Chapter 10: The New Semester (4)
Lee Kyung Hee was a supervising teacher at the Anes Institute, in charge of taking the children to and from school. More specifically, the elementary school children, as the middle and high school student went to school by themselves. As such, she had to pick up the students according to the fifth and sixth graders’ schedules, which meant that the younger students had to wait inside the school. At least they were all very sensible and careful with their actions, never getting into any sort of big trouble, so she wasn’t overly concerned.
What she was concerned about, however, was the boy who had gained the nickname of “plaster face.” He had never been an expressive child, so she had no idea what was going on inside his head most of the time, but what she had heard from his homeroom teacher during their parent-teacher conference troubled her deeply. To be honest, there was nothing she wanted more as a teacher than for the children in the institute to set him as an example and stay put, studying and behaving. During the last few days, he had spent most of this time in his room, reading books he had borrowed from his friend, so she didn’t need to scold him like she did with the other children anymore. He was sensible by nature and very diligent. He woke up by himself in the mornings and got ready without needing to be told to do so, and he made sure to be thorough in his duties during cleanup time. All in all, Kyung Hee was very proud of him, and he deserved all the praise in regard to his living manners.
His homeroom teacher had called him a genius. It was impossible for him to receive private tutoring without the institute’s staff knowing, so he must have taught himself, yet he far surpassed the curriculum his peers were following, and his obvious prowess in certain subjects had been astounding. According to his homeroom teacher, and apparently the after-school teachers as well, the boy was definitely a genius. Of course, they hadn’t conducted any official tests to determine he was, indeed, a genius, but from what they could see, he was more than just ‘gifted.’ They were sure of it. The homeroom teacher then proceeded to suggest, more out of excitement than concern, that he should be tested officially and receive the necessary care. Kyung Hee almost wondered out loud what this fool of a teacher thought of the welfare system in Korea.
“Ms. Lee!” shouted the children, breaking Kyung Hee’s train of thought. They were all running towards the van, and the gifted boy, “plaster face,” as expressionless as ever, was being dragged along by Myeong-su. “Yes, welcome back. Slowly now, watch your steps. Myeong-su, look at where you’re putting your feet.”
There were more than just a couple of children to look after at the institute. Just because one of the children excelled didn’t mean that they could afford to focus on him and make sure he received the care he needed to cultivate his talents. Realistically speaking, the boy would not be able to receive the adequate support.
“I’m so hungry!” Shouted Myeong-su. “So H-U-N-G-R-Y!”
He was cheerful, as always. How could he be so energetic all the time, 24/7? That’s what Kyung Hee referred to as endless optimism. She also glanced at the ‘gifted’ boy, “plaster face,” always being dragged here and there by the endlessly optimistic child as if he were a balloon, but quickly shifted her gaze elsewhere. The more she looked at him, the sorrier she felt. Perhaps she could find a volunteer that was willing to help the boy study, now that schools were almost out for break.
Kyung-eun’s mother noticed that her daughter had become more cheerful over the past few days. Kyung-eun had an older brother in fourth grade and an older sister in third grade, so her mother’s attention was inevitably divided between the three children, but it was enough to notice that she had started to hum to herself while packing her bag, which was something new. Her mother also noticed that Kyung-eun had spent quite some time in her siblings’ rooms picking out books, which she thought was a great improvement, and yet she had never seen her youngest read in the house at all. This was all very suspicious to her.
“Kyung-eun, how has school been lately? Is it fun?” She asked her daughter, who was watching TV while waiting for dinner. Kyung-eun still preferred the television over books, and she couldn’t advert her eyes even as she answered her mother’s question. “Yeah, it’s fun. I played hopscotch with Hyejin today against some other kids, and we won. Hyejin is super fast but I’m super fast too, so we just went through the whole thing before they could even do anything. Even the teacher said we were really fast.”
Kyung-eun’s mother was now setting the table, and she smiled at her daughter who was chatting away about her day. She was already aware of this hopscotch game from the parents’ SNS, where the homeroom teacher had updated them about gym class activities, so she had no issue following along Kyung-eun’s explanation. “I see.” She answered. “So you’re really getting along with your classmates, hmm?”
“Yeah. Jihoon got yelled at again cuz he was being so bad during Korean. Everyone was laughing. The tiger wanted to eat the bunny, and then Jihoon asked if bunnies were. The teacher said she didn’t know, and then Jihoon asked if you can eat tigers. That’s when they all started laughing. She said that we have to protect tigers, so he said that he’ll eat one and then let her know. They all laughed again, but I didn’t. He only thinks about weird things.” Kyung-eun answered rather nonchalantly, and her mother couldn’t help but feel as if her daughter was still hiding something from her, so she decided to push a bit further.
