A school that ran out of children enrolled illiterate grandmothers to save it from closing down. Grandmothers aged 56-80 are thrilled to learn how to read and write for the first time.
As kids, we can all attest to waking up from bed groggily at the crack of dawn and getting dressed for school with as little enthusiasm as possible. But for these grandmothers, they couldn't be more thrilled to arrive at school to learn how to read and write, basic educational tools, that we often take for granted. According to The New York Times, a school in the Gangjin county of South Korea has taken in grandmothers who wanted to learn how to read and write in their first-grade class.
With the birthrates in South Korea plummeting in recent years, the once crowded rural school that was filled with students, Daegu Elementary, now has a handful of them. Therefore, they had to find a way to keep the school running, and turned towards the elderly who were illiterate, and dreamed of achieving the valuable gift of education.
In rural counties largely affected by the fall in birthrate, babies have become a rare sight as more and more young couples move to the big cities in search of better-paying jobs. As a result of which, the school is now left with only 22 students in total with one kid each in its fourth- and fifth-grade classes. At one point in time, the school boasted of 90 students in each grade. Left with no option, the school decided to look for more children to enroll and were shocked by what they discovered. "We went around villages looking for just one precious kid to enroll as a first-grader," said the principal, Lee Ju-young to The New York Times. "There was none."
Desperate to keep the school alive, Ju-young and local residents came up with the idea of enrolling older villagers who were interested in pursuing an education. The local education office happily approved the idea. 70-year-old Hwang Wol-geum was one of the eight women between the ages of 56 to 80 to join the school in 2019, prompting four others to enroll the following year.
Wol-geum and her two elderly classmates started school, and like every kid on their first day, Wol-geum cried, but they were tears of happiness. The grandmother noted that this was a dream come true for her, and couldn't believe that it was a reality. "I couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me. Carrying a school bag has always been my dream." She now travels in the same yellow bus with her grandchildren: one is a kindergartner, another a third-grader, and the other a fifth grader.
Unable to pursue education as a kid, she remembers weeping and hiding behind trees as she watched her friends walk to school decades ago. While others learned to read and write, Wol-geum stayed home looking after her younger siblings and doing household chores. Though as an adult, she sent all her six kids to school and college. Hwang regretted not being able to write letters to her kids like other mothers. "Writing letters to my children, that’s what I dreamed of the most," Wol-geum said.
Answering her prayers, the local school opened its doors to her and others who shared the same goal. Today, Wol-geum and the two other grandmothers share the two-story seaside campus of Daegu Elementary with the first-graders.
What a great idea. Keep the school alive and keep the old ppl mind active. Win win all round— Spuds (@jspororo) November 15, 2019
Their 24-year-old teacher Jo Yoon-Jeong acknowledges their hard work and steadfast determination to learn and educate themselves. Between writing and chanting 14 consonants and 10 vowels of the Korean alphabet, and to lighten the mood, Yoon-Jeong also plays an upbeat song, "There Is Nothing Wrong With My Age!" making the grandmothers dance and giggle. "School is so much fun," said Wol-geum. Her son agreed noting that the school has made his mother more joyful than ever. "My mother has become a much happier person since she began going to school. Smiles hardly seem to leave her face," he stated.
Another classmate of Wol-geum is 75-year-old Park Jong-sim, a champion octopus catcher in her village. However, she is worried that she is falling back in school. "My memory, hand, and tongue don’t work as I wish," admitted Jong-sim. However, she has no plans of giving up. "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." Similarly, Wol-geum also recalled the difficulties and humiliation she faced due to her illiteracy. She couldn't post packages as she did not know how to write addresses. She also remembered the time when she and her husband visited Seoul and was separated from her husband in a busy subway. Unable to read the signboards, she stood around helplessly till a kind stranger helped her find her way.
"They are eager to learn," said Yoon-Jeong, about her first-grade students. "They are probably the only students here asking for more homework."
However, unlike other classrooms, the first graders have a sofa and a heated mattress to warm themselves during their breaks, and the elderly women make use of it. They also have a little basket of candies for the second graders next door, who drop in from time to time.
During the busy strawberry harvesting season, Wol-geum wakes up early to pitch in with her family before heading off to school. As for her future, the go-getter grandmother, has her plans chalked out."I am going to run for president of the village women’s society. People used to ask me to run, but I always declined. It’s a job for someone who can read and write," she said.