It was bound to happen in 1993 as the Department of Defense implemented a world-wide drawdown. My French position was RiF’ed in the Azores and I was given the option of going to Korea or leaving the system.
At that time, the city of 4 million in central Korea where I was assigned was called Taegu. A few years later, it was renamed on English maps as Daegu. The Army occupied three camps: Walker for support, Henry for administration, and George for housing and the schools. One principal served both the elementary and high school students. She catered to the little ones by filling her office with stuffed animals.
Our students competed in sports and other competitive events with the American schools in Pusan and Seoul as well as with Canadian, British, and Australian United Nations dependents. The Far East Basketball Tournament that year resembled the Olympics with students wearing matching warm-up suits, parading around the court carrying their national flags and school banners.
I sponsored a team of 7th grade girls to the spelling competition among English-speaking schools held in Seoul. Our team was slightly handicapped because most of the pronouncers spoke with non-American accents, but still we ended in 4th place. The girls competed in groups of four on stage, each with an overhead projector. The lamp was covered while the word was given and they wrote their answer on the screen. Then all four revealed their answers and points were given for correct spellings.
DoDDS offered teachers a course called “The Study of Teaching” through San Diego State. We who enrolled took the train from Taegu (rosebuds in the restrooms) to Yongson in Seoul and stayed in the MWR Dragon Hill hotel, a real treat with its first class restaurants and American style rooms. Most of us veteran teachers felt the course was merely a renaming of practices we had been using already. However, the work included several observations of classes outside our own field. As a language teacher, I enjoyed observing 5th grade classes and math classes.
Our district superintendent was Dr. Tom Ellinger, one of the most people-oriented supervisors I have ever worked for. He visited Taegu during the first week of school, took photos of each of us new teachers, and when he returned several weeks later, he could match our names with faces and knew the subjects we taught. He has remained a personal friend although we both have long since retired.
We teachers and students had an unusual number of inter-cultural experiences, it seemed. A group of Korean percussionists presented a traditional concert using a variety of drums, gongs, and stringed instruments. The Taegu symphony’s concert master presented a violin recital on his 300-year-old instrument. And we had an assembly by the “Skip-Its”—a group of young people performing with jump ropes.
One Saturday, a group of Korean college students treated our faculty to a day of local events. We started with the grand opening of a new department store where clerks wore uniforms that resembled those of airline stewardesses, bowing and smiling, and practicing English greetings. Next we attended a Buddhist wedding. And finally, the Koreans prepared a dinner for us in our school’s home economics room after which we played a rousing game of “Go Fish” in English with cards I used in my Spanish classes.
Our school secretaries and PTA parents honored the faculty during Teacher Appreciation Week with five days of special gifts, flowers, and food both before and after classes—truly the most appreciation from any school I ever served.
Educators Day in the spring was another spectacular event shared by all the English-speaking schools in Korea. We met at Seoul International School for a day of seminars. Our topics of choice ranged from planning for retirement, health insurance, teaching methods, to travel opportunities in the region. We were entertained by a Korean traditional dance company using fans and scarves and dressed in colorful hanboks, the flowing Korean gowns worn by women on special occasions.
To deter teachers from slipping away early, the final event was a gigantic lottery. For weeks in advance, committee members sold $5US tickets which that day we all deposited in a big rolling drum for the drawings. Prizes varied from cases of soda or beer, Nike running shoes, shopping coupons, books, Korean ceramics, paintings, dinners in local restaurants, all the way to plane tickets for the USA or New Zealand.
Interactions with the local population were both pleasant and not so pleasant. Some that stand out in my memory include waking early on Saturdays to children singing folk songs, actually a recording played to indicate the approach of the garbage collection truck. I taught a shy 7th grade student, recently adopted by Americans who came to me for help with her English and American history lessons and was fascinated by our custom of decorating for Christmas. She was the one who asked me not to write her name with my red ink pen, because “red is for dead people.”
Our neighbor, Mr. Ha, invited my husband and me to his boyhood village in the mountains one fall day, where we climbed to a Buddhist temple and met with monks there. Then we shared a picnic with his friends, and he fell asleep when we needed his help finding our way driving back home because in his words, he was “stinko.”
But most of all, I have benefitted as I watch the 21st century news out of North Korea. Many of us faculty visited the UN Peace Conference Center at Panmunjam and viewed the DMZ, only a short drive away from Seoul. Several times during the year, all of us civilians were required to participate in Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO). Military personnel inspected our items packed for quick departure: important up-to-date documents, address list of stateside contacts, and survival supplies to last up to four days or so. Teachers were told since military sponsors would be on duty we might have to escort our students to their safe haven, taking them to Japan or Hawaii or even all the way to the States. The biggest uproar, though, came from mothers who were told their pet dogs must be left behind. The Air Force eventually yielded and said pets would be included in any evacuation. Thankfully that policy has never been tested.