The Blank Test This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

April 12, 2014
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I spent most of my childhood in Korea. Thinking back now, I have no idea how I managed to survive life under Korea's corrupt political, economic, and educational systems. I guess I was too young to notice those things. I assumed that students everywhere were oppressed by overly large uniforms, conventional cafeteria lunches, and unreasonable rubrics.

I still remember the day I first realized that something was wrong with education in Korea. It was April 13, 2010, and I was walking to school. The moment my five-story junior high school came into view, I knew something unusual had happened. A large crowd of students and faculty hovered around the entrance, instead of the usual steady stream of students navigating to their classes. I heard sirens, alarms, and people talking in nervous tones.

Not wanting to be intrusive, I walked quickly past the crowd, only glancing over the shoulders of the other students. I gripped my bag as I twisted my way through the mass of onlookers, hoping that it was just a fight between two students.

I later learned that an upperclassman had committed suicide by jumping out of a window. In the cafeteria, I could hear the hushed, excited whispers of girls sharing the unspeakable details. I regret to say that when I sat down with my tray among my friends, I too began to add to the gossip. The girl who died was someone I knew from math club.

She wasn't a friend of mine, but the fact that someone I knew had died was shocking to me. I thought it was going to be a huge issue in school, something that would make the teachers and parents want to change the system. At the very least, I thought we'd be hearing lectures about it all week. But people didn't seem to care much. After the initial shock that morning, for the most part school was business as usual. The school bells chimed like clockwork, and our teachers hushed our chatter, reminding us that it was none of our business. We were told to continue with our studies and work hard to maintain our class rank. It was as if the suicide had been a celebrity, not our fellow classmate.

Perhaps the reason nobody wanted to talk about it was that we imagined that we understood why she had committed this extreme act. In spite of some wild rumors, we all assumed that the truth was mundane: She was probably feeling the same pressure from her parents and teachers that we all felt. I remember being annoyed that everyone was criticizing the girl's parents, rather than acknowledging that the problem was bigger than one student or one set of parents.

Students in the Korean educational system are constantly harassed about their schoolwork. Everyone is called on to excel in every subject. Of course, this is impossible, but nevertheless, excellence is demanded as if it were a royal mandate. Individual report cards not only reveal the exact grade percentages of the student, but also the averages of the other students. And, as if that weren't enough, a large poster is placed at the entrance of the school exposing students' rankings by grade for all to see.

With everyone trying to make it to the top, school was more a war zone than a place to learn. Home had its own set of rebukes and complaints. Comparisons were made every day, complaints about why one student couldn't be like another. The result was that students felt like their individuality wasn't valued.

Sure enough, a week later, a list that ranked students by their midterm grades was posted as usual, and everyone noticed that the girl who had committed suicide was placed much lower than where she usually stood. It was horrifying to realize that she had felt so much pressure over her grades that she had taken her life.

I don't remember how we came up with the idea of rebelling against the system, but I'm pretty sure we didn't think about the consequences. We just felt helpless – helpless to bring back our classmate and powerless to change the system that had killed her.

On the next exam, a few of my friends and I turned in our papers completely blank. I didn't want myself or any of the other students to continue to be oppressed by the school's unattainable standards. I wanted to speak out against injustice, and I did so by not completing my test. When the group of us willingly handed in blank scantrons, we were pretty much asking for zeroes. We didn't want our low-ranked peers to feel alone, and we wanted to show the administration that we were going to start protecting our sanity and privacy.

Within two days, the tests were graded, and five other girls and I were called down to the principal's office. We didn't have to wonder why. This meeting was about our blank tests. Since we were among the highest-ranked students in our grade, the principal and the other faculty members knew that our failing test scores were purposeful. I was anxious but excited to finally be able to explain to the administrators that what they were asking of us students was unreasonable. However, they didn't ask the reason behind our actions. They were simply furious that we had had the audacity to risk our grades and belittle the school's grading system.

They called my mom, expecting that she would take their side and tell me how wrong I was. But she shocked them by saying that she believed that what my friends and I had done was right. She supported our standing up for our beliefs and opposing a system that was not right. My homeroom teacher threatened my mom, saying that if I had a bad record, it would become an obstacle for me later on when I applied to colleges and tried to get involved in volunteer work. But since we were already planning to move to the States, the threat did not sway us at all.

I came to the States not long after that. I'm not sure what would have happened to me if I had stayed in Korea, if I hadn't been able to walk away from the consequences of that blank test. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had the courage to take a stand against a system I did not believe in, a system that may have contributed to my classmate's death. More likely, I would have succumbed to the pressure and worked extra hard to make up for failing that exam.

It frustrates me to think that I was part of that system, and worse, that I would have continued to bow to its whims.

I am certain, however, that I am blessed to have come to the States. Every day I look around me and see students who, while driven, are encouraged to value activities and interests beyond studying. Here, it's all right to pursue the arts, sports, or just spending time with friends and family. Americans take for granted certain freedoms and liberties, but I still find it miraculous when I'm encouraged to take time to appreciate music instead of just practicing until my throat hurts, or to try out for a team that nobody expects to win. As I get older, I find that I'm sometimes glad to have had the experiences I had in Korea, awful as some of them were. Now I appreciate my right to choose who I want to be, to try things, and to fail without being condemned.

I've never regretted doing what I did that day we turned our tests in blank. And I think I'd feel the same way even if I had stayed in Korea and carried that blemish on my transcript into high school and college. We might not have made a big difference, but at least we tried to make people listen to us, if only for a moment. We acted as individuals with independent feelings and values. To me, that's worth something.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 5 comments. Post your own now!

Yuna R. said...
Oct. 15, 2014 at 1:45 am
This is the best article I've read on here. My mom grew up in Korea and she told me that she never was strict on my grades because she didn't think it was right to focus so much on scores and perfection like as other Korean parents expect. Americans and Koreans have really different cultures and I feel that in Korea it's not so looked down upon to be so extreme on these subjects. I'm sure you know what I mean. Also, I think students should take on a different view of the world.... (more »)
Mr W said...
Sept. 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm
This is a powerful, beautiful piece. I am so proud of my fantastic and gutsy student!
jiyoon This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Sept. 18, 2014 at 6:37 pm
Thanks Mr W :) See you in school ^^*  
LBE23 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 23, 2014 at 1:35 pm
Wow, this is really eye opening! You wrote this so beautifully, it really makes me proud to live in Ameirca!
jiyoon This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
May 19, 2014 at 9:54 pm
Thanks :)  It really means a lot ^^
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