Chapter 7: The New Semester (1)
The commotion of the new semester turned into a ruckus after a few days, which had then turned into chaos in the span of the first month. That is to say, nothing had changed at all during this entire month. Being in charge of first graders on her third year as a teacher proved to be a challenge for Hee Yeon Kim, but for reasons she could only describe as “complicated,” she had been forced into this difficult task. To say that her experience was lacking was a gross understatement, and it was near impossible for her to manage the ruckus that the first graders were creating. As such, it became somewhat of a routine for the teachers of adjacent classrooms to intervene and suppress(?)* the children of Class 1-3. Perhaps it was thanks to that, or perhaps the children had simply grown accustomed to school after a month, but they had reached the point where they would calm down just enough for class to start. Hee Yeon had to settle for that. Nonetheless, as soon as breaktime started, the children would resume their chaotic commotion, filling the halls with their voices as Hee Yeon sat next to the window, her head in her hands in an attempt to withstand it all.
‘If only they had gym class all morning long…’
But if that were the case, then she would have to be on guard, looking out for potential injuries, which would then cause even more of a psychological strain on her. In her current state of mind, however, she wished for nothing more than to escape from all the noise. When she looked up towards the classroom again, she realized that she had to say something.
“Jihoon, you can’t stand on the desk. You’ll get hurt!” She warned in her strictest tone. “Heejin, don’t get so close to the window! Get down from there! There, in the back! Stop running! What if you fall over?!”
Even in the midst of all the chaos, she couldn’t help but notice one of her students sitting quietly, in the middle of the row next to the windows. He had become the talk of the school due to his good looks, and he was the one exception in this classroom of constant cacophony. The boy was always reading. He mainly read textbooks, but sometimes would bring in children’s tales from somewhere and read those. During class he would always look at her with bright eyes, listening so intently to what she said that she felt almost awkward under the pressure, but it was thanks to him that she felt proud and satisfied to be a teacher. After all, there wasn’t a teacher alive who disliked diligent students.
The boy paid no mind to his teacher’s rather open observation of him and just kept on reading. He was quite happy with his current lifestyle. The classes taught him new things every day, satisfying his intellectual curiosity, and every day, the knowledge he gained from his textbooks surprised him. Reading and reaching an understanding of the material in the textbooks, regardless of the curriculum, filled the boy with an almost euphoric kind of joy. This was especially true for afterschool math class, which made him feel jittery. He derived an immense sort of satisfaction with every problem he solved correctly, and as his knowledge increased, he almost felt as if he could organize his thoughts concerning his confusing circumstances.
Just as the boy was about to immerse himself in the joy of studying, someone tapped his shoulders. When he turned around, he saw that it was Jihoon. Though only a month had passed since the start of the new semester, Jihoon already stood out from the rest of the class. To put it nicely, he was a very lively child, but in reality, he was closer to a menace. He could not bring himself to sit quietly during lessons, sprinting out of the classroom to go to the restroom (and if the teacher chased after him, he would always run away with a huge smile on his face, as if he was enjoying a game of tag), and during break time, he would jump from desk to desk, like an action maniac who delighted in the thrill and excitement of dangerous activities. He was also very creative, always coming up with new ways to make the girl who sat next to him cry. All this caused the other kids to practically line up to join Jihoon in his “games,” and he had become infamous within the parents’ SNS chatrooms. However, being the only son of a prominent family, no one could really touch him, only increasing the frustration of the victims'(?) parents and homeroom teacher.
This same Jihoon had just approached the boy, apparently nominating(?) him as the next victim, but the boy simply looked at him wide-eyed as if he didn’t know what was happening. Jihoon had his back to the group of students who followed him and looked down at him. “They say you look like a plaster cast,” he declared arrogantly. What did that even mean? “My mom saw my sister’s drawing and she said it looked like you. That’s what a plaster cast is. You’re plaster.”
The boy went blank at Jihoon’s words, confused at the utter lack of context.
Jihoon was actually referring to a bit of a hot topic among parents for a brief period of time. During the entrance ceremony, the parents had discussed the boy’s outstanding looks, and someone had mentioned that he looked “statuesque.” Following this comment, the parents of a student preparing for art school had brought up “Julian,” one of the plaster cast busts used as a drawing model. Of course, parents quickly fell into a typical SNS conversation, adding that their own children were just as pretty, or whose children had better looks, but it appeared that their talks of plaster casts had reached Jihoon’s ears. However, being completely unaware of this whole situation, the boy sat there dumbfounded.
“He’s plaster face now.” Said Jihoon again, almost triumphantly. At these short, nonsensical words, the students began to clap and laugh uncontrollably. Perhaps the boy’s blank expression and reaction had somehow struck them as funny. Following this relatively small incident, the boy had gained the nickname “plaster face,” and when Myeong-su, who was in the classroom next door, found out about this, it became his nickname at the institute as well. When the teacher heard of this, she thought it was rather cute, but she was also concerned that the boy’s feelings were hurt by the nickname. It wasn’t uncommon for children to feel upset at nicknames they did not like and lose their spirits.
