Once my father lectured me and my younger brother about education when we were in elementary school: “You can learn anywhere and anytime when your mind is set — on a mountain or on a river; sitting down or standing up!”
It was at the beginning of the fall semester in 1950, after our port city of Pusan had become the temporary capital of South Korea within days of North Korea’s invasion of the South, and all school buildings were confiscated by the government for administrative purposes or to shelter thousands of injured soldiers transported from the battlefront. Two months later, our school opened on a hilltop behind a Buddhist temple that had a crudely made wooden sign that read: “Crystal Elementary school.”
As a fourth-grader, walking 40 minutes every morning to our mountain school, which had bare dirt for floors, no roof to cover our heads or walls to block the wind from snatching our note papers, was a huge challenge for me. Worse yet, while our teachers lectured, cows, goats, roosters and hens on the property all had something to say about a pack of human kids moved into their territory and “learning” was impossible.
But our father wouldn’t listen to our complaints. “You’re lucky!” he said. “Some children don’t even have a school to go to because of war. Learn well, children, and don’t forget once you learned! You might not have another chance to learn what you learned today.”
Did his lesson help me throughout my life? No. As a plant needs sunlight, moisture and nutrients to grow, a “learner” needs a quiet environment, energy to grasp what was taught and books to follow up. We had none of them, not even desks and chairs! And we were too tired to focus our minds on lectures after a long walk on a steep dirt road, even if the animals had not been noisy. Also, though our father had meant well, in reality, most of things you learn daily don’t remain in your brain forever. Speaking of myself, learning English as an adult has been a long cycle of learning and forgetting and relearning.
I recently shared my “learning” experiences with members of a local chapter of PEO (Philanthropic Educational Organization), an international women’s organization giving scholarships to selected female students. According to what I’ve read, PEO today boasts about 250,000 members — mostly teachers — working together for this worthwhile cause.
Before I accepted the invitation to speak, I questioned my qualification: Other than teaching the methods of playing the cello in my younger days, I never taught anything. And I did not like school that much as a youngster. During algebra class in high school, I wrote poems to kill time. After entering college to study music, I was reborn: Practice, practice, practice was my daily motto. I’ve come a long way indeed!
I accepted the invitation, reasoning that there is no right or wrong in the business of learning.
More than two dozen members of PEO had gathered in a private home in Lenexa. In their buzzing conversations, I learned that in the state of Kansas nearly 15,000 members of PEO are working together to raise money — by hosting a craft sale or book sale — to give scholarships to deserving women, and some of the members had been recognized as exceptional teachers.
If you’re wondering what I talked about: I contradicted my father’s theories — that you can learn anywhere and anytime when your mind is set and do not forget once you learned. I said the learning environment plays a huge role in learning and that most things we learn, we forget and relearn. And then I blamed my mom’s Confucian way of raising me — her third daughter and her fifth child of eight who had a poor learning attitude.
“Whenever I amused myself,” I said, “scribbling on a paper or reading a storybook, my mother sent me to my room to do homework. When I was having a good time outside with my younger brother, jump-roping or climbing a tree in the backyard, she had me come in, wash my hands and lectured me on the proper demeanor of a girl in Korean society, though she never said anything to my brother. What she implanted in me was: You’re a girl, and having fun is for boys. No wonder I lacked motivation to learn from adults when my childish tendency to discover myself was discouraged. Learning brings us joy the way food does. As everyone’s preference for food is different, so is their taste for learning.”
Today, millions of families are forced out of their homes and their children are robbed of the privilege of education. Though our elementary school on the mountain lacked much, it provided the Korean kids of the earlier century a learning opportunity.
I salute the ladies of the PEO for providing deserving women opportunities for higher education, and furthermore, maybe some organizations will reach out to underprivileged children with the gift of education.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history. Reach her at email@example.com.