In a small classroom in a tiny South Korean village, two second-graders play on the floor while their classmates studiously read books. It is an unremarkable scene, except for one detail – the age gap between them is more than 50 years.
“Learning Korean letters is good, so I can read things around me … But I still don’t know how to deal with texting, not yet. I keep forgetting,” says the exasperated 72-year-old, Park Go-ee.
For the past two years, she has been attending Bangrim Primary School in the country’s north, along with grandmothers Park Kyung-soon, 65, and Jeon Il-ok, 78.
Nestled in the poor mountainous province of Gangwon, the school started enrolling elderly students in a bid to save it from closure. In its heyday, Bangrim Primary had almost 700 students. Today, there are only 22.
Small towns across South Korea are losing their young residents, as the country’s birthrate plummets and families move to the big cities in search of work.
“The grandmothers keep the school alive. I hope more grandmas join us,” says Park Go-ee.
She has a strong connection to the school. Her seven children all graduated from Bangrim Primary, and now her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jang Seo-hee, is a fellow pupil in the fourth grade down the hall.
‘In our tradition, men exist and women serve’
Every day, the grannies board the school bus and walk into school hand-in-hand with their younger classmates. They learn an easier syllabus, specially designed for them by the school.
Bangrim’s second grade teacher, Park Joon-mi, says she was excited to learn she would be taking their class but worried about how she would teach her elderly pupils.
“Of course they are much older than I am, but I am their teacher … So although I respect their age, that does not deter me from disciplining the grandmas,” she says.
Teaching the grandmothers takes patience, she adds, because they learn more slowly than their younger classmates.
For elderly women like Park Go-ee and Park Kyung-soon, it is their first chance at an education after a lifetime of illiteracy.
“In our tradition, men exist and women serve. Men are superior, women are inferior. Because of this tradition, our ancestors refused to send daughters to school,” explains Bangrim’s Director of Education, Sin Eun-sook.
As a young girl, Park Go-ee attended school for just two days before she returned home to find her mother’s face red from crying. Her grandmother had scolded her for sending a girl to school.
Park Go-ee was then sent to live with an aunt and when she was just 14, her relatives married her off.
Park Go-ee’s husband died young, leaving her to raise seven children alone. Her inability to read and write meant she lacked many basic life skills.
“I didn’t know how much I had in the bank,” she recalls. “So when I went to withdraw, I asked the counter clerk, ‘How much do I have left?’ and then I [took] her word for it.”
In one embarrassing incident, she sent her neighbour to the post office to courier a package of chillies. He came back and told her everyone in the post office burst out laughing when they saw how she had written her name on the box.
“He said, ‘What kind of stupid writing was that? You should have written Park Go-ee, but instead you wrote Pang Cucumber!’,” she says, chuckling.
Her son, Park Jou-yeon, is proud of his mother’s achievements but wishes there were some other means for the school to stay open.
“I don’t like them going to Bangrim school as a means for the school to survive. I want my mother’s objective in going to school to be learning to write and arithmetic,” he explains.
Park Go-ee’s classmate, Park Kyung-soon, also worked on her family’s farm. She says her husband was very controlling, stopping her from doing things she enjoyed, like going to church.
“He complained, saying things like, ‘God feeds you? Just focus on farming at home’,” says Park Kyung-soon.
Until I was 50 years old I dreamt of going to school with a lunchbox ... with a school bag on my back. I kept dreaming that dream
Getting an education was another dream she could never give up on.
“Until I was 50 years old I dreamt of going to school with a lunchbox … with a school bag on my back. I kept dreaming that dream.”
Now widowed and going to school regularly, Park Kyung-soon is making the most of her newfound skills.
“The good thing is, I don’t have to ask the bus driver where the bus is going to. Now I just read the sign and know where it goes. So it’s very convenient,” she says proudly.
But studying is hard work for Bangrim’s grandmas.
They have all contemplated giving up their studies, but their drive to learn has kept them in class. That and the wrath of their teacher.
“I’m scared of her if I don’t turn up,” admits Park Go-ee.
Keeping schools alive
The grandmothers have four more years before they graduate, but the school may not remain open that long.
If Bangrim does not recruit more students in the coming years, it will be forced to close and merge with another school in a nearby village. Many rural schools have already succumbed to this fate.
In the nearby village of Yaksu, the primary school closed in 2016.
Now the building has been turned into a centre for elderly residents with conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, who cannot be cared for full-time at home.
Here they receive physiotherapy in old classrooms and walk along the school corridor, holding onto newly-installed handrails.
It has been dubbed a “Granny School”, and there are several others like it in the province.
“The number of children have lessened and the number of elderly people is increasing,” says the centre’s head, Kim Mi-young. “I still feel like this is a school. My husband also graduated from this school … My father-in-law was a teacher at this school and my children graduated from this school.”
“In the daytime we take care of them … and once they go home in the evening, they stay with their family, just like school.”
If South Korea’s birthrate keeps declining and the trend of young people moving to cities continues, many more rural towns may have to rely on the elderly to keep their schools alive.