Former principal’s cultural journey at Seoul American Elementary School

Contributor: Kyung Lee

John Blom stands next to a dolphin statue in front of Seoul American Elementary School, where he used to be principal. / Courtesy of Yongsan…

Topic: Education, SAHS, School, Uncategorized, Yongsan Legacy

Main Entrance of SAES, Mya 2019 by Photographer Suyeon Yun

Scroll this
John Blom stands next to a dolphin statue in front of Seoul American Elementary School, where he used to be principal. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy

When he first came to Korea in 1973 to teach fourth and fifth graders at Pusan (Busan) American School, John Blom wasted no time familiarizing himself with Korea’s culture, language and food. Having ventured into “dabang” (tea houses) and tasted “sundubu jjigae” (soft tofu stew) with “makgeolli” (traditional rice wine) as part of his own extracurricular activities, Blom’s interest in Korea also meant helping his own students adapt to the country’s norms under Pusan American’s Host Nation Program.

The following year, Blom transferred to Seoul American Elementary School (SAES), another school operated by the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), this one located on U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan. And while a teacher there until 1978, he continued to encourage his student body to experience Korea to the fullest ― whether within school grounds or beyond the garrison’s walls.

“Three of us (teachers) frequently chose to eat at restaurants in Seoul, and as a result, we wrote a restaurant and field trip guide to be used by the teachers and parents,” he said.

Though he would have liked to remember some of the restaurants they explored, Blom added there was a high turnover of businesses back then, not too different from nowadays.

Also encouraging long-distance field trips as part of “getting out” into the Korean community, Blom and his Host Nation staff would take their students to sites like the National Museum of Korea, Seoraksan National Park and the Korean Folk Village in Icheon to appreciate its displays of traditional architecture, arts, clothing and agriculture.

“Other favorites were to attend temples, particularly on Buddha’s Birthday; all the lanterns were a spectacular visual delight,” he said. “This allowed our students to see Koreans reverently entering and praying in the temple.”

Taking advantage of introducing a wide array of cultural programs as a teacher, assistant principal (1983-1985) and principal (1991-1999) at SAES, the Host Nation curriculum under Blom even taught students in first through fourth grade Korean vocabulary words, while fifth and sixth graders learned conversation.

However, not all programs were accepted by some parents who mistook cultural immersion for conversion.

“I remember one time, our (Host Nation) culture teacher in the first and second grades showed a film of Buddhism and that raised concern on the part of a few Christian parents,” he said. “The parents thought the teacher was promulgating Buddhism and that was not the case. If you’re going to live in this country, you need to know about the culture.”

Inviting traditional Korean practices to be oriented in the classrooms, Blom also welcomed Korean mothers of students dressed in hanbok during Chuseok, an annual harvest festival and national holiday in Korea, with a buffet of Korean food prepared to serve more than 40 homerooms, as well as hosting professional Korean buk drummers to provide weekly after-school lessons ― events and programs that were accepted by students and parents with little to no objections.

In addition to the regular classroom curriculum, Blom said he took pride in the active spirit he instilled in his students under SAES’ Host Nation Program, which also represented the pride of being an SAES Dolphin ― a mascot selected by the student body in his time as assistant principal.

Prior to attending the closing ceremony of the school’s final year in early June ― including for Seoul American Middle High School (SAMH) and Seoul American High School (SAHS) ― Blom took a final tour through SAES, noticing that many of the building’s artifacts like the Dolphin plaque had already been stripped away from their original placements.

“An empty shell of what it used to be,” he said with a sigh echoing through the near-hollow hallways.

Now furnished with only a checkout desk overlooking modern sofa arrangements, Blom recalled his mission as principal to streamline the library ― by opening up spaces for reading and storytelling ― and a simplified checkout process before the installation of computers.

“A lot of work needed to be done to the library,” he said. “I was most impressed that these teachers voluntarily gave a free Saturday to come to work at school to create a more pleasant and functional center. I had ordered pizzas to eat at break time as a reward,” he said.

In between his teaching and administrative careers at SAES, Blom also taught at Yokota Air Base in Western Tokyo (1978-1983) and was assigned as principal at Osan American Elementary School (OAES) (1985-1991) and Darmstadt in Germany from 1999 until his retirement in 2001. In his final year at SAES, Blom was presented with a Dolphin statue by the Parent-Teacher Organization, with a tree also planted in his honor by his sixth-grade students.

“Sadly, the tree died from a lack of watering, I heard,” he said.
Kyung Lee is a writer and researcher recording the U.S. military’s history in Korea. Visit to read more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.

published at the Korea times by John Dunbar: