ANSAN, Gyeonggi Province – Lockers have not been emptied, boards not erased, class timetables not updated and the calendar not flipped since that fateful day of April 16, 2014.
This photo shows one of the Memory Classrooms dedicated to the student victims. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Ten classrooms in Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province have been left untouched in memory of 250 students who were killed or remain missing from the sinking of the ferry Sewol en route from Incheon to Jejudo Island. A total of 476 -- including 325 from Danwon on a field trip to the resort island -- were onboard when the ship plunged, left 304 dead or missing, and eventually divulged a gross incompetence in Korea’s disaster response and contingency planning.
But two years removed from one of Korea’s worst maritime disasters of all time, the “memory classrooms” have become a source of dispute as education authorities and school officials remain at odds with bereaved families of student victims over whether or not to preserve them.
Bereaved families of Sewol student victims at Danwon High School and citizens on Jan.12 march from the joint memorial for the victims in Ansan, Gyeong Province, to the school. (Yonhap)
The families adamantly say that the place should remain intact to ensure that the disaster would never be forgotten, while authorities hope to move on, citing the shortage of classrooms for new students.
The classrooms, located on second and third floors of the school, are simultaneously a shrine and a reminder of one of the country’s most shameful tragedies.
While the ship took well over two hours to submerge from when it initially started to list, lackluster rescue efforts coupled with moral hazard of the crew who fled the ship before any passengers resulted in the death of hundreds.
The memory classrooms stand to represent the vivacious lives and promises of a future the students never got to fulfill.
The “hall of fame” on the wall of classroom 2-1 -- which stands for room 1 of the second-year high schoolers -- showed that the students jokingly crowned their classmates champions in different categories, such as “champion of caring for friends, Yoo Mi-ji.” The champ beams back from the framed photo, flashing a beautiful smile.
A doodled message on Kim Shi-yeon’s desk in classroom 2-3 reads, “Si-yeon (heart) Jae-gwang. March.23,” hinting at puppy love between the teenagers.
Unlike many of his classmates, Kim Sun-woo’s desk did not have a pile of snacks, but were abundant with letters and notes from his friends.
The whiteboard in front of classroom 2-10 showed that the students had lab two days before the tragedy. A map of Seoul-based universities at the back marked out Dongguk University as a dream school for Kim Min-jung.
“Field trip (heart)(heart)” now written on the calendar of classroom 2-9 almost seemed like a cruel joke.
A class project on a locker of classroom 2-2 demonstrated that Heo Da-yun wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. She and five others from Danwon -- students Nam Hyeon-cheol, Park Yeong-in and Cho Eun-hwa along with teachers Goh Chang-suk and Yang Seung-jin -- remain unaccounted for as of Monday.
“Don’t!!! Mess with the calendar!!! Return September and October at once!!!” shouted a message on a calendar in 2-3, along with words of “Now we’re really high school seniors,” written in December, two months before they would go up a year.
A posthumous letter on Yoo Ye-eun’s desk showed that she loved musicals and wanted to be a singer. She was supposed to have watched “Cats” on April 30.
Yoo Kyung-geun, Ye-eun’s father and a spokesman for the bereaved families’ committee, refused to attend the graduation ceremony held last Tuesday for surviving 74 students -- one had transferred to another school -- on grounds that four students remain missing.
“I always imagined attending my daughter’s graduation, but I became a dad who is just envious of the participating parents,” Yoo said while delivering his congratulatory speech for graduates at a joint memorial for victims in Ansan.
“Now, I wish that you (surviving students) will lead your lives. Because you are the friends with whom my daughter shared her dreams, ones who shared her last moments, and ones who will remember my child for longer than I will.”
Conflict over preservation
Danwon High School and the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education initially planned an honorary graduation ceremony for the victims, but it was indefinitely put on hold upon their families’ refusal.
Victims’ families complained of losing trust in the government and school over their handling of the situation.
“They (school) did not contact us, and did not give us passes to the ceremony or anything,” said Lee Nam-seok, father of late Chang-hyeon. In a bid to protect the surviving students from unwanted public attention, the school held a closed-door ceremony.
The mother of a Danwon High School student who lost his life in the Sewol accident weeps in front of her son’s photo at a joint memorial in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
“We just want to have a graduation after all the students were brought out of the water. I am so saddened at the situation where we can no longer trust the Education Ministry, or the government in general,” he said.
Despite the slew of technical problems caused by preserving nearly a quarter of a school as a shrine, regrets and memory of the victims’ families hinders them from letting go.
