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I spent most of my younger years in Korea. Thinking back now, I have no idea how I managed to survive life under Korea’s corrupt political, economical, and educational systems. I guess that back then, as a middle school student, 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 that I first realized that something was wrong with that system. It was April 13, 2010. From the moment my five-story junior high school came into view, I knew something had happened. As I approached the school, I saw a large crowd of students and faculty hovering around the entrance instead of the usual steady stream of students navigating to their classes. I heard sirens, alarms, and the unforgettable sound of people talking in a nervous tone.

I didn’t want to be too intrusive so I walked quickly past the crowd, only taking in a quick glance over the broad shoulders of the other students. I gripped my bag as I twisted my way through the mass of onlookers, just hoping that it was something small like a fight between two kids.

I was right that something had happened. I later learned from a friend that an upperclassmen had committed suicide by jumping out of a window. In the cafeteria, I could hear the hushed, excited whispers of girls telling each other 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. Within a day I figured out that the girl who died was actually a girl I knew from the math club in school.

I wasn’t really sad since we weren’t friends but the fact that someone I knew had died was pretty 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 so that no one else would have to die. At the very least, I thought we’d be hearing lectures about it all week. But instead, people didn’t seem to care that much. After the initial shock of that morning went away, 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 ranks. It was as if her suicide had happened to a celebrity, not our classmate.

Perhaps the reason nobody wanted to talk about it was that deep down we all understood the kind of frustration she must have felt, and why she had committed such an extreme act. No one had to say it; in spite of the wild rumors, we all understood that she was probably feeling the same pressure from her parents and teachers that we all felt. I remember thinking at the time that it was not all that surprising. At the same time, I remember feeling slightly annoyed, because it seemed like everyone was more focused on criticizing this girl’s parents rather than acknowledging that the problem was bigger than one student or one set of parents.

In the Korean educational system, every student is constantly harassed about their schoolwork. Everyone is called to excel in every subject. Of course, this is impossible; but nevertheless, excellence is imposed upon every student as if it were a royal mandate. Students’ individual report cards not only reveal the exact grade percentages of the student concerned, 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 each person’s ranking within the their grade for the whole school to see.

With everyone trying to make it to the top, school wasn’t a learning place, but a war zone. Home was never a home either. A 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 individualism wasn’t appreciated or valued.

Sure enough, about a week later, a list that had every student's’ name 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 stands.

It was horrifying to realize that she had felt so much pressure over her grades that she had taken her own 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.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea or how we planned it, and I wasn’t exactly sure if I was doing the right thing, but on the next exam, a few of my friends and I turned in our paper 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 up against injustice and so I did by not completing my test. A group of us willingly handed in blank scantrons, which was pretty much asking for a zero. 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 class’s tests were graded and five other girls and I were called down to the principal’s office. Walking down, we didn’t have to wonder about the reason. We all knew that this meeting was about our blank tests. Since we were among the highest-ranked students not only in our class but also in our entire grade, the principal and the other faculty members knew that our test scores were impossible, unreasonable, and purposeful. I was somewhat anxious, but I was also thrilled to finally be able to speak up and explain to the administrators that what they ask of us students was unreasonable.

However, they didn’t bother to ask us the reasons behind our actions. They were simply furious and annoyed that we had had the audacity to risk our grades and belittle the school’s grading (and degrading) system. They called my mom, expecting that she would take their side and tell me how wrong I was. But my mom surprised them because she, too, believed that what my friends and I did was the right thing to do; standing up for our beliefs and going against something that was not right. Furious, my homeroom teacher threatened my mom by remarking that if I had a bad record, it would become an obstacle for me later on in life, 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 behind, if I hadn’t been able to walk away from the consequences of leaving that test blank. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had the courage to continue making a stand against a system I did not believe in, a system that in many ways was responsible for that girl’s death. More likely, I would’ve succumbed to the pressure as well and would’ve 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. What I am certain of, however, is 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 things beyond studying. Here, it’s alright 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. Because now I appreciate my right to choose who I want to be, to try things, and to fail without being condemned.

In spite of the threats, 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 had carried that blemish on my transcript into high school and college. We might not have made a big difference, but at least we made people listen to us, if only for a moment. We acted as individuals with independent feelings and values. To me, that’s worth something.

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LBE23This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 23 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 replied...
today at 9:54 pm :
Thanks :)  It really means a lot ^^
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