Monday was not as easy as it looked to be. After the writing competition, Sae’s head teacher looked like someone coerced him into swallowing the most bitter pill that ever existed in all years of mankind.
Although one of his students did participate in the competition, it was entirely out of his own decision. Sae went because he wanted to, and did not go to win. This fact got voiced out loud as well. The palpable unwillingness of this foolish pupil to strive for the top baffled the young and ambitious head teacher, making his insides boil.
When he shared his concerns with other personnel of the faculty, Teacher Beyan of science class II couldn't contain himself any longer and laughed in the man’s face. "What? Do you think it's you who has it bad? Try running after kids who aren't only apathetic to academic achievements, but on top of that make trouble everywhere they go. “Let’s take Shum Deil for instance. He's got immense intelligence – could sweep every high school off their feet. But what does he do?" Teacher Beyan shook his head disapprovingly. "Not one prestigious school would take him. What do great grades mean when his personal record is a mess?"
"You have other students to count on." Sae's head teacher did not sympathise. Who cared if one great sapling got away when there were at least five others, making sure that teacher Beyan’s performance would skyrocket out of all the graduating class' head teachers?
The older man laughed. "Doesn't matter in this case. That kid Deil is definitely the best, no question about it, and still... However we try to gloss it, records speak louder than whatever I personally think or say. This isn't feasible."
"Are you the one pressured by the principal?" Sae’s head teacher asked, wallowing in self-pity.
A knock on the door to the teachers' office made the adults stop talking. Teacher Beyan swivelled his chair around and started fiddling with his phone.
Sae’s head teacher let out a heavy sigh, muttering under his breath, Heavens!
After knocking, Hoh Saering stepped inside the office and went straight for his head teacher’s desk. The atmosphere in the office was still slightly tense. Sae’s head teacher tried to smooth out his expression while the boy placed the slip confirming his attendance at the competition onto his desk.
"You're back! How did it go?" The teacher couldn't help eagerness slip into his tone.
After a minute, Sae shrugged his shoulder. "It was alright."
"Did you come in first?"
"No." Neither lament nor penance marred the boy's voice.
Sae’s head teacher changed his countenance at once. The eagerness with which he greeted only a moment ago vanished altogether, the glint in his eyes dimming. "Which place?" he asked, trying for a perfunctorily remark.
The boy standing
before him did not say a word. His head hung down a bit.
Was the child trying to hide his rueful expression? Could it be that he placed so low he did not want to share the scale of his failure?
Teacher Beyan with his back turned to them gave a piteous look over his shoulder, gaze colliding with his colleague’s. That look said a lot. It really was tedious work, managing the humanities class. A swell of pride and superiority flooded his chest, for he was a science stream head teacher. He turned back to his phone with a smirk.
Sae’s head teacher wordlessly stared for a minute before dismissing his student with a wave of his hand. "Go pack your things. You can leave after lunch."
Sae did not have to be told twice. He bid his farewell and pulled out of the office.
In that instant,
Sae’s head teacher turned to call the foundation and inquire about the issue.
He did not talk for long, but with every uttered sentence of the phone call,
his face darkened.
"What do you mean he didn't submit the item? Well, where did it go?" The young teacher's outrage pulled at his colleagues' attention. Several of them stole furtive glances in his direction. He tried to control his voice. "Then, does that mean that if he presented it..."
A string of words droned from the line. Teacher Beyan put his phone down and blatantly tried to follow the conversation, going as far as to inch closer with the help of his rolling chair.
"I understand. No, I–– Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience. I will talk to him. Yes. I'll make sure this won't happen again." Sae’s head teacher supported his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I can't express how indignant I am about this behaviour. I'm truly sorry. Please send me the contact information of the head judge, I'd like to apologise personally."
After a pause, a dragged-out breath left his mouth, "Thank you, thank you for your hard work. Goodbye."
The call finally ended.
"What happened?" asked Teacher Beyan from the side.
"Nothing," replied Sae’s head teacher, but he was visibly seething. He could not remember when was the last time he got humiliated to this extent.
He had an old classmate working for the foundation. While trying to build some rapport between H Junior High and the foundation, he brought to this classmate's notice how talented of a pupil he had going to the competition. Now, he had to bear the brunt of his big mouth. Frankly speaking, it was the classic example of digging oneself a pit to fall into.
Sae’s head teacher pulled out his phone, searching through his contacts. He made a quick call which rang out several times but didn't go through. "Dammit," muttering under his breath, he composed a succinct text message and hit send.
Thereafter, a message arrived from the managerial team’s chief pertaining to the contact information they discussed on the phone. Sae’s head teacher thanked the message in an engaging way.
Frustration filled his chest. Even his head hurt from how worked up he got. This was an absolute embarrassment!
Aggravated and weary, he tried to prepare for his next class.
Teo and the others had already finished their lunch, so Sae had to queue alone in the lunchroom. The line before him was rather long and he had to wait for a while.
Right before it got to Sae’s turn, his phone lit up with a message from his head teacher:
––I talked with the foundation about the competition. You cannot leave school. Come to the office following afternoon classes.
Just about time.
Sae felt hungry and a little pissed, although he knew he had nothing to be pissed about. The one to stir the pot had been him, so now the one to bear the consequences also had to be him.
It wasn’t his deeply rooted desire to go against his teacher's wishes at all cost. But, as Sae sat at the competition in that fancy atrium, with furious scribbles filling the air, flocking to be the only sound to be heard, the pressure of adequacy almost crushed his soul.
