One Year Later: Remembering Sewol

I’ve been thinking about whether or not to post this entry for about a week now, especially because this was, and is, an incident that doesn’t directly affect me. That being said however, events between protesters (a lot of whom are family members of the deceased students), and police over the past few days have made me reconsider my decision to not post this. Not to mention the most recent tragedy in the Mediterranean. The grief from the Sewol ferry tragedy last year was felt by everyone in Korea, and is still being felt. The lack of accountability, the government’s failure to increase safety standards, and the latest actions toward protesters in Seoul ensure that this grief does not dissipate, that the families of the victims don’t find peace, and that the memories of the victims aren’t respected. Whether or not the Sewol incident directly affected me or not, these are things that everyone should care about, and they are things that I care about because they affect the wonderful people who welcomed me with open arms to a country that I have called home for the past two years.

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Today’s post is more serious in nature, and is not really a “throwback” because that’s too lighthearted a term for this remembrance. It’s also not a “live light”, because some days are too damn heavy to feel that lightness; it is, however, a reminder to practice living light, to love hard and wholly, and to appreciate what you have every damn day of your life, if for no other reason than that the kids I’m thinking about today, didn’t get to.

Today, I asked my kids at the start of class how they were doing, as I always do. Usually, I get answers of “I’m fine!”, “I’m great!”, “So-so teacher, I’m tired.” Today though, one student said “bad.” When I asked why, he said “Sewol.” The students who had heard him grew silent, and I just nodded my head because he’s right, today is a bad day. Today marks one year from Korea’s Sewol ferry tragedy that took the lives of 250 middle school students; they were the same age as students that I can’t help but think of as “my kids.”

After the school-wide moment of silence, after reading through the “Bedrooms of the Remembered” article that captures parents in their lost children’s rooms, after seeing pictures of family members visiting the site of the sinking and throwing their kids’ favourite snacks into the water, after trying to hide my extreme cry-face from my students and put on a happy one, after my amazing kids requested the Sewol victim remembrance song be played in class, and after hearing more than one student tell me they cried today, I have decided that while today may not be a bad day, it is a very sad one. I can’t pretend to imagine what the parents of the lost, but certainly not forgotten, Sewol victims are feeling, but I can remember the incredible grief that encompassed Korea – students, teachers, parents, strangers, foreigners and Koreans alike – after the disaster; I remember seeing the first pictures of the listing ferry while sitting at my desk and talking to my co-teacher, we both thought “well, this isn’t good but the passengers got off so it’s ok”. I remember seeing a later news broadcast where the hull is barely visible, the entire body of the ship beneath the water, and with the update that while many adults had been rescued, 250 kids were still stuck inside that ferry. For weeks that’s all my kids wanted to talk about, the teachers (myself included) were all upset, and when the death of those kids was confirmed,there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t devastated.

The most horrific part of watching the tragedy unfold though, was seeing the texts and kakao messages that the kids stuck inside the ferry were sending to their friends and family. At first, there were videos with laughter, and reassurances that help was coming; but then the apologies for regretted behaviour started being sent, and the unmentioned “I love yous”. Those texts made these kids real in a very big way, and those very real kids are remembered here every day. The most horrific thing after the incident was learning that those kids could have been saved, but that the rescue teams lost precious time deciding who would do what; that ferry stayed listing for a good day before crews were dispatched to rescue the passengers.

For months after the accident, installments and messages of loss, grief, and nationwide mourning were everywhere: hung on the side of highways, flying from school and bedroom windows, pinned on barristas’ t-shirts at coffee shops, broadcast on TV, and everywhere the tragedy was visible on the faces of people you passed in the street. A year later and installments can still be found near the Blue House in Seoul. When 250 children with bright futures, dreams of being artists and flight attendants, are taken too soon,and so needlessly, it affects everyone.

A month after the accident, I went to Seoul with some friends. At the end of our half-day DMZ tour, owe were dropped off in front of Seoul’s city hall; there was an installment of bright yellow ribbons, flowers, pictures, and posters on the lawn, and a HUGE queue of people waiting to pay their respects. Immediately knowing what everything was for, my and my friends’ moods became pretty somber, and walking through those installments wasn’t done with a dry eye. What I remember most though, are the tourists on the bus with us who had no idea what the installment was for, and who started talking loudly about the “festival” and all of the “pretty colours”. Even when they got off the bus and saw the pictures of the ferry and the red eyes, they weren’t deterred from their festive mood; they took out their cameras and started snapping pictures of Korea’s collective grief. I was furious. I felt like everybody should have been outraged at the tragedy, struck dumb by the actions of the crew, and enraged at the idea that an older man would abandon a group of kids in the ship cafeteria because he wanted to get off the boat, but that a 16 year-old boy would go back multiple times to save his friends, only to lose his own life.

The world should stop when something like this happens, but it doesn’t, and the awful reality is that things like this continue to happen. Innocent kids are still losing their lives, parents are still having to bury their children, and pockets of the world continue to mourn. And while this continues to happen, and while this particular grief is still fresh in Korea, tragedies like this do something else as well;  they make you think, and they make you damn well appreciate what you have. While I’ve always loved the kids I teach, it wasn’t until I imagined them not coming back from their own school trip that I realised I wouldn’t trade even the most badly behaved ones for anything in the world.

I complain, a lot, about how my kids can sometimes drive me nuts, how all middle school kids go through a “terrible grade twos” phase where respect kind of goes out the window…and if you’re an ESL middle school teacher in Korea, you know exactly what I’m talking about. That being said though, I’m also more aware of how unique each one of these kids is, and how important they are. I’m reminded now, and everyday, that every, single one of them has the potential to be something great, and that it’s our job (not just the teachers and parents, but every adult they meet) to make them realise that they have that potential too.

Like my kid said, today is a sad, bad day, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve all lost (because the world truly has lost something wonderful in this tragedy), and to appreciate more the things and the people we do have. It’s an opportunity to love everyone a little more, to hug someone a little tighter, and to show everyone a little more kindness. It’s an opportunity to understand your students a little better, and to maybe yell a little less.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about “living light”, and I think it’s especially important on the heavy days, on the days that weigh us down and dull our spirits, to remember what that means, and to work, everyday, at not just being light in our own lives, but in bringing lightness to others as well. Life is too damn short, and our potential too damn high, to waste moments on unnecessary heaviness that we create in our minds. Today, and every day – but especially today – I encourage you to bring a little light to someone’s life, because if the world isn’t going to stop when the bad things happen, then it needs more people who will stop to bring a little love to those who simply want to get off the merry-go-round. We really are in this together, and we should stop acting like we aren’t.

I won’t say anything on the actions of the police, but for more information about recent events surrounding the 1 year anniversary of the sinking, and the loss of nearly 300 students on a school trip, you can click the links under the pictures below.

Sewol March

Parents March Courtesy of Japan Times

Seoul

Courtesy of Japan Times

Sewol Mourners

Sewol Mourners
Courtesy of Sunday Times

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