"Today, we will break off into groups and pretend to be a family. You will each take on the role of the mother, father, and younger siblings, and then talk about how that made you feel. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Ms. Kim~"
Though she felt bad for 'Julian,' class was still just class, and everyone had circumstances of their own. Sure, first graders needed as much love and attention as possible, but 'Julian' was only one out of the thirty-two students Hee Yeon had to look after. She couldn't cancel class just for him alone.
She proceeded to divide the students into groups of four or five and gave them time to decide individual roles. Once the roles were clear, and students had chosen who was to be the mom or the dad, or even uncles and grandparents, the family play began with no issues.
"Here," said one of the students playing the mother role. "Take this money and go buy whatever you wish to eat."
The student then pretended to give the "son" some money. This likely stemmed from the student's wishes that their own mother would do something similar.
"No, no. Let go. You can't do that. I told you not to do that. Why can't you just listen for once?"
The students who had taken on the mother's role tried their hardest to be harsh and reprimanding, and the other students cheered and clapped their hands at the superb performance.
"Hey," said one of the students. "Can you give me some money? I want to play games."
"What role are you playing?" Asked Hee Yeon, approaching one of the groups
"It's my uncle."
Hee Yeon couldn't help but give a small, sad smile.
'Julian' and his group were up next. Surprisingly, 'Julian' had taken the role of the father. Three girls played the part of the mother and two daughters. The mother cleaned the house while the older daughter volunteered to help sweep the floor. The younger daughter, on the other hand, grabbed onto the mother to beg for cookies, which made the rest of the class laugh. Indeed, watching the daughter cling to the much shorter mother was enough to make even Hee Yeon chuckle. In the midst of all this, however, 'Julian' behaving quite oddly, swinging an imaginary axe away from the rest of the family. When asked about this, he had simply answered, "I'm cutting a tree to make a chair."
The other students seemed amazed by this, letting out a collective "wow." Even Hee Yeon thought it was quite the spectacle. Making a chair? And not even an assembly type, but from scratch, by cutting down a tree? It just was not possible, according to all logic and common sense. After all, in the Republic of Korea, it was illegal for an individual to freely cut down trees. While Hee Yeon was lost in her thoughts, one of the students shouted out. "How can you make a chair? You don't even have a dad. It's all a lie."
Such a response was to be expected of a child so young. Children, after all, acted maliciously without necessarily meaning any harm and lacked the ability to even distinguish good from bad. On top of that, only having been in the profession for three years, Hee Yeon lacked the proper experience to respond to such provocations in a timely manner. She hesitated for a moment, unsure of how to take care of this emergency. Just as she regained her composure, an awkward smile plastered on her face in an effort to make things better, the boy spoke.
"There was a forest right behind our house." He said, as the students all stared at him. "About…thirty minutes into the forest, there were many red cedar trees. You make chairs with them. Red cedars have smaller burls than other trees, so the wood is prettier. It's good for making chairs and tables too, because it's much lighter and harder."
He spoke calmly, his voice neither too loud nor too quiet, and Hee Yeon let him continue. She had no intention of stopping him now.
"You use a saw to cut the wood down into the appropriate pieces for a chair. It's crucial that you cut along the grain. My father said that if you cut against it, the chair will be too weak and won't last as long."
The boy stopped speaking for a moment, and silence reigned in the classroom. No one could bring themselves to interrupt.
"Once you have the wood in the adequate size and shape," the boy continued once again, "you have to sand it down. I can start helping from this point. I smooth out all the edges and corners and then dust it off so that Dad can oil everything. You leave it out to dry, and three days after you sand it and oil it again. If you repeat this process two more times, the wood won't rot so easily, and it becomes a chair warm enough for our family to use. That's what my father said."
As he spoke, the boy's gaze had gradually dropped lower and lower, and when he had finally finished explaining, he had dropped his entire head to look at the floor beneath him. Looking at him, even the children knew better than to make thoughtless remarks.
"Well, maybe he read it in a book?" Asked the librarian after hearing Hee Yeon's story. However, Hee Yeon was wholly unconvinced, and tilted her head to the side skeptically. "You think so? He described it in so much detail, though. It really felt like he was speaking from experience."
