By Oh Young-jin
I was watching television in the living room a bit past noon Saturday when my first son, who is a middle school freshman, came back from school.
Upon seeing me, he bowed his head and said hello to me before going into his room. I noticed the absence of usual cheerfulness on his face and wondered if he had a bad day but decided not to ask him about it.
An hour later, I sat at the dining table for lunch with him as well as my wife and my second son.
It was my second son who spoke of what bothered his elder son.
``Dad, hyong (elder brother in Korean) has improved his average score by one point in the end of term exams but still lost to that girl,’’ said my second son, who is my informant about home affairs.
``You lost to the girl again,’’ I teased him. But he blushed and spoke in a serious tone. ``I had a better test score than she but I was deducted a couple points in the area of general attitudes,’’ he said.
I thought it would be better to stop teasing him.
``It is not the end of the world and you can do better next time,’’ I told him in consolation.
Although I am not sure whether my fatherly advice did magic on him, he apparently felt better after lunch, playing his favorite computer game with his younger brother.
Looking at his happy face, I said to myself, ``Kids.’’
However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that it might not be just a kid’s game that upset my son.
A few hours later after lunch, I went to a neighborhood hakwon (private learning institute) together with my wife to attend a briefing about its curriculum for middle and high school students during the forthcoming winter vacation.
I arrived about 10 minutes earlier than the briefing was scheduled to start and found half of about 100 seats unoccupied in the classroom.
I felt proud of being a parent so attentive to the needs of my son. But as the briefing time approached, more people came in and took their seats. By the time an instructor took the podium for the briefing, some latecomers had to stand along the wall.
It was the instructor that first took me by surprise.
He showed three books written in English as their reading material for middle school sophomores and seniors. The first one was George Owell’s Animal Farm, the second an anthology of essays, which I know is being used for an supplementary material for college freshmen and –women who major in English literature, and the third one of recent nonfiction books that made it to the New York Times bestsellers list.
I first felt pessimistic about whether the students, who learn English as second language, can read and understand the contents of these books.
My pessimism turned into a sense of incredulity, when the instructor said that the students not only understand the books and write post-reading essays. Some of his students turn in a perfect score in TOEIC tests.
I felt somewhat piqued at their excellent ability, imagining how well I, a student of English for 30 years, would do in the same tests.
My train of thoughts was interrupted, when the instructor said that he would discipline students with corporal punishment. I thought that corporal punishment is a thing of the past even in school.
The parents around me, my wife included, oohed and aahed in agreement with whatever that young instructor said, many of them jotting down his talking points.
On our way back home in the car, I had an argument with my wife. My wife told me of the need to send my son to that private institute and how much it costs to attend the two-month course. I did quick math in my mind and concluded that the fee amounts to half my monthly wage.
I told my wife that the instructor didn’t look trustworthy. I also pointed out the futility of such an expensive course for the students of my son’s age and resorted to my laissez faire philosophy about dealing with my kids.
My wife and I settled for a draw in our shouting contest but I wasn’t sure whether I myself was convinced of my argument, remembering the earnest faces of parents in that briefing and the disappointment on my son’s face.