length about who is lacking and what we can possibly do to help.

“Those two boys,” she pointed at a now unoccupied table, “are from the orphanage. They don’t know how to read or write English. The orphanage doesn’t have academy classes.” She frowned.

It’s well known that to get ahead in Korea, kids must attend additional after-school practices to cram math, science, English, and more into their overflowing schedules to eventually overcome the college entrance exam.

The fact that a student would have to attend after-school academy classes just to earn a passing grade on a national exam raises serious questions, but more immediately she told me that nearly a third of our students are below level in English and need remedial classes.

Guess who takes the free, school-sponsored remedial English classes? None of those students. If the parents don’t give permission, and they might not as a point of pride, the students can’t enroll.

I asked Yana why she thinks so many are behind level. Is it because they don’t attend after school classes? Is it because they come from single parent or absent parent or no parent homes?

“I think,” she started delicately, “that the parents don’t pay much attention to the students’ school work.”

It’s not so different from Title 1 schools, but of course I wonder how we can best motivate our students when they don’t have the push at home. Or maybe the question is much bigger, about how to ease life such that these parents can be at home for their children or how to overhaul education as a whole.

She gestured back to the empty table. “They just copy the letters. They can only repeat. I’ve started working on doing a little of the alphabet every week.”

Yana really cares and I love that. But what a monumental task.

“I can see in their eyes they don’t want to be here. They don’t want to learn English.” She said with pity.

English is a huge part of the college entrance exam, and the score from that test determines your entire future. I want all my students to succeed, and not fall into a cycle of poverty. At the same time, I also wish my students could live comfortably even if they weren’t to attend university.

Many of our orphans at this school have families– but the families could not afford to keep them, and thus gave them up. They get to see their parents on major holidays like Chuseok or New Year, but otherwise live at the orphanage. I agree with Miranda New that we should be providing resources to keep families together– you can read her experience with orphanages and adoption in Korea here.

I don’t have any answers though I did realize a major bias I have. I tend to notice and support boys with obvious emotional or learning disabilities. However, girls with similar hurdles are often much less conspicuous and are often overlooked.

Going forward I need to make sure all my students are being carefully observed and supported, no matter how obedient and understanding they may seem from far away. For example, symptoms of ADHD vary wildly from boys to girls and as a result, girls are often diagnosed with bipolar or depressive order before ever being tested for ADHD.

I have no training in special education, but I will keep broadening my horizons so that my own bias doesn’t hinder any student’s success.

After lunch, where two third grade girls stared at me so I winked comically, I felt tired to my bones. Luckily, Yana insisted on driving me home since she passes my one-room building on her way to pick up her girls.

Working at the travel school is hard but I’m thankful for Yana and her quiet care.

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