By Anabelle Keimach (Correspondent)
As the birth rate has plummeted in South Korea over the past few decades, Daegu Elementary school in Gingjin County has seen its classroom sizes dwindle, leading them to enroll grandmothers who never got their own classroom experience growing up.
The drastic decrease in birth rate has especially hurt rural communities in South Korea because many young couples are now moving to the cities for better job opportunities. Daegu Elementary was desperate to fill its classrooms in order to keep the school running, and also keep the town alive. Without a school, younger families would not be inclined to settle in the area. After searching many nearby villages for a single first grader to enroll with no luck, the principal, Lee Ju-Young, and local residents came up with the idea to provide an education for older members of their community.
“I couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me,” said Ms. Wang who started classes in March. “Carrying a school bag has always been my dream.”
In the past, South Korean families put their energy towards educating their sons while daughters were expected to do work in the household while their parents worked outside. Many elderly women recount how their family members refused to send them to school, or how their families depended on their work at home.
“Someone had to sacrifice, and in my family, it just happened to be me,” said Kim Mae-ye, 65, a first-grader at Daegu Elementary. “It was a time when many families could not even pay school tuition. I remember my younger brother weeping and refusing to go to school in the morning, demanding a monthly school fee my family didn’t have.”
A son of one of the elderly women enrolled, Kyong-Deok, says that he has become a much happier person since she started school. “Smiles hardly seem to leave her face,” he said.
Driven by their deep ambition to learn, many of the women labor tirelessly over their school work while also having to maintain their regular household responsibilities.
“My memory, hand, and tongue don’t work like I wish,” said Park Jong-Sim who is a valuable octopus catcher for her village. “But I am going to learn to write before I die. You don’t know how I feel when I go to a government office, they ask me to fill out a form and the only thing I know how to write is my name.”
The women have brought up other struggles they have faced being illiterate, such as being unable to address packages or getting lost because they were not able to read street signs. Now, receiving an education has given some of the big dreams for the future.
“I am going to run for president of the village women’s society,” said one student, Ms. Hwang, age 70. “People used to ask me to run, but I always declined. It’s a job for someone who can read and write.”