He had his submission slip filled with words that suddenly did not have any meaning, besides the means to classify students into categories, such as superior and inferior. In the end, the winner got proclaimed ‘an excellent child’. But these kids were worth a thousand times more than a piece of paper, yet absurdly enough, got judged based on just that, a single piece of paper.
Even now, as Sae sat down to eat, he started seething if he thought back on it.
"Sae!" A voice hollered from his right.
With a mouth stuffed full with food, Sae could only lift his chin back as a greeting. Kaikai quickly approached and took the seat across from him at the table.
Kaikai was an oddity in the collective little world of the kids growing up together around the area. His name wasn't even Kaikai, it was just an abbreviation that someone called him way back in elementary school, but it stuck. Now, sometimes even teachers forgot about it and called him Kaikai by mistake.
"How come you're back already?" Kaikai made chit-chat like second nature. That was one of his best features; he made anyone and everyone feel comfortable being around him.
Sae swallowed before he responded, "It didn’t take much time.”
The boy opposite him nodded. "You off after lunch? Ah, how I wish to have a whole afternoon without extra classes." He sighed with feeling before taking an enormous bite of his food. Sae feared even the tip of the spoon wouldn't get off scot-free.
After a glance to make sure the utensil was still intact Sae said, "I have to stay for afternoon classes as well."
"It's not important." Sae waved a lazy hand. His train of speech then took a turn, "Are the parents hard on you again? It's almost exam time."
Kaikai went to the same school, but his parents graduated from the best university in the country. They had a house and income of several families combined, making money off of people like his classmates' parents. His older sister was aiming for medical school, the best one in the country, with early admissions at that. Hence, Kaikai had to measure up to standards higher than most.
Unfortunately, even with the pricey tutors and extra classes his parents regularly paid for, the boy was somewhere along the median in most subjects. He also did not raise any special talents.
"Don't even ask. I can barely keep them off my back.” One thing Kaikai had always been was headstrong. The first time he showed the true magnitude of his mulishness he made a fuss and protested until his parents gave up and registered him in the district's local junior high of average education. This line of thinking went even further. He didn’t plan to raise his nonexistent ambitions regarding high school admittance either. His parents still tried to guide him in the right direction, though.
“It's easier if I'm not that good with my brain. Less expectation to trample on.” Kaikai heaved a sigh. “Although if you ask my parents, I'm trampling all over them either way. Maybe I should rebel as well. But I don't know shit about fighting.”
"Your family's too proper to allow that,” Sae rebutted. “You have to be a secret genius too, to look cool in your rebellious act. Cultured rich boys can rebel without a second glance because they're on another level. Don't degrade yourself for nothing."
"Haha," Kaikai flipped him off. "I'll take secret classes from you then."
Sae mirrored his movement. “Fuck off.”
The lunchroom was filled with chatter and felt a little warm, the air humid and fragrant with the aroma of food.
"I wanted to ask...” Kaikai said, “Do you have some business with Shum Deil, mayhap? I'm only asking because he's been, I don't even know... collecting information about you? He keeps asking around. It's kind of creepy if you don't know him at all."
don't say! He's been staring at me for the last few weeks.
Sae shook his head but did not say anything.
Kaikai stared at him for a minute before tucking his head down and taking another mouthful of his lunch. "How's the little girl?" he asked in an abrupt change of topic. "I heard she got into a scuffle..."
The incident had happened almost a month ago, but Kaikai was asking about it now out of all times? That had to be deliberate. Sae narrowed his eyes, "When did you hear about that?"
"When Shum Deil asked me if you had a girlfriend."
"Fuck,” Sae’s mouth almost made a small and round ‘o’ shape. "To that extent?"
"Yeah," Kaikai nodded. "It was on the school forum and all . . . So, did Emi beat off the other girl really bad?"
"Why are you asking me?" Sae wanted to laugh. "Ask her if you want to know something. Am I the know-it-all confidant or the nanny?"
Kaikai and Emi were on good terms, as the boy had been one of Sae's closest friends for years. In fact, all of his friends looked after the little girl like she was Sae's blood related sister.
Soon after quibbling, Sae relented. "Even if you ask, you know she'd say she barely grazed the other. She felt wronged. It's better to not bring up the topic."
"Got it." Kaikai nodded. He no longer tried to pry.
They ate without the need to chat nonstop or fill the quiet. Another positive trait of Kaikai was that even eating in silence with him would not get awkward. He knew exactly how much to say so as not to irritate others. Kaikai had a crazy good sense of social competence. Depending on what the situation required, he could shut up or goof around, malleable to any interaction that may come.
But at that moment, even if the two tried to talk, it would have been troublesome. Kaikai ate like a famished wolf – really at odds with the proper image his family was going for. Sae still had a bit left on his tray by the time Kaikai had finished, even though he started eating earlier.
The boy checked his expensive watch, stood up, and tidied the table around himself. "If you owe some money but don't want to ask for help..." Kaikai didn't finish. He made a 'chk' sound in his throat and winked.
laughed. This crazy puppy obviously thought he was the shit.
He shooed the other away.
As Kaikai stepped around Sae – tray in hand and still grinning, he leaned down to whisper something to him. He even used one of his hands as a cover loosely cupped around Sae's ear.
"You eat like a snail," Kaikai said in a low voice, "Keep up the good work in case someone's eyes are on you." He snickered and left.