The Daechi-dong neighborhood in the affluent Gangnam district south of the Han River is a village where a bizarre ecosystem has formed around the high-octane crammers that fill the area.
Mothers know exactly which child is at the top of his or her class and where they go to cram, and a hacking order has developed among parents according to the supposed academic excellence of their children. Parents whose kids are at the top of their class are treated like royalty.
Since public schools are no longer expected to deliver the goods and rankings are determined by endless standardized tests that can be beaten, private crammers determine which student excels at school.
This is why the top students in Daechi-dong are usually determined early. Students who are reputed to be the best in English-language kindergarten end up being selected into elite classes at English and math crammers as they start primary school and immediately pop up on the hyper-sensitive radar of neighborhood mothers.
Moms in Daechi-dong are usually part of four or five different parents' groups like school advisory committees, crammers their children attend and various sports clubs, where they jockey furiously for advantage.
The main purpose of those groups is to keep abreast of the latest information about schools, private crammers and college entrance exams. The mothers of top students are treated like queens and their children as princes or princesses. Moms jostle to invite the top students to discussion and study groups with their own children, in the hope that the stardust will rub off.
Many crammers offer discounts to top students to adorn themselves with their feathers and draw legions of lesser mortals in their wake.
But being a top student entails its own stress since they feel that everyone is watching them. Parents of top students say they often check the rear-view mirrors of their cars to see if they're being tailed as they drive their kids to their crammer since their rivals are eager to find out where the magic happens.
What are the hours? Which study materials do the top performers use? What after-school activities are they taking part in? These are the questions that keep Daechi-dong mothers awake at night. The phone numbers of private tutors with the Midas touch are closely guarded secrets.
One student in Daechi-dong said, "It is not easy to keep academic information a secret from even your closest friends." Some top students end up cracking, succumbing to often psychosomatic illnesses, and terrible fights break out between students and their parents when grades start to drop. In the meantime, any proper education falls by the wayside.