The librarian, Miss Lee, took a sip of the coffee she had been staring at, noticing that the instant coffee mix was much too sweet for her tastes, and began her rebuttal.
"Well, I wasn't there to hear it, so I guess I'll just have to take your word on how "it really felt," but I'm sure you'll find some books on woodwork in this library, if you look hard enough. To be honest, I think that boy is clever enough to embellish his stories to make them sound true. You know, kind of like that one condition where you believe your own lies. What was it…"
Before Hee Yeon could even think of answering, Miss Lee continued without missing a beat.
"Oh yes, Ripley's syndrome! I'm sure he has some inferiority complex or another, considering all the other children have parents and he doesn't. So he made up a pretty little story about an all-talented father who makes him chairs just like that. I guess that's what he considers to be admirable, the young thing. Who makes chairs by hand anyway? In this day and age? You can buy premade, fully functional chairs nearly anywhere."
Upon sensing that she had become too engrossed in her own story and Hee Yeon was now noticeably glaring at her, Miss Lee quickly fumbled for an excuse to make up for this mistake. "Of course, I'm not saying the child is bad in any way. I'm also rather fond of him. He's the only one who comes to the library first thing in the morning. He can be a bit shy, but who could ever have anything bad to say about such a diligent, reliable child?"
Wholly disregarding the librarian's feeble attempts to placate her, Hee Yeon felt that it was a very plausible explanation for the boy's behavior, even if she was morally inclined to disagree. Should she notify the institute about this?
The boy in question was reading in the classroom, blissfully ignorant of his teacher's dilemma. Morning classes had already ended, and he was now waiting for the after-school classes held in the afternoon. Today's class was math, which was one of the main reasons he had come to love school so much. The first and most important reason would always be reading. Though elementary level math was nothing too impressive, the boy thought it wondrous, almost like a subject that only mages in fantasy novels would be able to master. No one in the peasant town ever dealt with numbers, and the only example of counting they did was counting piles of wood. The boy had learned, for the first time in his life, that precise numbers could be used in daily life.
For a child so eager to learn everything that he could, curricula had no meaning. As the phrase went, "a word to the wise is enough," especially when it came to mathematics. If a child, any child, took an interest in numbers, they could easily grasp the idea of three-digit numbers in first grade, even if it's meant to be taught in second grade. From there, the concept of four-digit numbers or greater would hardly be an issue. Moreover, elementary school math focuses on practical applications of numbers, providing various situations in which children must use operations to solve problems, and as such, the boy easily taught himself the basics of the subject simply by reading through the textbook. The after-school classes also had great impact, and while his classmates learned numbers up to fifty and the concept of even and odd numbers, the boy had already mastered the concept of addition, subtraction, and even multiplication, and reviewed this knowledge by solving math problems on his own.
In the classroom, as the boy kept reading through his textbook with the faintest of smiles on his face, a pair of eyes watched him furtively. It was his classmate, Kyung-eun. She was a tall girl, taller than most other classmates, which meant that she sat in the back during morning classes, away from the boy. She had started to take interest in him quite recently. To be more specific, she had started to take interest following the 'incident' a few days ago.
In the beginning of the semester, she had been busy befriending other girls in the class, and after that, she had extended her friendship and interest in boys as well. For example, her main object of interest was Jihoon, who was always being reprimanded by the teachers and yet had an outstanding reputation among his peers. As her interest in boys developed, she was taken aback by the interesting "dad" performance that the boy had shown. Until that point, she had only thought of him as an exotic looking, lonely classmate. After his performance, however, she began to think of him as a "mysterious boy full of secrets." Still, she was much too shy to talk to him after almost a full semester of not even making eye contact, so all she could do to express her interest was to steal a look at him every so often.
But something was different today. There weren't that many students attending after-school classes, so there were less witnesses to her embarrassment. Thus, she decided to let her curiosity take over.
"Hey…" She began hesitantly, but the boy kept writing numbers down in his notebook. "…Plaster face."
As soon as the word left her mouth, she knew she had made a terrible mistake. She had seen the other children call him that, and she had used his nickname without really thinking about it. Realizing what she had done, her face burned scarlet, but her initial goal had been met.
The boy turned towards Kyung-eun and looked at her.
<The New Semester (2)> End