As previously mentioned, my maternal grandfather was a force of nature: violent, unpredictable, and indifferent to the destruction it wrought on those in its wake.
My mother’s response was to harden her determination, channeling her energies into academics so that through perfect grades, she could deny him – however obliquely – at least that one trigger for an outburst.
As children, my sisters and I were often told by our mom how she learned English by simply work her way through the dictionary, memorizing by brute force.
If my grandfather was the fire that tempered the steel inside of her, Dr. Schofield honed that steel into a fine edge and set its point a direction.
Dr. Schofield was a teacher and missionary from Canada. With a background as a veterinarian he formally taught science at Severance Medical School, but his true calling was tending to the Koreans suffering under brutal Japanese occupation, documenting and drawing international attention to the cause with his detailed reports and shocking photographs, most notoriously of the Japanese burning down a church with the village leaders inside.
While missionaries were generally a thorn in the Japanese side for their general humanitarian sympathy for the Koreans, Schofield crossed the line into outright agitation for Korean independence, aligning closely with the “33 Patriots” who organized the peaceful “March 1st Movement” in 1919 off the back of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy.
For his work he became a hero among the locals – earning the nickname “tiger” 호랑이 (hoh-rahng-ee) based on the 호 (hoh) in the Koreanization of his surname 석호필 (suhk-hoh-peel) – but by the same token was recalled to Canada from his mission in 1920 under Japanese pressure.
He wouldn’t return until his retirement 1959, 2 full cycles of war later, at the invitation of president Syngman Rhee. He resumed teaching science at Severance Medical School, but his real mission remained tending to Koreans.
When my mother was in high school she won an English competition in school, gaining the attention of her teacher who facilitated an introduction to Dr. Schofield. This occurred when she was 14 thus within a year of his return to Korea.
He quickly took her under his wing, often having her accompany him on his visits to orphanages. His mentorship lasted throughout my mother’s high school and college career without fading; in fact his moment of greatest influence came towards the end.
6 months before finishing her undergrad at Ewha (ee-hwah) Woman’s University, Dr. Schofield pulled her aside and advised that she go into medicine. This came somewhat out of the blue, my mom having figured until then that she’d go into literature or such. She simply never had much interest in science, notwithstanding Dr. Schofield’s influence – and even then, they had met in the first place by virtue of her language skills.
Besides, she’d never been to a doctor or dentist before in her life.
Still, he convinced her to apply for Yonsei University – the mother school of Severance Medical (the union of Yonhi College and Severance Medical formed YON–SE or Yonsei University).
Even more significantly, he convinced her parents to go along with the plan. True to form, my grandfather’s anxiety at any hint of unexpected change reflexively objected to the suggestion. Dr. Schofield went so far as to personal arrange the scholarships for my mother to gain acceptance to the plan.
Med school started off rocky for my mother. She’d never been mathematically inclined and had to take some remedial calculus. Then during her first cadaver dissection she had to leave the room and her 3 teammates, earning a comment from her instructor that she’d never make it as a doctor.
Still, as my mother put it: “medical school is mostly just memorizing.” And just as she once worked through the dictionary to memorize English words to a level of proficiency that enabled her to initially meet Dr. Schofield, so too did she work through medical textbooks that enabled her to finally realize the potential he saw in her.
Dr. Schofield died in 1970.
By that time, my mother was ready to look ahead to the next stage of her life. First, she knew that, notwithstanding her qualifications, her medical degree was worthless in Korea as a woman and as a member of a family from the north lacking either wealth nor connections. On the other hand, she knew where it would be worth something: in America.
Second, she had met the third and final man that would shape – but never control – her life: a fellow medical school student from an even poorer northern family one year her senior, a quiet math prodigy named 정병찬 Chung Byung Chan, my father.