School Life Begins in Earnest

Hwang Jang Yop's Memoirs - 9
 |  2010-01-13 10:35
Starting in the 1930s, the number of students at my father’s village school dropped noticeably. In my neighborhood, four elementary age kids were admitted to another school. Most of the kids from a nearby town were admitted too.

Nevertheless, some parents who still valued Chinese highly continued to send their kids to the village school. However, when they were all admitted to an elementary school that allowed late admissions in summer, the village school was practically empty. I had to learn Chinese from my father alone. It was so boring. I envied my friends who could come home together, singing songs they had learned in school.

While sometimes feeding the cows and at other times keeping lookout in the melon field, I read my brother’s textbooks or novels translated into Korean, like “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Three years passed by in a heartbeat and then one day, my friend who had transferred to an elementary school after studying at the village school told me that there was an exam for special admissions. Children who used to go to private or village schools could take an exam to decide which grade they would be admitted to.

Hearing about this, Father personally arranged the exam for me. I ended up at an elementary school in Seungho-ri taking the exam with other kids. The exam was quite easy. Two of us passed the exam and were admitted into the fourth grade; yet the one who was admitted with me had studied in a four-year-private school, and was 3 years older than me.

In fact, at that time many of my schoolmates were three or four years older than me, and some were already married! I got to study alongside kids who had been admitted three years earlier than I. There were about 80 students in each class.

I was very happy to start my school life. However, since I began receiving my schooling later than other kids I was behind, and I felt frustrated. Before I was admitted I thought it would be possible for me to catch up, because I had finished the six-year-curriculum at home. But then when I started going to school I realized that what I had was incomparable to what other kids had. The subjects that especially held me back were art, music and physical education. I almost failed these subjects but I was exceptional in other ones, which was why I was able to get some extra points and avoid failing outright.

Being really bad at physical education, I totally hated sports day, which we had every autumn. Everyone from the town would prepare lunch and come, which made it a huge party for everyone. Being last in the race when everyone was watching hurt my feelings. Regardless of age, everyone was excited about sports day. But not me.

There was a big cement factory at Seungho-ri, which was where the elementary school was located. Most of the students were the children of factory laborers. Receiving a salary every month, their living standards were relatively high. Because they grew up in a relatively big town, the kids were streetwise and sharp. Wherever I went in town, there were kids who were mean to outsiders. They moved around in a group, bullying those who did not live in the town.

I was also one of their victims. The kids would block the street and order people to bring them peanuts, sweet potatoes and many more. One of them was my classmate, Cho Roe Jin, who was the fiercest fighter in the class. Whenever he was not around, my friends and I called him “Cho the Pig.” It was really frightening when he thrust his fist into my face one day.

“If you don’t bring us sweet potatoes and peanuts, I’ll not let you get away with it. You better do as we tell you, rather than getting beaten up first and then bringing those things to us later.”

Until then I had thought that those who transferred to elementary school from village school were feckless, which was why I did not want to hang out with them. However, since I was often threatened by the kids at Seungho-ri, I decided that the only people I could trust were friends from my own town. It did hurt my ego, but I had no alternative. So I told Yun Byeong Seon, who went to village school with me and was a year older, about their meanness. Yun was the leader of the students from the neighboring town.

When he was still studying at the village school, he had been one of those kids who couldn’t even memorize a couplet after studying it for the whole day. I could not understand how he had become the leader of students from both towns, so I did not hang out with them.

“Those kids from Seungho-ri are such bullies. They told me to bring them food tomorrow.”

Smiling as if it wasn’t a big deal, he said, “If there are many of them, then we can join forces too. Come with us when you go home. There’s nothing to be scared about.”

I was slightly worried. Even though he was stronger than me, I wondered if he could really beat those nasty kids from Seungho-ri.

After school, about ten kids from my town and the neighboring town gathered. We left school and walked to the street which led to our town. Then after a few minutes the bullies appeared and blocked our way. Cho the pig came up and started threatening me.

“Hey, newbie! Did you bring the sweet potatoes?”

Yun Byeong Seon, who had told me not to back away, went right up to Cho the Pig and whispered something in his ears. To my surprise, Cho nodded and backed off with rest of his cronies. I was very surprised and curious about what had happened, so I asked him what made those bullies go away.

“You see, I told him that you are the son of our village school teacher and that even the Japanese principal has to gain your favor, so we have to protect you well.”
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