The English lesson I drafted on that day — with my bowl of overripe strawberries — was about the Sewol ferry incident. The Sewol passenger ferry sank off the coast of Jindo Island back in 2014, and along with it, 295 passengers who never made it out of the ocean. 9 are still missing. Many of those who died were high school students who were on a school trip. When the ship began sinking, the captain told passengers to remain in their own rooms for their own safety, while he and other crew members save their own life. By the time folks realized how serious the situation was, the water had filled the inside of the ship, and it was too late to exit. It was a mass killing. To this day, no one really knows why the ship sank or why it made such a steep turn. No one knows what the ex-President and her team were doing for a chunk of 7 hours that day, instead of responding to the crisis. No one knows the clear reason why the rescue team did not immediately enter to save the passengers, and instead idled outside the ship as passengers took their last breaths.
The incident threw the nation into a state of mourning and confusion. Families gathered at the port and the Jindo sports stadium, near the site of the sinking to wait for the passengers to be rescued. Hours passed, and one by one, the names of victims were called as bodies were carted in to be identified by their families. “It was sad. Terrible. Horrible,” said one of the students I teach. We had just learned about emotion words, and he pulled out all the words he could remember. He had actually been there on the first few days of the incident, as a volunteer to provide technical support to families of the victims and the press. He works at a telecommunications company and had just moved down south for work, leaving his own family behind in Seoul. The Sewol ferry crashed within his first year there. “It made me think of my own children. It is terrible to see your own child pass away.”
In another class, two students told me that they worked for a shipping company and had heard about the news when they were at work. “At first, the news told us that all of the people had been saved.” “It was false news,” the other added. “The news had lied. Almost all of them died.” When I asked them about why they thought the ship sank, they talked about the ship itself. “We work with cargo ships. They are much bigger than the Sewol. The Sewol is a passenger ferry, very little, and it had too much cargo. Material for the U.S. navy base in Jeju. I heard it was not fixed correctly, and no one checked the gross weight.” They said that regulations were too lax. That rules exist, but were never enforced properly.
It took 1072 days for the ship to be pulled out of the ocean for investigation. The actual salvaging of this ship took a mere day, and they are now in the process of pulling the ship to the Mokpo port. The families of victims have been calling for a proper investigation since its sinking back on April 16, 2014. “Why do you think the salvaging was continuously delayed?” I asked. “Because she was still the President,” replied a student, not missing a beat. The ship was decided to be pulled out two weeks after ex-President Park was impeached.
The day of the salvaging, one of the top searches on the Korean portal sites was “cost of salvaging the Sewol.” “I saw that,” a student piped in. She is usually quiet and hesitant to speak in class, but she spoke clearly with a lot of intention. I remember leaning over to listen. “That is why we pay taxes. For the government to do things like this. We have to salvage the ship to find the truth. And to restore trust in our nation. We have to know that the country takes care of our own people.”
Something about this lesson felt different than others I had taught. I was able to see the ways that their thoughts and experiences came together, in ways that usual English lessons do not allow. To see the ways that all these different students, from completely separate parts of the city and leading their own lives came together to weave a common narrative — it was powerful to me. The stories they shared built upon each other, collide with others’ ideas, and opened up space for more emotional stories. And it made me realize that whatever I do in the future, I need to keep teaching and learning.