This article is in response to Woody Paik’s original op-ed piece called What The US Can Learn About Education from Korea’s Wartime Example.
Reading Woody Paik’s article took me to my old days of exactly 70 years ago, which otherwise might be dumped forever from my memory warehouse deep in my brain. The black and white photograph featured in the essay astonished me. Why? I was in the picture! Well maybe not exactly in that photo but let me explain.
After war broke out on June 25, 1950, my family and thousands of others fled Seoul to the relative safety of the southern coast. In 1951, I was an eleven-year-old boy when my mother took me to a school and enrolled me in the 4th grade. It was not a regular school which has buildings for the classrooms, but opened to the sky as you see in the picture.
The school was located so far from my house that I had to walk a very long way. When it rained, school closed because there was no shelter. It must be my overactive imagination to think that the boy in the front row with the white shirt was me but in my memory, I was there. The name of my school was ‘Geumjeong Elementary School of Refugees’. This school was built on the high ground of a foothill of Geumjeong Mountain (금정산) which is famous for its Buddhist Temple.
One morning when I got to school, look! A big tent was standing on the ground, waiting for us. One after another more tents were built. There were still no real floors but flat bags of rice straw(가마니) covered the ground where we sat. As class progressed, our bottoms would get wet from the moisture that came from the ground through the bags of straw.
Another thing I remember clearly was the day an organ was brought into the tent class. It was a fantastic gift for all the students even though it was small and simple. The sound of music swept all over the glen of Geumjeong Mountain. We were able to learn our lessons and also sing along with the organ. Songs were mostly military marches. But from time to time we learned beautiful songs such as ‘My home town is a mountainside of flowers blooming (나의 살던 고향은 꽃피는 산골)’.
As the war ended, our family went back home to Seoul and two years later I became a middle school student. One day all the students were ordered to stop classes and come out to the playground. We wondered why. At the playground our principal came upon the high podium along with one huge gentleman. This gentleman was introduced as Dr. Paik, a government officer of high ranking.
When he started talking I was spellbound from the beginning because I had never heard such eloquent speech. At the same time, I felt a strange strong power in him and was thrilled. I don’t remember now what he said, but I still can vividly picture him speaking. Had I known that he was one of the founders of Yonsei University, I would certainly have enrolled at Yonsei for the entrance examination. But all I knew then was that he was a government officer.
Now as for me, I am going to be 80 years next year. I cannot remember any of my teachers’ faces. But the moment of listening to the eloquent speech of Dr. Paik Nak-Jun still lives vividly in me. I can even see his face.
Dr. Paik’s leadership helped navigate the youth of a war-ravaged Korea. I am grateful that he and so many dedicated teachers inspired a generation of young lads like me to make it out of the rubble with the education and dignity we needed to soar into the 21st century.
In a final twist of fate that still makes me chuckle to this day, Dr. Paik’s grandson (and Woody Paik’s older brother) is now my son-in-law. Our two clans, the Paiks and the Chungs, along with millions of other war survivors were part of a great diaspora of Koreans who eventually landed in the USA in search of better opportunities for our children.
I sometimes look at my two 2 grandsons who share both my and Dr. Paik’s blood and wonder what other strange mysteries might abound and lie ahead even for an old war survivor like me
Hong Taek Chung is a writer and cinephile residing in Elkins Park, PA, with his wife and college sweetheart, Kay. A graduate of Seoul National University, he was the first chairman of the board of MoreBank and the fifth chairman of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in NYC.