Teacher, students share memories after 20 years

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Teacher, students share memories after 20 years


Left: Lee Choon-won, principal of Janggok High School in Siheung, Gyeonggi, walks around the school grounds with students on May 12. Right: A sample of letters from Lee’s old students, one of which reads, “I used to call you ‘I-cheon Won’ [2,000 won in Korean] and I feel really bad about it. I apologize deeply.” [KIM CHOON-SIK]

The 54-year-old principal of Janggok High School in Siheung, Gyeonggi, looking out from his office window, couldn’t take his eyes off several people entering the school’s front door. These people seemed much too old to be high school students.

To the principal, however, regardless of how much they have aged, they were his same precious pupils.

Since 1995, when he worked as a physical education teacher at Bumyung Middle School in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, the principal, Lee Choon-won, has been collecting letters from his students.

He even purchased a 750,000 won ($640) video camera with which to film them. In the videos, the students delivered messages to their teachers and future selves, 20 years later.

According to Lee, he told his students that he would find them after 20 years via television commercials, and that they should find him and pick up the letters and video clips. The students promised to do so.

Lee, even after transferring to Hamhyun High School in 1999, continued to record his students and collect letters from them until 2000. During that time, he gathered videos and letters from about 1,500 students.

At some point, he says, these videos and letters became his most cherished belongings. He added that when he moves to a new home, he packs these items up before anything else.

“At the time I was teaching, it was customary for schools not to designate teachers who taught art, music and physical education as homeroom teachers,” Lee said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on May 2. “So I barely had a class of my own, and whenever the students left school at the end of the year, I felt very empty.

“I thought that if I didn’t try hard, it would be difficult for me to become involved with the students, so I started collecting videos and letters to leave memories of my students behind.”

There were hints of the naivete and innocence typical of teenagers in some of the videos and letters Lee collected from students.

In one letter, a student apologized for calling him “2,000 won” in Korean, a nickname the principal acquired from his students because the sound of his name resembles that term.

“Although I have to study for my high school exam,” read another letter, “all I can think about are my looks and designer brands.”

There were even students brave enough to point out the flaws of their teacher. “I think the speeches you deliver are too lengthy and subjective,” declared one student.

When asked why he told his students to come back after 20 years, Lee answered, “I wanted to guide the students even after they graduated, instead of neglecting them after I finished teaching them. You can think of it as an after-service for students.”

In 2014, in a television program, Lee mentioned it was finally about time for the students he had taught in 1996 to come and visit him, and about 100 of them actually did. Not only that, the students promised to throw a party with their family members for the principal after he retires.

Lee, and the students he taught who were in the 11th grade at Bumyung Middle School in 1997, promised to reunite in 2016. Those students, who were 14 years old when they were studying in school back then, are 34 years old today, the age Lee was in 1997.

“I want to have a cup of makgeolli [rice wine] with my students,” said Lee with a proud smile.

The students currently attending Janggok High School have helped the principal reunite with his former pupils. The 11th graders from the high school opened up an online cafe called “Aedle” to find the students that Lee had taught in the past. They scanned the letters collected by Lee and uploaded them to a website in order to reach their authors.

One of Korea’s major conglomerates, SK Telecom, has also stepped in to lend the principal a hand. The company introduced Lee and his project to a campaign that normally encourages people to express their unspoken thoughts or feelings to loved ones, and it, in turn, helped him get in touch with his former students.

Lee will continue to open the time capsule consisting of the former students’ videos and letters. In 2017, for instance, he hopes to meet with Bumyung Middle School’s class of 1999.

But Lee, concerned about students who might be too hesitant to meet with him because they feel they are socially and economically behind, said, “Every teacher, including myself, is worried that their students might be down on their luck.

But wherever you fall, I’ll be there, so don’t worry about anything and just come to me. I love you.”

BY CHAE YOON-KYUNG AND SHIN SOO-YEON [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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