“But who would you say you’re closest to?”
“Me? Hyejin is my best friend.”
“Does Hyejin get good grades?”
“Um…She’s like me.”
“Does she read a lot of books?”
“No, that’s…plaster face. He reads the most.”
Her mother knew in a heartbeat that “plaster face” was the one behind Kyung-eun’s sudden change in mood. “Are you close to this…plaster face?” she asked hesitantly. “Yeah. We take after-school classes together every day. He’s really smart. All the teachers say so.”
Kyung-eun’s mother finished setting up the table rather absentmindedly. “Really?” she asked again, slowly making her way towards her daughter. Truth be told, it didn’t matter that he was smart. That didn’t change the fact that she was a bit worried. Just the tiniest bit anxious. “Kyung-eun, I want you to listen to what Mommy has to say, okay? I’d really like it if you didn’t get too close to him. Aren’t there other smart, nice kids that you can play with?”
Was it because of the unexpected request? Kyung-eun looked at her mother with a blank expression, wondering why she was saying such things. As a mother, however, she had to admit that having a stoic boy from an institute so close to her daughter didn’t quite…look right. She knew that such thoughts were considered unpleasant, or even offensive, to many, but an orphan boy surely had some emotional issue or another, and he might cause her own daughter to have similar issues as well. More than that, she worried that he might do something to harm her in some way. Maybe it was her prejudice talking, but that’s the kind of world they were living in. Kyung-eun’s mother tried frantically to make her daughter understand, and began explaining at length about her reasons, not realizing that the food on the table had long gone cold.
Morning came again, and the boy, the earliest to rise in the institute, as always, was currently making his way up the mountain at the back of the building. Though he didn’t know (and he had lost all chances of finding out) the name of the forest beyond the peasant town, his experience trekking through its winding paths was more than enough to climb a mountain this size. He snuck out of the institute before any of the staff members even woke up, and the feeling of standing there, on top of the mountain, to watch the sun rising filled him with an emotion that was wholly new to him.
He hadn’t quite meant to climb the mountain. He saw that the sky was still dark when he woke up, and memories of his past came flooding back. Impulse kicked in, and he had set out in search of a forest. The chilly air of the mountain forest, so thick with moisture, were pleasantly refreshing, and his mood elevated as he made his way through the trees. The sounds of the forest waking and of the birds announcing the new morning were all music to his ears. This place, this mountain. Only this was the closest to what ‘his’ forest had felt like. As he leisurely took in every aspect of the forest, he came to a sudden realization. So that’s why he had been so immersed in books, almost obsessively so. The boy wished to know.
‘What kind of place is this?’
This place he had been sent to was full of things, inventions, products of civilization, and environments that he, as a child, could never even begin to understand. When he had first come across a TV at the institute’s Visual Media Room, he had sat in front of it for hours on end until he had ended up passing out. When the boy had first set foot in the forest, his father had been there with him. Starting from the entrance, his father explained every tree, every herb and animal in the forest. He had warned him about things that could harm him but had also told him of the many things the forest could provide for them. The boy was surrounded by even more strange new things here, in this place, yet there had been no one there with him to tell him, to explain to him what to be wary of and what to keep close. So he had to find out by himself.
‘How and why have I come here?’
Instinct had told him that this place and the place he was from where different worlds altogether. From the color of the sky to the feel of the air, to the clothing and everyday objects. Even the food was different. And most of all, the ‘words’ were different. At first, the boy didn’t think anything of it. He could understand what everyone was saying without issue, and they also understood his words when he spoke. However, when he remembered his own name, he realized that the language had been different all along, and this truth shocked him. Thrust in a situation with no solution at hand, he had resorted to not speaking a single word.
Being a clever child, he gradually learned more and more about this strange world he found himself in, and had begun to wonder about the ‘how and why’ of his circumstances the more he learned. Of course, he had yet to reach an answer to this question, but he would not give up. He speculated that if he acquired the same, if not greater, knowledge than the adults, then perhaps the answer would come to him. He judged that as of now, he was simply too young and ignorant to know. This had led him to his last unanswered question:
‘Where did my mother go?’
Though this was his most pressing question, the one question he wanted answered most, perhaps it was also the question he would never have the answers to. Even so, he wouldn’t give up. “All problems can be solved if you just follow the right steps.” Or at least, that’s what Lecturer Hae-ul Park had said during one of his after-school classes.
The boy watched as the sun rose higher into the sky and strengthened his resolve. He was going to solve this problem no matter what.