수능 Day: Or, the Korean SAT

November 12. My students’ hard work and exhausting hours of study culminate in this one day that, for many of them, will determine the course of their lives after high school.

Imagine the SAT on steroids. Eight hours of testing, five subjects (Korean, math, English, social studies/science/vocational, additional foreign language), and only one day a year when students can take the test. The one score that mainly determines college admissions. This is the sooneung (수능), or College Scholastic Aptitude Test in Korea.

The world (or, at least, South Korea’s world) stops for this test. Parents go to temples and churches to pray for their children’s success. Taxi drivers give free rides to students who are late for their testing sites. There is no air traffic during the English listening section of the exam. And, of course, the pressure for students to do well is enormous.

On Wednesday, the day before the sooneung, my school cancelled classes and held a pep rally for the third grade students who would be taking the exam. The principal gave a speech, as did a few of the second grade students. The only words I understood were sooneung and 화이팅 (“fighting!”, a common word of encouragement). One of my second grade students played the keyboard as two other boys sang the Korean version of Les Miserables‘ “Do You Hear the People Sing?” As I looked at the sea of faces standing on the soccer field, I saw looks of worry, tranquility, acceptance, anxiety, and determination.

After about twenty minutes of speeches and songs, the first and second grade students, along with the teachers, lined the small hill leading up to the school. The third graders walked down the hill and out of the school gate, while we applauded and wished them good luck.

As I saw Su Bin walking down the hill, I waved emphatically. A smile lit up her face, and I rushed forward to give her a hug.

Then I tripped over a traffic cone. Silly Janine Teacher.

Recovering my balance, I gave Su Bin a hug as the students around her laughed. Mr. Hong looked concerned until I shrugged it off as another one of my many clumsy moments. When the last third grader exited the gate, school was dismissed.

As the rest of the students and teachers began to walk home, I chatted with a few of my students who were on the way to eat lunch, visit a PC bang, or go to hagwon. When I caught up to a group of second grade girls, they squealed with delight at seeing their teacher outside of school.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To eat hamburgers!” they chanted.

“Oooh. Can I come?” I asked, laughing inwardly at the look of panic on their faces.

The three girls exchanged looks until the bravest one finally said, “Um…no, Teacher.”

Rejected!

On Thursday, while the third grade students were taking the exam, I had a blissful day off. When Su Bin came home that evening, I asked her how the exam went. She shrugged and said it was fine. She will not get her exam score until next month. In the meantime, I hope she did well.

I would say that school will return to normalcy tomorrow, but we have finals coming up in a few short weeks. That means for some of my classes, I have to finish quite a few lessons to make up for the lost time this week! Back to work for me.

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