I was the only foreign teacher in the school. I was a member of the English team, which had four other English teachers and together we taught 1500 students. It was a middle school and had both boys and girls.
The struggle was that they were just at that point when boys and girls stop being friends and start to realise they might want to be boyfriend/girlfriend. So getting the students to talk to each other in Korean was a struggle, nevermind talking in English!
Every day a group of boys came in to clean the classroom, this was part of the daily chores that all Korean students have to do to keep the school clean and tidy. The boys would come in, push a brush around, lark about a bit and chat with me.
When I say chat… the reality is that their English was limited, and my Korean was even more limited but I got on well with the boys, they would come and try and tell me about their day, we would have a laugh.
Two of the boys were best friends, the class clown and his sidekick. They were always making fun of each other and playing together and they usually had stories to tell me in broken English, Konglish and hand signals.
One day everything changed.
After lunch one of the students from their class came to look around the classroom, I was teaching and didn’t notice what was going on, but I heard the story from my colleagues later.
After lunch the young sidekick hadn’t been in class. The teacher knew from the register he was in school, and much to her credit, didn’t dismiss him as truanting, an unusual thing in Korea anyway. She sent the kids off in teams to go and find him, first to the bathrooms, and then with more urgency around the rest of the school.
Finally after much searching he was found behind the school. This was a fenced off area holding the electrical works for the school, nobody went back there, but luckily one of the kids thought to check.
The sidekick and his best mate had had a fight. The sidekick had got really upset, climbed up out of the third floor bathroom window and jumped. He survived, but shattered his feet, heels and several of the bones in his legs.
His best friend was heartbroken and a shadow of his former self for months. Eventually the boy returned to school, in casts and on crutches, the two were best friends again and almost their old selves.
For me this was a horrific and shocking episode. I sat open mouthed listening to the story and was just heartbroken for my two little friends. But I think what shocked me the most was the reaction of the teachers.
‘It happens.’ And a shrug. I was expecting a school education session, serious conversations, the importance of talking to each other, a discussion about how suicide was not the answer, but no. The reason: ‘we daren’t talk about it, more might chose to do it’.
Teen suicide continues to be an enormous problem in South Korea. Many students suffer from high levels of stress and high expectations from their parents. They work long hours in school and often don’t get enough sleep. There isn’t the tradition, like Japan of Kamikaze, but somehow it is still seen as an acceptable way out. In schools where suicides take place there is often a spate of them, one after the other, nobody seems to know how to stop them, or how to manage the situation. My teachers, I believe, felt they were doing the best they could in a very difficult situation.