Taking the helm

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Taking the helm

Last Thursday, my heart was pounding from morning till late afternoon. I had nothing special going on, and I didn’t drink too much coffee. So why did I feel so tense?

It was because of the College Scholastic Ability Test. No one I know took the exam, but I could empathize with the nervous feelings of so many students and their parents. As I saw the happy - or unhappy - faces of the students leaving the exam on TV, I told myself, as if I was talking to them, “Well done. You’ve done great.”

Whether they did well or not, the exam is over now. The children will probably feel great for reaching the end of a long journey, but they could also feel empty. They may wonder if this was why they spent their teenage years without enough sleep or play time. If their test scores were not as high as anticipated, they will feel bitter. I totally understand that feeling.

I remember my college admission test. It was over 30 years ago, but I still vividly recall it as if it were yesterday. I failed to pass the test for one of the top schools, although many people had assured that I would definitely succeed.

Because of my family’s situation, I could not even dream of spending another year preparing for another exam. I worked many part-time jobs to survive and could not give up on the dream of going to college.

“I cannot delay going to college any longer,” I wrote in my diary. “I will go next year, no matter what.”

I was 24 years old and only seven months were left before the college entrance exam. They were a death struggle. I did not have enough time for study, but I could not quit any of my part-time jobs because I had to earn the money to pay for my living expenses and hagwon, or private academy, fees. I had no choice but to cut down on my sleep. I slept only two to three hours a day. Life was hard at the time.

During work, I studied secretly and got yelled at by my boss. I was shouted at again for dozing off. I pretended that I was OK because my family would worry otherwise, but as the test-date approached, I felt very sick as my head spun quickly or hurt so much.

But I had fun studying, because I truly wanted to do it. I was like a sponge. I absorbed everything I learned from textbooks and hagwon lectures. As long as I had a space to open my book - a packed bus during the rush hour, the D.J. booth in the music cafe where I worked as a part-time job and the kitchen at my house, the only place where the light can be turned on all night long - became my study room. I spent every second studying and felt proud of my hard work.

The seven months during which I poured all I had into studying without reservation, was the most passionate period of my life.

Could I have done it only because my mother or my loving teacher from senior year told me to do so? I can say for sure that I could not have. I could do it because I made the choice myself. That was why I did the best I could have. Because I made the decision, I could not complain or blame others. The process and the outcome were my choice and I was solely responsible for the end result.

Separately from the result, the process taught me so many things. I learned that I am a passionate person who can devote myself to something if I am determined to do it. I learned that something worth doing deserves a great amount of work. I learned that something may seem impossible, but that once you are determined to do it, you have the power to push forward.

Since then, whenever I face a challenge, I am empowered to feel that I can do anything, just like I did during those seven months. With that determination, I have overcome so many challenges.

The biggest lesson, however, was that I was the captain of my own ship. Although the seas were dark and rough, I had to set a course and sail forward, although it was fearful. I was able to start the maiden voyage of my vessel as a captain, and everything I experienced during that course became mine.

The young students who just ended the college entrance exam are now facing the moment that is holding the helm of their ships. There is no time to spare anymore. All of the people who are facing various tests in their lives must ask themselves whether or not that is their choice and whether they are ready to enjoy the process and take full responsibility for the outcome.

If you have asked your parents or teachers to hold the helm of the ship that guides your life until now, you have to get it back under your control. That doesn’t mean you can’t live your life the way you want. It means you have to know who you are, where you want to go and which direction you will need to take right at this point. If you are holding the helm, you are the captain of your ship. And you will have the power and courage to overcome the hardship of the rough seas.

Are you ready to be the captain of your ship? Bon Voyage!

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 15, Page 29

The author is a relief worker and a visiting professor of Ewha Womans University.

by Han Bi-ya

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