Public, Private, or Somewhere in Between

  • onApril 4, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byJeong Yi Hyun

March 2017. My daughter just started elementary school. The school is a five-minute walk from our home. This is her first public school, which means she’s now assimilated into the Korean public education system. Not that she never attended school before age six. She received four years of early childhood education, starting from when she was two. She went to a private nursery for two years, then a private kindergarten for another two. Of course, I had to pay a considerable amount every month. Did I choose a private school because I didn’t trust the Korean public education system? No, that wasn’t it.

I applied to a public nursery when my daughter turned one. People asked me why I was so late. All the reputable places had a backlog of applications. I waited for them to contact me until she turned two, but the call never came. In the meantime, I had to work on my writing.

While I worked, I entrusted my daughter to a babysitter. The situation worsened after my second child was born. Left with no choice, I enrolled my daughter in a private nursery. The curriculum included daily Korean and counting classes, and twice-a-week English lessons. She learned Korean and picked up simple English words and greetings.

A more full-fledged curriculum awaited her at the private kindergarten where she enrolled at four. I visited the kindergarten one day when parents were invited to class and discovered the classroom walls were plastered with letters the children had written to their parents. I was impressed by the precise handwriting of the children who were not yet even five. The spelling was perfect and the sentences were simple yet elegant. The headmaster said this was all thanks to “education.” I wasn’t sure how to respond.

The elementary school my daughter goes to now was built thirty years ago. The school hall I entered for the first time at the entrance ceremony bore the traces of time. At the briefing session, the vice principal asked us to take out our smartphones. He wanted us to download an app right there. He told us we could check school announcements, daily menus, and other news in real time. And we really could. On the first day of school, close to noon, a photo popped up on my smartphone’s screen: a tray laden with rice, soup, and neatly arranged side dishes and fruits. The children were having lunch. It was a free school meal.

Education is compulsory in Korea from elementary to middle school. Children of that age have the right to equal and free education and educational services, including meals. I’m slowly learning why this is a given and something to be protected.

Your ego as a parent and as a writer is naturally different. What’s certain is that I’ll study this educational system inside out from the perspective of a parent. I’m curious how this changing perspective will affect my writing. 


by Jeong Yi Hyun

Author's Profile

Jeong Yi Hyun has authored four novels, four short story collections, and three essay collections. Her first novel, Sweet City of Mine (2006) was adapted into the TV series My Sweet Seoul. Her novel Foundation of Love: A Couple’s Story (2013) was part of a two-volume series exploring issues of love, marriage, and family, with Alain de Botton writing the second part.