The hallways in Kang Shin Middle School are colder than the outside. The doors to the school are left propped open, and without the aid of direct sunlight, you are expected to wear a coat to and from class while outside the sanctuary of the glowing teacher’s room.
Walking back from class on Tuesday, through the stark chill of the hall, I tighten my arms around myself in the pockets of my coat. I walk hunched through the middle of the hallway, cleaving herds of Korean students like a torch in the fog. The reactions are always the same. Some see me coming and eagerly rack their minds for a clever greeting. Most play it safe and stick with, “Hello.” But there’s always a reaction.
It’s shortly after 2 when my cheeks have fully reddened again, and I’m at my desk awaiting the start of the next period, which I have off. A group of 4 or 5 teachers has gathered near my desk, speaking in fast whispers. At first I think nothing of it, and I can’t understand their Korean anyway. Then, heads start to turn in their direction. My head co-teacher, who sits next to me, suddenly turns my way.
“Have you checked the news?”
That’s it. That’s all the information I received. Thirty minutes later, through the internet, I piece together what has happened and what it means, and by the time I look up from the screen, the group of teachers has dissipated. The secretary making copies gives me a quick smile, her hand keeping pressure on the book she is xeroxing. The teacher’s room is quiet again with the next period fully underway, and the ticking of clicking mice from teachers with the period free is the only noise.
I stand up to survey the room. For a minute or two, I just stand with my hands on my hips. I quietly walk to the clear glass doors of the entrance. No students in the hall. No shouting or screaming. Children listening to teachers. Math, sciences, humanities.
My pace is quick walking home. I punch in the code to enter my building. Standing at the elevator is a resident of my complex I’ve never seen before.
“Did you hear about the attacks.”
I let out a load of air. “In a way.”
“They say we’re under attack.”
“I just know what I read.”
“How worried are you?”
Ding. The elevator glides open and she steps on. “See ya.”
The next two days are spent answering her last question. On Thursday, I decide to make North Korea the subject of the class I teach to the English teachers, thinking now is my chance.
I start out with some general questions. One of the older teachers is a wealth of knowledge. “My grandparents lived through the Japanese occupation and the end of World War 2. And they lived through the war and the separating of the country. They have family in the North. The North Korean people are Korean too, and they are family.”
I recheck the question on my paper and run my hand through my hair. Another teacher speaks up. “In elementary school, we were told that communism is evil and capitalism is good. One of my books showed North Koreans as wolves. In university, though, I changed my mind about North Korea and thought we should try to help them. Now, I have changed back. I just think they are evil.”
“What about students now? What do they learn about North Korea in history class?”
“The focus now is mainly on reunification. They don’t talk about communism and capitalism anymore.”
After a long discussion, and with time dwindling, I straighten my papers and adjust my shirt. I clear my throat. “But no one seems that concerned with what happened on Tuesday.”
There is a pause, and some of the teachers cast a wry smile. The sage of the group speaks again. “I have lived with North Korea my whole life. This sort of thing happens every year. We are not worried.”
The last comment hangs in my ear as I lock up the room and the English teachers parade out.
I walk back through the halls with one of my co-teachers, and suddenly, as we turn the corner near the main office, we see a police officer standing against one of the walls. Seeing my reaction, my co-teacher explains. “Some of the students have been hitting their classmates. He’s been called in for a meeting with the students to scare them. It happens a lot.” We walk past him, and as I’m about to leave the school for the day, I turn back and catch a final glimpse of the uniformed policeman. He has his cellphone out and his fingers are working quickly on the keyboard. A smile creeps across his face and it evolves into a quiet laugh.
I turn back around and walk through the propped-open doors, closing them behind me.