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by Therese Park
A half century ago in 1955, South Korea suffered growing pains. The three-year-long war had ended with the truce two summers earlier, but the hostility between two Koreas was hotter than molten rock. The guards on both sides of the Demarcation lines along the 38th Parallel crashed onto one another daily, and the South Korean military intelligence kept finding hidden tunnels stretching deep into our territory. Anti Communism was a religion rather than an ideology for us.
I began my seventh school year in March that year. Nationally, with American dollars pouring into the country, construction crews were busy, paving dirt roads and replacing log bridges with sturdy concrete ones. New modern churches and commercial buildings came up here and there, competing with one another.
The South Korean army still occupied the Kyong-nam Girls Middle School in Pusan where I attended. They had taken over our school building in the beginning of the war but they still had no place to go.
The only “classrooms” available for us were the crudely built army barracks scattered around the school property. Every time it rained, we evacuated to a dry area, dragging books and notepads with us.
Besides, we had no space large enough for 600 students and 30 teachers for the Monday morning rituals, indoors or outdoors. We had been gathering on the mountain behind our neighborhood, but rain followed us there, too. Being soaking wet wasn't as serious as walking on the narrow trail that quickly turned into slippery mud. 600 kids screaming and running for cover was a sheer nightmare for the teachers.
By the mid semester, the school board decided to build an auditorium. We were elated at first, but when we found out that we the kids would be the laborers for the project, we wondered whether we'd ever see our auditorium.
The seventh and eighth graders' job was hauling dirt and gravel from the mountain. Every morning, our teacher gave each a bucket, checking our names on the list, and told us where to go to fetch dirt and rocks. It was different every morning. When we returned with buckets full of dirt and rocks small enough to fit in the bucket, he had us empty them and sent us back to the mountain for more. But when the bucket was only half filled, we were scolded and had to do it again. By the end of the day, our legs felt like rubber, while our knees and hands were covered with dried blood from falling and skidding on steep hills.
The ninth-graders jobs weren't any easier. Their hands blistered from digging or sifting dirt or mixing concrete and pouring it into the large hole they had dug up. Some of them even hammered nails along with the teachers and volunteers all the way up to the point when plumbers, electricians and roofers took over.
When it was finished that fall, the auditorium was more beautiful than any castle we had known. We even loved the smell of fresh pine in the air.
1955 was the year we endured hard labor, but it was the year I remember the most.
Frebruary 8 , 2005