South Korean grandmothers are getting a second chance at education thanks to birth rates plummeting in recent years. Last year, records showed less than one child per woman were being born, one of the lowest in the world.
As couples are migrating to bigger cities in search of better-paying jobs, rural areas are struggling to keep enrollment numbers up. Daegu Elementary is one such school. They used to average around 90 students but now struggle to keep 22. The district went as far as to canvass the local villages looking for even a single first grader to enroll this past year. They were unsuccessful. This is when the grandmothers stepped in.
Older female villagers were often kept out of school when they were young. Because of this, they never learned to read or write. Now eight women, aged 56-80, are coming forward to save their communities by enrolling. Without a school, new families wouldn’t want to live there at all.
Ms. Hwang, one of the grandmothers attending first grade, is thrilled at the opportunity. On her first day, she cried tears of joy. She said, “I couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me. Carrying a school bag has always been my dream.”
The older women can often be found smiling and laughing in the classroom. Ms. Hwang’s son said of the experience, “My mother has become a much happier person since she began going to school. Smiles hardly seem to leave her face.”
While this is a great opportunity for these women, learning is no easy task. The aging population struggles with memory, hand coordination, and enunciation. Many wake up before dawn to practice before they go to school, leading to eye fatigue later in the day. Even so, it’s worth it for the grandmothers.
Ms. Park, one of the eight students, believes learning is the most important thing she can do. She said, “My memory, hand, and tongue don’t work like I wish. But I am going to learn to write before I die. You don’t know how I feel when I go to a government office, they ask me to fill out a form and the only thing I know how to write is my name.”
The embarrassment Ms. Park faces is not new to women of the village, who have always felt they were considered less than. When they were young, their families had limited resources which were often focused on their sons’ education. The girls were expected to stay home and look after their younger siblings. Parents often scoffed at the idea of teaching their daughters to read.
Now the women have hopes and dreams. Ms. Hwang worked hard during the strawberry season, getting up at 4 a.m. to help her family bring in the harvest while also attending school. Now she wants to run for president of the village women’s society. She said, “People used to ask me to run, but I always declined. It’s a job for someone who can read and write.”
These grandmothers are living proof that age is truly just a number.