IT'S BEEN NEARLY THIRTY YEARS ALREADY, but whenever I look back on that lonely, difficult fight, which continued from the spring of that year through the fall, I become as desolate and gloomy as I was at the time. Somehow in our lives we seem to get into fights like this all the time, and perhaps I get this feeling because to this day I've never really extricated myself from that one.
Around the middle of March that year, when the Liberal Party government was making its last stand, I left the prestigious Seoul elementary school I had proudly attended until then and transferred to a rather undistinguished school in a small town. My whole family had moved there after my father, a civil servant, had become embroiled in an internal departmental row. I was twelve; I had just gone into fifth grade.
When I arrived there that first day, escorted by my mother, I was enormously disappointed, for all sorts of reasons, by S Elementary School. I was used to looking at new school buildings arranged around an imposing three-story red-brick main building. To me, this old Japanese-style building, with its plastered exterior and its few ramshackle tar-painted board classrooms, seemed indescribably shabby. It drenched me in a kind of melodramatic disillusion a young prince lately deposed might feel. The mere fact that I came from a school where each grade had sixteen classes made me look with disdain on this school where there were barely six classes in a grade. Also, having studied in classes of boys and girls mixed together, to find boys' classes and girls' classes strictly segregated seemed very backward.
But it was the faculty room that really hardened my first impression. The faculty room of the school I had attended, as befitted one of the top schools in Seoul, was big and sparkling, and the teachers were all uniformly well-groomed and full of life. Here, the faculty room was barely the size of a classroom and the teachers in it sat lifelessly, shabby country folk blowing out smoke like chimneys.
As soon as my mother brought me into the room, the teacher in charge came over to greet us. He too fell far short of my expectations. If we couldn't have a beautiful and kind female teacher, I thought at least we might have a soft-spoken, considerate, stylish male one. But the white rice-wine stain on the sleeve of his jacket told me he didn't measure up. His hair was tousled; he had not combed it much less put oil on it. It was very doubtful if he had washed his face that morning, and his physical attitude left grave doubts about whether he was actually listening to Mother. Frankly, it was indescribably disappointing that such a man was to be my new teacher. Perhaps already I had a premonition of the evil that was to unfold over the course of the next year.
That evil showed itself days later when I was being introduced to the class.
"This is the new transfer student, Han Pyongt'ae. I hope you get on well."
The teacher, having concluded this one line introduction, seated me in an empty chair in the back and went directly into classwork. When I thought of how considerate my Seoul teachers had been in invariably giving prolonged proud introductions to new students, almost to the point of embarrassment, I could not hold back my disappointment. He didn't have to give me a big buildup, but he could at least have told the other children about some of the things I had to my credit. It would have helped me begin to relate to the others and them to me.
There were a couple of things the teacher could have mentioned. First of all, there was my school work. I may not have been first very often, but I was in the first five in my class in an outstanding Seoul school. I was quietly proud of this; it had played no small part in ensuring good results in my relations not only with teachers but also with the other children. I was also very good at painting. I was not good enough to sweep a national children's art contest, but I did get the top award in a number of contests at the Seoul level. I presume my mother stressed my marks and artistic ability several times, but the teacher ignored them completely. In some circumstances, my father's job, too, could havebeen a help. So what if he had suffered a setback in Seoul, even a bad one, bad enough to drive him from Seoul to here? He still ranked with the top few civil servants in this small town.
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