Last week, my principal retired. In honour of the occasion, a celebratory lunch was planned for the last day of school. The lunch was being held at a ritzy wedding hall downtown, and so I dusted off my best dress and tried to hide my normal sweaty glow with a little make-up. I needn’t have bothered. I arrived at school to find people dressed in everything from formal business suits to gym clothes. (And I sweat off most of my make-up on the walk to school.)
School ended at 11am, and the halls, playground and parking lot were heaving with parents, children, and the children’s belongings (books, pencil cases, geometry sets, indoor shoes, stickers, pretty pebbles, and other assorted shiny things that children and magpies are so fond of). I didn’t understand why they needed to take everything home; it was only the end of the first semester. When school resumed in September, the kids would be in the same desks in the same classrooms with the same teachers. It was a mystery.
Another mystery was the fact that we had been told to be at the wedding hall by 11:30. It was nothing short of miraculous that the entire staff made it out of the school without running someone over!
The wedding hall was lovely. It had been decorated with flowers and a large banner, and a program with the Principal’s face on the cover had been left on everyone’s seat. We all took our seats (strategically close to the buffet) and the ceremonies began.
First up, the Korean national anthem. I tried to arrange my face into a suitably solemn expression but it was hard not to laugh. Did we really need the national anthem?
Next, the vice principal read the Principal’s resume. I wasn’t sure why this was necessary since it has been printed in the program. Amazingly, even though it was very long (I think a lot of extra curricular activities had been added) nobody chatted or played on their cell phones. It was the first time I’d ever seen a room full of silent Koreans. I assumed it was out of respect for the Principal. It didn’t look like anyone was paying attention but at least they were quiet. Not that it mattered, I’m pretty sure the Principal had fallen asleep.
After the VP finished, the Principal stood up to address the crowd. I tried to pay attention but kept getting distracted by the tantalizing smells that kept wafting over from the buffet. It wasn’t until the teacher beside me sniffled that I realized something was odd. As she reached for a napkin, I noticed that there were tears pouring down her cheeks. Startled, I looked around the room. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even the Principal had to stop mid-speech to clear his throat and wipe away tears.
It was mind-boggling. I’ve had quite a few lovely bosses over the years but I wouldn’t weep if any of them retired!
The speeches continued, and so did the tears. The teacher who doubled as the school photographer actually had to pass the camera to another teacher because she was sobbing so badly she couldn’t keep the camera steady. I kept trying to assume an appropriate facial expression but I didn’t know if the tears were happy or sad. It felt more like a funeral than a celebratory occasion but I didn’t want to look too somber just in case.
The tears had just begun to abate when a video of the Principal’s life was shown on a large screen at the front of the room. Cue sobbing and nose blowing. It bordered on the ridiculous.
It reminded me of the pictures from North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death. Was the grief genuine or were Koreans just REALLY good at faking it?
After an hour and a half of speeches, award presentations and tears, some teachers got up to sing.
Awesome! I thought. This must be the end! Now we can eat!
But no, after the hymn-like song was over, they donned masks depicting the Principal and other high-ranking teachers. And then they danced. (The hearts behind the dancers say “Principal, we love you!”)
When it was all over and we were finally eating lunch, I asked a co-worker if this was the normal way to say farewell to Principals in Korea.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “It is because our Principal is Christian.”
Whatever the reason was for all the excitement, it made me want to retire in Korea! 😀