High school. A school that is meant to be the final stage of a student’s secondary education. However, for military brats, staying in one place for four years or more is uncommon. Typically, when a military child’s time at a duty station is up, they end their time at their school and continue their education at their next duty station. But what happens when the school’s time is up before the military child’s?
Wow… I don’t know where to begin. Let's start with the end. The Yongsan Relocation Plan, signed in 2004, aimed to reduce the U.S. Army's footprint in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The plan brought about the eventual closure of Seoul American High School in 2019. As many as 12,000 military personnel and their families relocated to Camp Humphreys, America's largest overseas army base (the size of Washington D.C.) and 40 miles south of Seoul! Current plans have Yongsan closing within the next year… So, let's talk about what made Yongsan so unique!
Yongsan Garrison was quite a fantastic place, located smack-dab in the middle of Seoul. The base’s rich history and access to multiple amenities outside the base gave every second a feeling of awe and wonder. Throughout each year, you could see people playing soccer in every field, you could travel through the bustling Dragon Hill, or you could admire the stunning scenery of the tall maple trees that lined the streets. But it was not the amenities that made Yongsan great, it was the families and community that made it wonderful. Nothing represented the heart of the community more than the schools: Seoul American Elementary School (SAES), Seoul American Middle School (SAMS), and Seoul American High School.
The Seoul American school complex was established in fall 1959 to provide educational services for military families and civilians living in Yongsan. Located only 35 miles away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea, the Seoul American complex stayed open through multiple incidents in Korea’s tumultuous beginnings. Through events from Seoul’s intense demonstrations, to the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee in 1979, there were American kids just trying to live as normal as possible.
I understand that feeling. The feeling of uncertainty. In the year 2017 alone, Kim Jong Un fired 15 ballistic missiles and conducted a HYDROGEN BOMB test. The US’s sanctions on North Korea and frequent provocations on both sides made the air heavy with anxiety around that time. Man, 12-year-old me was scared for his life! And yet, we persevered, kept our heads up, and worked through the precariousness.
By the time I reached high school, I had lived in Yongsan for quite a long time (by military brat standards): 3 years! Life at SAMS had taught me so much about life: deep bonds with friends, respect for Korean culture, and three years' worth of grinding at Four Square to become nearly unbeatable in the game. But one year at high school would show me so much more to school than I had ever thought.
The school year took off with a twist: the high school and middle school were combining, and no matter the circumstance, the school was shutting down by the end of the year. WOAH. To the high school population (who I was just meeting for the first time), it was a bit denigrating to be reduced to a middle-high school. Even with the merger, the school only had 159 students, so in retrospect, the decision made sense. The sorrowful prospect of not only losing all our friends but our community too became more discernible as the year progressed. Regardless, the reaction gave me insight into the pride of being a Seoul American Falcon and the depth of the community’s bonds.
Freshman year was truly a treasure. Disregarding seniority and class struggles, the freshman class was definitely the best class and ruled the school! Being a freshman, there was so much excitement and freedom in every period, sport, and opportunity outside of school. Surprisingly, the most freedom I felt was at lunch, where half the school would walk to the Dragon Hill Lodge to get some pizza and chat with friends. Some parts of the school had to be traversed outside, so it was quite precarious to walk to class without being affected by the weather. Ah, weather! So for those who aren’t too familiar with Seoul’s weather, the city regularly experiences the four seasons (similar to cities like Chicago or Washington DC). However, at times, air pollution can be quite a concern. 황사 (“Hwang Sa”, meaning yellow dust) are sand particles blown from the Gobi Desert and combined with air pollution to provide plenty of breathing problems during spring for the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, the school year continued, and, man, did it move fast!
By the end of the year, the school year was ending on a bittersweet note. Life at SAHS introduced me to so many talented and amazing people, many of whom I wouldn’t see again. The school was starting to clear out starting in the 4th quarter, giving many students a sordid taste for the rest of the school year. This mix of emotions suddenly revealed themselves during the last two ceremonies of the year, wait no, the last two ceremonies of the school’s history. First was the closing ceremony of the school on June 3rd. An assembly of the entire school complex and members of the community to observe the closing of the school. The second event was the senior graduation held on June 8th. Both events had a profound impact on how I viewed the school, reinforcing the history behind the schools and passionately describing what the community meant to them. For a number of people, Yongsan was their entire childhood, so both ceremonies aroused a certain sentiment of loss. The ceremonies described the end of a profound era, but they also highlighted the everlasting impact of the school, an influence that won’t end, that will continue on.
Even now, it’s… odd. Odd to see the remnants of a bustling community, to see the same buildings, but know that there’s no one inside of them. But I understand that it wasn’t just the buildings that made Yongsan special, it was the impact of thousands of Falcons and their experiences. Honestly, I was happy to contribute to something as monumental as the Seoul American complex. As minute as the impression I made was, I’m glad to have been a part of this community and meet such great people. It’s the value of contributing to something greater than yourself. It’s the privilege of being a part of something. It’s being a Falcon. With that said, it is my honor to say farewell, fellow Falcons.