However, the boy paid no mind to it, partly because he wasn’t sure whether “plaster face” had enough of a negative connotation to feel upset over it, and partly because he thought it was better than what they had called him back at the peasant town. They had taken to calling him “scrofa**” due to the fact that he scavenged in the forest all day, or just “boar.” Rather than being compared to a pig, covered in mud and oinking all around the place, he preferred being compared to plaster.
With the approach of summer, the weather had reached the point where the impatient few had already begun to wear short sleeves outside. Volunteer workers still visited the institute every so often, now that the tough weeds sprouting through the lawn of the yard had grown enough to injure to the children. Though they were promptly eradicated by the volunteers, the teachers still had to warn the children to not go into the grass.
“We’ll be off!”
The elementary schoolers shouted out as they got off the institute’s van, cheerfully waving to the teacher sitting in the driver’s seat. Among the children walking to the gates of the elementary school were the two first graders, Myeong-su and the boy, one third grader, one fifth grader, and two sixth graders. The sixth graders were very composed within and without the boundaries of the institute, and the third and fifth graders followed their every step. True to his status as a carefree, energetic first grader, however, Myeong-su ran into the school grounds, dragging the boy by the hand. The older children did nothing to stop them. Rather, they looked wholly uninterested, their steps seemingly much heavier than those of other students. But Myeong-su was too excited to pay attention to such things, and he just kept on running with the boy, who ran along like a leashed puppy. Though it looked like the boy was forcing himself to go along with Myeong-su, he was actually having just as much fun. He had recently discovered the existence of the school library and was ecstatic at the thought of feasting upon the mighty(?) collections of books within. The fact that all the children from the institute took the van to get to school meant that the boy always arrived before his classmates. Once in the classroom, he left his bag at his seat and headed straight to the library.
“You’re first again.” The librarian had just started to open the library, and the boy greeted her, a gleeful smile on his face. “You can go right ahead.”
Having been granted permission, the boy bowed once again to the librarian, who was making her way towards her desk, and ran into the library. The musty scent of the books that had collected overnight filled his nose, and it almost felt sweet to him. He chose three books to read for that day, all relatively thin. His knowledge and comprehension were still not advanced enough for him tackle thicker books, causing him to always reach for the thinner books, meant for the younger students, without caring for their content. Such books mainly came out in series, so he had made it a habit to just go through the books series by series. Though the boy might have been unaware, children’s books were not necessarily limited to just biographies and fairy tales, but also included illustrated classical literature and economics, which were enough to satisfy the boy’s thirst for knowledge. Thanks to this, he had been able to catch up on his past seven years of no education and quickly learned about the systems of this world, as well as the social environment he was in.
He was also able to fully concentrate on books because they provided an escape from all the sadness and despair that came from being thrown into a completely new society and lifestyle. Or rather, he had no choice but to fully concentrate on books. His memories of the past still haunted him, no matter how much time passed.
Once the teachers’ morning meeting ended, Hee Yeon went back into her classroom. Her students, who once seemed like water in hot oil, now felt like powder filling up a lidless blender. Though she had no way of knowing when the blender would turn on and scatter the powder everywhere, things were under control as long as she kept a watchful eye on the switch.
Because classes had not started yet, the switch seemed to be half pressed already, though the students attempted, if only a little, to quiet down when the teacher had walked in. Only Jihoon, apparently still in hot oil rather than the blender, spoke loudly to his friend, while the rest of the students remained in their seats and murmured to each other. The children had no way of knowing that their collective murmurs let to a very loud ruckus. Only one student, called ‘plaster face’ by the other kids even though he looked more like a ‘Julian,’ paid no mind to the noise and silently read his book. After almost a full semester of knowing him, Hee Yeon thought that he was possibly in the school’s top ranks when it came to concentration and attitude towards learning, and though he hadn’t stood out that much at the beginning of the semester, he had started to show great improvement in writing composition and math. When the teacher in charge of the afterschool classes spoke to her about the boy, complimenting him greatly in his skills, Hee Yeon’s expectations of him had grown even more. Looking at him now, reading his book, it was hard to imagine that he was from an institute.
Just then, the bell rang out, signaling the start of classes.
“Well then!” Announced Hee Yeon. “We’ll begin class. Do you know what’s for first period?”
Hee Yeon smiled despite herself. The students seemed like small birds all singing together. Then she met eyes with ‘Julian.’ Though she was unsure when it had started, she definitely felt that family learning classes drained her the most, especially when looking at those eyes, filled with such sorrow. The teacher of three years couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt whenever she met those eyes, and she didn’t even know why.
*(?) – this is often used when the word used before it conveys the connotation the author wants, but is not fully accurate. For example, teachers likely helped calm the kids down and maybe reprimand them, but they didn’t actually physically suppress the students.
**scrofa – from Latin “scrofa,” it literally means “sow.” Typically used to refer to female pigs used for breeding.