Like many teachers around the world, my high school teachers were knowledgeable and hard working, and they knew how to get students into top universities. And throughout my three years in high school, I learned so many valuable things that would help me well into the future. But even though I filled my brain with a wealth of information, I kept feeling empty as the time passed, like something was missing.
My high school was one of the few schools in Korea that specialized in English and other foreign language studies. Because getting good grades was one of the most important things for Korean high school students, especially students at my school, we were pressured to compete, and it was much more stressful for those who lived in boarding schools, such as myself, where you had to share a living space with others. In our school, we also had strict time limits in the dormitory, so we ended up going to the toilet or using a flashlight in the wardrobe to study and complete our assignments.
As a result of our strict, competitive school environment, by the time we were in our last year of high school, many students became very sharply competitive with each other, even with their best friends, particularly when preparing for the national college entrance exam. I remember my friends not talking to each other for weeks after discussing and comparing their test scores. But I did not care about others’ scores because I was too busy with my own work. Everything, except for my studies, felt like a waste of time, and this included small chats and casual walks around our campus.
After the trial examination in April, we took the practice test every month to prepare for the national college entrance exam, which was to take place in November. One day, a few of my friends and I were planning to have a quick dinner before spending more time in the study hall. When we were walking to the school market to buy instant noodles, we ran into the school’s career counselor. He was smiling as usual when he greeted us on the way to the store. We greeted him back, but not cheerfully like we normally would. We were all too tired from the test and too stressed out about the grades to even say a happy “hello.” Then the career counselor asked us a very surprising question—but let me return to that a little later.
At the boarding school, students were strictly prohibited from going outside during the weekdays. Only on Fridays after classes could they choose to go home (and come back on Sunday evenings) or stay in school. Because the trial exams were always administered on Thursdays, we could not have been more surprised when the counselor asked us, “Would you all like to go on a little trip outside the school right now?” We were all tempted to say “no” because of the tests, but no one did. Maybe on the inside we did want a break from the tests, the grades, and the pressure.
The counselor ended up driving us to a place I had never before seen nor visited. While we were driving through the quiet road, we noticed how beautiful the cherry blossoms were, how bright the sky was, and how nice it was to just talk about anything and everything with each other. Afterward, we went to a random restaurant, eating whatever food we wanted. We felt so free and happy just having each other and talking about our lives—not about school, not about tests, but about ourselves.
I may not remember all the details from that day, such as where we had gone to eat or where we had driven to see the cherry blossoms, but I do remember the feeling of joy. For once, I did not feel miserable or shameful, just happy. It was then that I learned to value every little moment in my life and to relish it. From those three hard years in high school, I believe that lesson, to savor every single moment, is the best lesson I learned.