Chapter 9: The New Semester (3)
Kyung-eun hesitated for a moment before speaking again.
“What are you doing?” She asked, even though she had been watching him for a while now and knew exactly what he was doing. Unsure of whether she would be able to feign ignorance, she hid her fidgeting hands behind her back as she waited for him to answer.
That was the only answer she got. He really was a reserved kid. Though it was true that the boy had little to no experience talking to girls (there weren’t many girls in the institute either), it was mainly due to the fact that he wasn’t used to talking to his classmates at all. With no way of knowing this, Kyung-eun pushed on.
“You like books, right?” It was something that everyone knew about the boy, but the purpose of her question wasn’t to confirm this fact.
“Yes, I do.”
It was to see what sort of expression he would make. There weren’t many observable facial expressions he would make throughout the school day, to the point that people were now beginning to say that his nickname, “plaster face,” was because of his stoicism rather than his good looks. However, whenever the boy talked about books, his face would change slightly. It was a small change at best, but it was enough to be noticed by even his inexperienced classmates. Kyung-eun nevertheless felt as though she had solved a great mystery.
“Well, I have a lot of books at home. Do you wanna come see them?” The question dumbfounded Kyung-eun just as much as the boy, and they remained in silence for a moment. The boy was curious as to where the sudden invitation had come from, while Kyung-eun felt flustered, realizing the words that had come out of her mouth. “I mean,” she added quickly through the awkwardness, “My brother and sister both like books, so we have plenty. I read a lot too. I thought maybe you’d like to read them too. Or you can just borrow some, if you’d like.”
She was just spurting out words as they came to her, which the boy was oddly appreciative of. Kyung-eun was trying to be nice to him, and he couldn’t bring himself to flat out refuse. “I can’t go over so suddenly,” he explained. “Once school is over, I do have to get…home. But if you’re willing to lend me some, I’d be very grateful.”
The school policy dictated that first years were not allowed to check books out of the library, meaning that the boy had to return all the books once school ended. He had always felt a bit sad about this, so Kyung-eun’s invitation was more than he could ask for. The boy smiled at her then, trying to convey all his gratitude through it. She stared at him, almost entranced, before regaining her wits and rushing back to her seat. After a quick “Sure!” she turned back around to face the front of the class, and the boy went back to focusing on the problem he had been solving before.
School really was a such a nice place. There were teachers to kindly explain everything he was curious about, plenty of books on facts he had never known before, and classmates who were willing to extent their kindness to him. Though there were also prejudiced teachers who looked at him with eyes full of doubt, classmates who made fun of him for not having any parents or for not having the necessary materials for class, they weren’t important to him and he didn’t really care about them at all. The plentiful food and the abundance of knowledge were enough for him to lead a happy school life.
Lecturer Hae-ul Park was an experienced math lecturer, having been in the profession for ten years, and was placed in charge of after school math class. He had graduated a renowned university and escaped the threat of unemployment by acquiring a certificate as an after school lecturer. His experience as a private tutor had made him overconfident about taking on the job, but the struggles of working with elementary school children had taught him otherwise. That was only in the beginning, though, and after ten years, he felt relaxed enough to call himself a veteran lecturer. Or at least, that’s how he felt until this moment.
“Mr. Park? Is this also called a circle? But why?”
Hae-ul looked at the boy, who was pointing at an ellipse with eyes full of curiosity, and felt beads of sweat forming at his forehead. Considering elementary school curriculum, it was difficult to properly explain ellipses, especially to a first grader. “Well, remember learning that round things are called circles?” He asked, attempting to explain in a way he could understand. “This is also round, right? It’s not really a true circle, but it looks really similar, so we say that it’s part of the circle family.” Common sense dictated that elementary schoolers have difficulty understanding official, formal definitions, which is why they were taught geometry through comparison to other shapes or objects. For example, rather than explaining circles as “a set of all points in a plane that are at a given distance from a given point,” it was easier to compare them to basketballs, globes, or coins, which are all circular in shape.
However, the boy seemed wholly dissatisfied with this answer. “If being round is all that it takes, then is this also considered a circle?” He held up a drawing of a star, with all the corners rounded out. Hae-ul forced himself to smile and frantically tried to find the right words to help the boy understand, finally coming up with an appropriate solution. Before he could even open his mouth, the boy continued. “This book says that circles are polygons that have a center and a diameter. All the illustrations have the same diameter across the circle, but this one has a long diameter and a short diameter. Isn’t that why it’s not a circle?”
Hae-ul couldn’t help but admire the boy in front of him, and admitted to himself that he had to reevaluate him entirely. At the very least, he couldn’t treat a student who had understood the concept of a diameter simply by reading the textbook the same way he treated the other first graders. “I know that it can be a bit hard to understand for you all, but shall I try to explain it the same way I would explain it to your older siblings?” Perhaps, he thought, it wasn’t a bad idea to set an upper limit for the other children, who were now looking at him wide-eyed, all wondering how this would end. So he took to explaining geometry by providing standard, mathematical explanations to the children. “A triangle,” he began, “is a shape formed by connecting three points together, here, here, and here. It’s important that none of these three points are in the same line.”
“Can you have two points in one line?”
If he explained what a line was, would he be freed of the incessant questions?
“Wow, Mr. Park, that must have been tough for you.”
“Ugh, that’s the understatement of the year. I thought my head was going to explode.”
Hae-ul took a piece of kimchi and ate it while frowning at the thought of what had happened, which apparently struck his companion as funny and she began to laugh uncontrollably. It was Hae-ul’s friend and coworker, Mijin, who taught Writing and Composition. The two teachers had come to a gamja-tang* place after work to have dinner and wind down. Mijin had been hired at Hyewoon Elementary before Hae-ul, and after his acceptance as a lecturer, she had reached out to him first. Coincidentally, they were the same age, and their friendship took off, going out to eat or drink every so often.
“I’m telling you, that kid’s a genius. I don’t mean that like “oh I guess he’s smart.” No, he’s a true genius. You should hear him present in my classes. Makes me wonder if he really is just an elementary school kid. And a first grader at that! If it was just hearsay, I wouldn’t even bother to care, but this is actually happening right in front of me. How could I not believe it?” Mijin downed a glass of soju after saying her piece, and when she grimaced at its bitter taste, Hae-ul offered her some water.
“You know,” Hae-ul said, “he used to be just like the other kids. Quieter, even. He wouldn’t even say a word, right? But then one say he starts to ask a few questions here and there, and now it’s like he’s got an engine in his mouth. It’s nonstop.”
“Same here! I had no idea he could speak so well. Writing and composition? Give him a couple more years and he could take university entrance essay exams.”
“Wow, you went really far there.”
“I did, didn’t I? I do love hyperbole.”
The two laughed and drank their soju. Then they dipped their spoons into the boiling gamja-tang, and slowly but surely started to fill their stomachs with food.
*gamja-tang – pork bone stew. A spicy soup made from the spine/neck bones of a pig.