“(My son) Chang-hyeon was obsessed with smartphones, and I used to tell him to wait until graduation. Then I would let him live life as he wishes. It pains me to think that he cannot lead such a life.”
The family committee has rejected the proposal by the GPOE to clear out the memory classrooms to create a separate memorial hall for the victims. The GPOE said they are continuing to hold talks to persuade the committee to accept the idea.
“It’s not something that can be conducted forcibly, so we are hoping that they (the committee) will come to accept our proposal,” said a GPOE official. He pointed out that with the new batch of students entering Danwon in March, the shortage of classrooms is no longer tolerable.
The official did not comment on the back-up plan if the parents ultimately refuse the plan. He also said that other students, their parents and teachers are opposing the preservation.
Some have said keeping a memorial hall in the school was creating negative repercussions on current students and the overall morale.
While there was a general consensus to preserve the classrooms after the accident, the prolonged situation and media attention slowly pushed many parents of attending students to turn against maintaining them. During the Tuesday graduation ceremony, Danwon students were seen trying to exit the school grounds via the front gates before stopping dead in their tracks at the sight of an army of reporters. All graduating students later exited through the back door.
A father of a Danwon student, who refused to be named, said roughly 70 to 80 percent of the parents are against preserving the classrooms.
But Yoo of the bereaved families’ committee argued that the memory classrooms should be preserved as a reminder of lessons taught by Sewol tragedy. He said the classrooms stand for more than just memories of the students.
A subsequent probe on the Sewol tragedy has revealed a corrupt network of connections, ineffective chain of command and inept administration as the main reasons the accident led to such a high fatality rate.
To the victims’ families, Sewol is an ongoing issue. They insist that the salvage operation and thorough investigation of the accident must be fully completed. A special investigative government-civilian committee for Sewol has also been established, although it had been embroiled in disputes ranging from accusation of being politically motivated to a leak of classified documents by insiders to the government and ruling Saenuri Party.
Yoo has suggested to the GPOE a plan where the classrooms will be separated from the rest of the school, and visitors can enter via a separate entrance.
“The classrooms stand for more than a tribute to victims. It symbolizes our hope that Korean education will open a new era after Sewol,” he said. “We are hoping such education will start at Danwon. I believe that the memory classrooms can play a role in education to stop such an accident from reoccurring.”
The families of surviving students of Sewol remained relatively quiet in the dispute, citing concerns that it may lead to misunderstanding between them and families of victim students.
Oh Ji-yeon, father of Yeon-ju who survived the tragedy, said it is imperative to put students first whatever the conclusion may be.
“My youngest daughter will start attending Danwon this year. Both sides have reasons behind their argument, but the students are ultimately the ones being penalized by all this conflict. And they don’t even get a say in this,” he said.
“I just hope it comes to an amicable ending. The students can’t study in the streets,” Oh said.
By Yoon Min-sik
A photo of Kim Seul-gi, one of the student victims is laid on her desk in her classroom at Danwon High School. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A photo of a student victim is hung on a box of gifts left at his desk. Below the photo is the message “Seongyun, I love you. I’ll protect you to the end.” (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A sign on the door of one of the Memory Classrooms with the message, “Please protect our classrooms.” (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A poster promoting a school bowling club is on the window of a Danwon High School classroom. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A memo “15~18. Field Trip. (Heart)” is written on a calendar in a Memory Classroom. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A childhood photo of Jeon Hyeon-woo is laid on his desk. The messages on the frame reads, “Hyeon-woo, I love you. Thank you for always being with me.” (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Whiteboard at a memory classroom has messages written by students before the Sewol sinking, and comments left by visitors. They include: “Emergency maintenance on school homepage,” “Erase the chalkboard,” “Do not skip remedial classes, after-school classes,” along with “I’m sorry for being a bad sister. I miss you,” “Come home class 8.” (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Birthdays of all students from class 3 of second-year Danwon School students are displayed in this class project. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A photo of Yoo Mi-ji, one of student victims, is laid on her desk. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Gifts left by visitors are laid on the desk of Cho Eun-hwa, one of the four students of Danwon High School who remains missing. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A message board wishes for the return of Heo Da-yun, a missing Danwon High School student. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
The message says, “Da-yun’s dream is to become a kindergarten teacher!” (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A photo of Heo Da-yun, who remains missing after the Sewol accident, is laid on her desk. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
This photo shows the desk of Nam Hyeon-cheol, who remains missing from the Sewol accident. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
A pile of gifts from visitors and letters are laid on the desk of Park Yeong-in, who remains missing from the Sewol accident. (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)