Bells and Whistles

I was handing worksheets around a roomful of restless fifth graders when my co-teacher told me I was about to get preempted. "The students must go outside at two o'clock."

The clock read one fifty-seven. "Do we get them back? Is class over?" My classes are routinely broken up around surprise (to me) assemblies, dentist visits, and crucial soccer practices. I was happy with the thought of an unscheduled break, but she waived her hand airily.

"It is only for practice. Maybe ten minutes."

The homeroom teacher appeared at the door in her coat. She smiled across the room. "How are you, Erin Teacher?"

Before I could answer, a thin, faraway note rang in the air, and the teacher's expression changed to urgency. Under her shouts, the students rapidly assembled into a line. Hunched over with a hand clasped over her mouth, the teacher led them out the door. They followed suit, waiving hands in front of their faces as though peering though smoke.

"Uh, should we go too?" I asked my co-teacher, but she perched comfortably on the heater and patted the spot next to her.

"What will you do this weekend?" she asked, as the playground below our window filled with rows of students.


We knew about the civil defense drills before we came to Korea. This was mostly from watching Castaway on the Moon, the one Korean movie available on Netflix at the time. It's a slow but beautiful story about an agoraphobic girl and a suicidal young man. He gets stranded on a deserted island in the middle of Seoul's Han River. She spies on him from the telescope in her bedroom. Ok, in summary it sounds kind of creepy, but it was actually endearing. We watched it to learn about the country we were moving to. Mostly, we got that Korean high-rise apartments are much nicer than you'd guess from their exterior, that noodles are delivered on motorbikes, and that twice a year, everything in the country stops for a civil defense drill.

In the movie, the drill was a moment of crystalline stillness, with beautiful sunlight filtering into the stopped bus where the hero meets his heroine. In my school, aka reality, it appeared to involve children running blind through corridors while pretending to choke on poison gas. In America, kids have fire drills. Here, it's invasion drills.

This time last year, North Korea was ramping up a tantrum that made a lot of people nervous. Including South Koreans, for about a week there. And normally, no one is more blasé toward that regime's threats than its next door neighbors. There's only so long you can live beside crazy before it just gets old.

But that long-developed tiredness hasn't turned into laziness. Hence the mandatory military service for men, and the nation-wide civil defense drills for everybody.

Well, almost everybody. I spent a nice ten minutes sitting on the radiator, enjoying a quiet school. It wasn't crystalline stillness, but I'd take it.