“If you look with hatred, every grass is a weed. If you look with kindness, every person is a flower.”
It’s probably my favorite quote from this K-drama, out of all the many memorable lines they had. I know I’m not the only person to say this but in terms of parallelism and overall portrayal, Black Dog is comparable to SKY Castle in depicting how appalling the South Korean educational system is, and Misaeng in being a slice-of-life drama in a school set-up. By the way, if you’re looking for your cutesy gushy fluffy and those K-drama trope-y (ok, I tried), Black Dog isn’t for you. It’s gloomy and realistic, but at the same time, optimistic and healing. There’s no doubt in the tandem of Seo Hyun-jin and Ra Mi-ran as the lead characters in the story, acting-wise, but what I liked about this drama aside from them, was the fact that they did not inject cheesy romance in the plot. It’s not needed, and I’m glad it’s omitted.
Same Old School Politics and Drama
The drama was described to portray Daechi High School as a microcosm of society. We have those mighty in power, the good men, the evil ones, the outside forces, and the internal pawns. Parents, students, teachers, non-teaching personnel, basically everyone in this K-drama universe had their own backstory. Seo Hyun-jin portrayed the heroine, the very optimistic and idealistic rookie teacher Go Ha-neul. Her dream of becoming a teacher started when she was saved by her own PE teacher in a tragic accident that ended his life. That PE teacher was apparently only a contractual employee, who is also called a short-term teacher in a school setting. This teacher never received the employee benefits that he deserved, even after his death. Fast forward to the present, Go Ha-neul is on the same path, having been accepted as a short-term teacher at the private Daechi High School.
As if being a contractual employee is not enough of a challenge, Ha-neul also faced the issue of nepotism because she is apparently the niece of the school’s head administrator. I don’t want to give any more spoilers about the drama, but let’s just say Ha-neul had it tough since Day 1. She’s being judged a lot, bullied even, by her colleagues. It’s a rough start for her, but thankfully she was assigned to the best team in the school – the College Advisory Group. Park Sung-soon (Ra Mi-ran), the group’s head advisor; Do Yeon-woo (Ha Joon), a Korean language teacher; and Bae Myung-soo (Lee Chang-hoon), a Biology teacher, all helped Ha-neul in her personal and professional growth, not just as a rookie teacher but also as a person outside of school.
Plot-wise, the drama took on the “case study” type of storytelling wherein they featured students from different backgrounds and grade levels. I understand how it is compared to SKY Castle as both tackled how hard it is to enter into a respectable university in South Korea with the college course of your choice vis-a-vis with the grades you have. Unlike SKY Castle, which paints a strong message against families and prep schools pressuring their children to be the best academically, Black Dog is a heartwarming drama that shows the perspective of teachers in mentoring and helping their students be the best versions of themselves. It’s refreshing to see a script that does not only lets the intelligent students shine but also those who struggle in school.
My favorite scene in the drama was Go Ha-neul questioning herself what is it that she had been missing all this time when all she did was to help her students achieve their college dreams. The answer was clear – that amidst the awards and recognitions of those top students are the “average” students who are also struggling to keep up with the harsh system. We are not all born equal. Some are good at studying. Some are good in the creatives. And while most teachers in Daechi High School chose to ignore and harbor favoritism over outstanding students, Go Ha-neul took the unusual path and shifted her focus on those who are having a hard time in their studies. The once non-inclusive curriculum of this private school became more comprehensive and open to everyone.
The entire school underwent major character development, not just the main leads. And even though this is only a minor dent in the entire educational system of the whole country, at least it’s still a welcome change. Something that’s priceless in terms of the lives of students who were uplifted by the concept of inclusive growth.
I don’t want to delve into the negative side of the spectrum – the politics and drama inside the faculty room as it’s not worth it. My only remark is that all food chains undergo the same life cycle. All organizations are the same, as the drama repeatedly stressed throughout its run. Even schools have their dirty politics. And it’s a reality we all have to face not just in small screens, but also in this rat race called life.
The Struggles of Being a Contractual Teacher in a World of Regular Employees
I’d like to talk briefly about Ji Hae-won (Yoo Min-kyu). He spent literally half of his life at Daechi High School, banking on false hopes and empty promises. He was a contractual teacher for six years, a very admirable feat considering the unfair treatment towards regular faculty and short-term teachers. The good thing about this school, though, is they don’t really let their dirty laundry in public, which means parents and students are unaware of who is contractual. This keeps the teachers’ integrity intact, which we all know is almost non-existent when inside those walls of the faculty room. I don’t condone him for starting the nepotism rumor against Go Ha-neul, but I can’t blame his misguided thoughts, either. When the system fails, its citizens rumble for survival. And despite those faults, Ji Hae-won redeemed himself by apologizing to the right people and deciding to leave his comfort zone (yes, Daechi High became the comfort zone that he is unaware of). His reconciliation with his former teacher-turned-senior colleague Moon Soo-ho (Jung Hae-kyun) is one of the best depictions of the drama about forgiveness and self-healing.
With the way it’s presented, I can say as early as now that it’s definitely in the running as one of my favorites for my year-end rankings. It’s definitely my cup of tea. Go Ha-neul’s fight for equal employment opportunities, not being treated as second class citizens in your own country, and the never-ending search for someone’s self-worth. Go Ha-neul’s journey from seeing everything as a weed, to realizing that they are just flowers yet to bloom, is the kind of energy I want to imbibe in my personal life. Go Ha-neul’s optimism and determination, despite all the apprehension and uncertainty, is this drama’s best weapon.
Just like every single apprentice, one must have a skilled mentor. Go Ha-neul is lucky to have Park Sung-soon as her immediate head. The learnings she had were of immeasurable value. Even I as an audience learned a lot from her – from showing the right kind of toughness and discipline to being a good role model to her subordinates. Her best lesson? A teacher should never be the first one to give up on her students.