GRADE-A PANICYou might think that a high school kid whose parents give him his own apartment and spend thousand of dollars per month to make sure he'll be a success in life would be happy as could be. But don't tell that to Lee Sang-gyun, 18, who's finishing his final year of high school. "The last 12 years of my life have been one long, tedious and tiring journey of studying for next Wednesday," he said.
Seated in his room, surrounded by hundreds of study reference books, Sang-gyun is not the picture of rosy, carefree youth. Rather, you might take him for a man in his late 20s, already hardened by every kind of challenge that life can pose. Sang-gyun, to fulfill his goal of entering an elite university and justify enormous expenditures of time, effort and cash, will on Wednesday take the once-yearly College Scholastic Ability Test, called suneung in Korean, along with more than 730,000 other third-year high school students. The pressure on these examinees is overwhelming － recently a girl in South Gyeongsang province who was preparing for the test couldn't bear it any longer and took her own life by swallowing poison. "Well, that happens," Sang-gyun said matter-of-factly. "It's not something totally new. I'm really worried too; what if I suddenly catch a cold that day?"
As judgment day nears, Sang-gyun is speaking and eating less and is having trouble falling asleep at night, according to his mother, Lee Jeong-in. She is particularly worried, she says, because her son has lost more than five kilograms over the last three weeks. A photographer was not allowed to take pictures of the teen as he studied. Mrs. Lee felt the distraction might bring bad luck or make Sang-gyun a little overconfident. "He's super-sensitive right now," said Sang-gyun's mother. "All he should do right now is think about and live for the test, which will determine the rest of his life."
The rest of Sang-gyun's family － his father, Lee Sang-woo and 12-year-old sister, Sang-ah － are on high alert as the test approaches. The family is extra careful to be calm and quiet around the boy and, especially, to never disturb him when he's studying. Nevertheless, Sang-gyun is having a hard time. "Obviously I have become more uneasy and tense," he said with a bitter smile. "I feel like a psychopath." That condition has a name in Korea: gosambyeong, or a third-year high schooler's syndrome, characterized by stress-induced lethargy and, in extreme cases, nervous breakdowns.
Last fall Mrs. Lee set up a special three-pronged study program for her son. First she rented for him a new apartment a few blocks away from the family home in Sanggye-dong, northeast Seoul, so he would always have a quiet place to study. Second, she began fixing him a special homemade tonic every day, a concoction containing seven traditional medicinal herbs reputed to energize someone mentally and physically. Third, she lined up the top private tutors in town, sparing no expense, to help her son in English, math, physics and geology.
Sang-gyun enclosed himself in the new apartment last December. His study chamber has the added advantage of being a few minutes closer to his high school. His mother unfailingly pops in at 6:30 every weekday morning to make him breakfast and tidy up the apartment. Sang-gyun gets home from school at about 5 in the afternoon, and then it's time for his private tutoring to begin. Usually the teenager has two private lessons nightly of two hours each. But a visit to his apartment a few Sundays ago, with the permission of his mother, found him subjected to an all-day-long stretch of private lessons.
All that studying may be counterproductive, for it seems too much for a mortal being to manage. "The funny thing is," Sang-gyun confided during a study break when his mother went out to mix up his tonic, "I can't concentrate on my classes at school. My tutors give me so many assignments that I end up doing my private English class homework during my math class at school. And that's when I can stay awake." That fatigue tells during the private lessons; his tutors often let him step out and go splash water in his face to revive himself.
If Mrs. Lee were fully aware that her son lives constantly on the verge of unconsciousness, she'd probably be displeased, considering how much money she spends on him. Every month she pays about 8 million won ($6,200) to his tutors. Also, she forgoes the 30 million won one-time deposit she would receive from a tenant for the apartment her son is using. On top of that, to cover the spiritual bases, she visits a Buddhist temple regularly to carry out a 1,000-bow program, which is typically prescribed by Buddhist priests to ensure good test-taking fortunes. "I pray that he'll be in top form on test day and he'll get a score high enough to get him to the sky," she said. "Sky" is an acronym for Korea's three top universities: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.
Sang-gyun will take the exam at a nearby girl's middle school. It will last from 8:40 a.m. to 5 p.m. The test has four parts and a perfect score is 400 points. The order of the exam is: Korean language, worth 120 points; mathematics, 80; social and natural sciences, 120; foreign languages, 80. The weather on the test day is frequently bitter cold. Thus, Mrs. Lee has already laid out for Sang-gyun an overcoat, scarf and fur gloves. Sang-gyun said he will go to bed early the night before the test, but there's no telling whether he'll be able to fall asleep.
"After the test," Sang-gyun said, "I'm gonna sleep for 24 hours, then I'm gonna play like mad."
Sang-gyun's father is not as hell-bent on test success as his wife is. The other day, when Sang-gyun's father stopped by the teen's apartment to pick up his wife, he told the teen, "Don't worry so much. If you don't do well, you can always go and study in the United States."
Not pausing for a moment, Mrs. Lee said, "What kind of tutors would we need for that?"
by Chun Su-jin