A stage is decorated with colorful banners and balloons. Teachers, their new students and parents converge. Everyone bustles around and looks busy. Where is my child’s classroom? Who is the teacher? Anxiety is evident on the children’s faces, too. They cling to their mother’s side. Some of them burst into tears.
March is still cold on the Korean peninsula but despite the biting winds, spring is anticipated already. The beginning of the month heralds another school year and to many people, the entrance ceremonies for new students symbolize spring’s arrival. For children who have reached the age of six, the time has come to begin a communal life known as compulsory education. They must now learn how to stand on their own two feet without their mother’s help, to wake up early and dress themselves, and to navigate the mysterious world of spelling and numbers.
The history of modern elementary education in Korea is well past a hundred years. Since the opening of Gyodong Public Primary School in Seoul in 1894, the school entrance ceremony has changed significantly. Before, runny-nosed “country bumpkins” would stand stiff with fright, a handkerchief pinned to their chests like a medal. Today, at one school children wear crowns, and at another the children write down their dreams on paper planes and send them flying. Teachers place an armful of school supplies in the arms of their new students, and the sixth graders, the school seniors, hug the newcomers and place a rose in their hands. The pop song “I Am a Butterfly,” which encourages everyone to spread their wings and fulfill their dreams, plays in the background.
But there is also a dark side to the story. The nation’s rapid industrialization and dazzling economic growth have resulted in urbanization on a massive scale, in turn leading to a decline in the rural population. Decades of slow population growth have also sharply lowered the number of school-age children. Inevitably, many elementary schools have been forced to close or merge with other schools. In 2017, there were 2.67 million elementary school students, or 30 percent fewer than the 3.83 million in 2007 and 53 percent fewer than the 5.66 million in 1980. An even greater concern, however, is that these innocent children, wearing crowns and flying paper planes on their first day of school, have no idea that they have stepped onto the conveyor belt of endless competition that is Korea’s “education hell.”