All good things have come to an end, even a ten-week semester that totaled 200 hours of Korean language classes. We all gather in the church—after all this is a Catholic school— and enjoy a short coaching on how to promote Sogang University’s language program (if someone compliments you on your Korean skills deny everything but don’t forget to mention where you learned it). The liminality of the situation is almost overshadowed by this nonchalance. But then the show begins.
Everybody graduates, but only the students who finished their 6th and final semester get a diploma. And when I say ‘get’, I am really saying that they walk on stage, shake hands with the director of the Korean Language Education Center (who was, by the way, hilariously unprepared, to say the least), possibly have a photo taken, and leave the stage.
This procedure, common to many graduation ceremonies all around the world, takes place while a picture and some “last words”, courtesy of the respective alumna, are projected on the wall above. And although I know nobody who walks by, it is the most moving part of the last day of summer term.
Like a triptych, this peculiar setting is more than the sum of its parts. For the glimpse of an eye the ghosts of students’ past, present, and future meet. To deliver this series of public reminiscences to private history in-the-making, this conveyor belt of memorable moments between the lines, both as smooth and as incisive as possible—this time-paradox lies at the heart of the art of graduating. Everything else is mere sentimentality.
The pictures were taken in the respective classroom, a space of shared history for the graduates and, in extend, for all of us—a veritable lieux de mémoire. While evoking those 200 hours of idle concentration, these images usually bear not much resemblance to the actual people climbing on stage. In contrast to the casual wear in class, most of them have dressed up for the live-event, some even wear a hanbok.
It is the gap between bygone everyday and extraordinary present that is celebrated here. Not by chance, most pictures are taken in front of a used blackboard: Once students, they have been turned into teaching material themselves, temporarily inscribed on the wall, if only by the soft beam of the power point projector.
People come and go. Strangers bearing strange names. Some Japanese and a few Western students, the majority Chinese women. I do not know them, never will. But I share this threshold, this moment in time where everything is over and everything seems possible at the same time.
Their messages to the audience, toned down to fit the skills of everyone, are mostly thanks and goodbye. The ubiquitous horizontal smilies anticipate text messages or, for that matter, facebook murals: future substitutes for past debates in broken Korean over cheap lunch. Some of them read like hommages to our first homework, answers to questions such as What do you like about Korea? Why did you choose Sogang University? and such.
At the end of days, it is always good to see that some things do not change.
PS: Now (about a month later) it has started all over again. More stairs to climb, a room with a view, and the nice ajumma selling waffles has disappeared, along with her booth. The coffee machine still keeps my coins, though.
— 18 Aug. 2010 (水)