At recess, Sae had to collect everyone’s notebooks and take them to the teachers’ office. Even though he was not the class rep, the English teacher liked to entrust trivia to him from time to time; collecting or handing out papers being one of them. In all honesty, the task was unpleasant and a pain, but Sae did not have a strong opinion about it. He methodically went over each desk, reaching out his hand and waiting for the kids’ cooperation.
“I spoke to Susu next door and she said Shum Deil didn’t say a thing other than his name all morning,” the girl with long, deep chestnut coloured hair pointed to the classroom at the end of the hallway: Class D, science class II.
“Do the kids fear him?” Someone wondered aloud.
“What’s there to fear?” jeered Teo, his pale eyes radiant with defiance. More and more students left their seats and navigated to this group. “It’s not like he did anything good to get here, and you all are ready to treat him like some celebrity.”
“Bold of you to say this, when last week all you did was talk shit about him!”
Teo gave a bellowing laugh. “Hey, who said that?” His leg swung back and forth over the edge of the desk and he very much enjoyed the attention. “It’s not like I said any––”
“Teo, your notebook,” Sae called over. His voice wasn’t very loud, but it was crystal clear. Maybe it had to do with how equally self-assured and collected he sounded in every situation.
Teo jumped from the desk, “Coming.” Although he left, the makeshift little crowd lingered, gossiping.
“Sae, what do you think?” Teo rummaged for his notebook in the book basket of his desk. There were books and notes on and under it, and all around its perimeter.
Sae patiently waited, but hearing this, he raised one of his eyebrows. “About?”
Teo looked up, surprised. Wasn’t it obvious? “The transfer student, Shum Deil.”
Is there anything to think about? thought Sae. Outwardly he said, “Nothing.”
“You think you could take him on?”
Sae sighed, growing a bit impatient. He stretched out his hand, “Teo, the notebook.” His intention was not to waste time chatting.
“OK. Here.” After Teo handed the notebook over, his hand made a few slicing motions next to the tip of Sae’s ear. “You’re this much taller. I think you’d definitely take him.”
Sae silently looked at him, eyes unfathomable.
“Teo!” The long haired girl called. When Teo looked back, Sae had already moved on.
“So you’re going to stay in the district? M High,” the teacher repeated somewhat solemnly. He looked from the career plan questionnaire in his hand to the screen of his computer. "That’s a foundation school."
Sae's eyes swept through the teacher's desk. Every teacher had the same kind of cubicle styled space with a glass topped desk, a laptop, and filing boxes. Some tables had a few pictures or other personal objects cluttered around. Laid out in front of Sae on the desktop were several guidelines about the admission process of prestigious high schools. They specialised in foreign languages, science, and arts.
He glanced at them without touching, curling his fingers into a fist. Sae raised his eyes to his personal file opened in Word. Currently, he was sitting on the left side of his teacher, so both of them could see the computer screen.
The head teacher
scrolled down some. “You could aim higher than this, no? You're first in class,
first in humanities...”
But not in the whole year.
Sae's foot bounced up and down in quick succession. He was a bit sleepy, already bored and wanted to head home.
"I see you went to a few competitions and maintained first place almost all semesters. You never caused trouble, don’t have any demerits...Tell me, why do you want to go to M High so badly?"
"They have scholarships," replied Sae, plain and simple.
The head teacher's lips settled into a thin line. "If you're going for special admission, well, doesn't everyone have similar grades? How about you try taking the entrance exam? You're smart; you could get into any prestigious high school with ease. Think about it... a better high school ensures a smoother ride for university. Not to mention you could carry on H Junior High's high values."
Ahh... So it was all to boost H's reputation? No wonder the teacher who never paid extra attention to him zeroed in on him so firmly, all of a sudden.
"You could soar up however high you want. Isn't it a shame to waste that potential? Don’t you know what you want?" The head teacher tried to encourage him with a smile.
Sae's foot stopped. "Teacher, I'm––"
"Alright alright. You know what? I'll talk to your mother,” the man said, “Bring her in and we'll talk this through."
"No," Sae objected, “She can't come in.”
The teacher seemed a bit flabbergasted. Sae could imagine the thoughts coursing through the man’s head. Wasn't this about the child's future? What parent would decline an opportunity to listen to the head teacher’s advice? That was, essentially, the school’s stand on a child’s prospects in the future.
He tried to dampen his tone, explaining, "She's working."
The teacher waved his hand. "I'll call her."
Hearing this, the boy jolted forward. Stop.
The teacher searched for his mother's number, then checked his watch. He did not catch Sae's unusual demeanour.
In the end, Sae didn't actually grab the phone out of the man’s hand however much he wanted to. A student could not act so wilful towards his teacher. He only looked on with a blank expression.
After half a minute passed, the teacher looked up. "What are you still doing? Go on. Tell the next one to come in."
Sae stood up to leave with a small sigh.
"In the meantime," the teacher called after him, "Think about it, okay? Think about what you want. Is it something mediocre, or is it to fulfil your dreams."
Sae stared at the man for a second. He paid his respects and turned to go.
As the door to the teachers' office opened he almost crashed into someone. A boy with bruises on his face looked at him with irritation, his eyes shrouded under different shades of yellowish-brown. The boy was unfamiliar in a sense that Sae's eyes and mind had not gotten used to its contours and features, but familiar in a sense that he immediately knew who the other was.
Shum Deil raised his head to look at Sae with annoyance and an air of arrogance.
They were both
in the same year but while Sae qualified as an old-timer in the school, Shum
Deil only started out this morning.
Sae's gaze was cold as they stood in a stalemate, neither of them moving out of the way.
It was like a game of nerves to decide which one of them was more stubborn.
youth adjusted his posture, standing as tall as he could – unlike earlier this
morning when Sae had seen him.
Teo was right, even with Shum Deil's back ramrod straight, his hair could only brush the tip of Sae's forehead. And Sae wasn’t tall to begin with. Continuously waiting for that growth spurt to arrive proved quite inconvenient.
He sighed, indicating that this little demonstration of strength was truly enough. He got the message; the other party should move on now.
But the boy didn’t. Shum Deil trailed his eyes on him, travelling from his forehead to his chin.
A dark look crossed the other's face and the glare in his eyes turned nastier. He stepped closer and to the side, so his shoulder purposely bumped into Sae while he prompted in a low voice, "Where the fuck do I know you from?"