Disappointingly, the boys were just like the teacher. In Seoul when a new transfer student arrived, the other children took advantage of the first break in class to surround him and ask all sorts of questions: Are you good at school? Are you strong? Are you well off? They asked questions like these to gather the basic materials for establishing a relationship later on. But my new classmates, like my new teacher, had little interest in this. At the break they stood at a distance stealing quick glances across. And when finally at lunchtime a few boys did gather around, it was only to ask whether I had been on a tram, had seen South Gate, and other questions of this sort. In fact, the only things they seemed envious of, or impressed by, were my school supplies. These were of high quality and I was the only one who had them.
But to this day, nearly thirty years later, what makes the memory of that first day so vivid in my mind was my meeting with Om Sokdae.
"Get out of the way, all of you!"
The few children were ringed around me in the classroom asking their questions when suddenly a low voice sounded softly from behind them. It was a grown-up voice, sufficiently so for me to wonder if the teacher had come back. The children flinched and stepped back abruptly. I was taken by surprise, too. I turned around in my chair and saw a boy sitting at a desk at the back of the middle row; he was solidly planked down there and he looked at us with a certain air of resignation.
We had only been in class together for an hour, but I knew this fellow. From the way he shouted "Attention! Salute!" when the teacher came in, I presumed he was the class monitor. The other reason I could distinguish him immediately among the nearly sixty students in the class, all of whom were much the same size, was that sitting down he seemed a head taller than any of the other boys -- and his eyes seemed to burn into me.
"Han Pyongt'ae, you said, right? Come here."
He spoke once again in that same soft but firm voice. That was all; he didn't move a finger; And yet I found myself almost getting up. Such was the strange effect his eyes had on me.
I braced myself, with the shrewd sophistication of a Seoulite. My first fight, I thought, and with this sudden realization came a determination to see it through to the end. If I let myself be seen as easy prey from the beginning, I figured life here would be difficult. But could I fight back in the face of the baffling, virtually absolute obedience of the others?
"What do you want?" I answered defiantly, pulling in my tummy; he just snickered contemptuously.
"I want to ask you something," he said.
"If you want to ask something, come on over here then."
The corners of his eyes suddenly arched as if to say that he'd heard everything now; again he snickered. He said no more; he just looked at me quietly, his eyes glued to me so intensely that it was difficult to meet them. But I had come too far to back down now. This too is a kind of fight, I thought, bracing myself with all my strength. Two of the bigger boys who were sitting beside him got up and came over to me.
They both looked angry. It seemed as if they might pounce on me at any moment. Any way I looked at it, I wouldn't be able to take on both of them. Suddenly I was on my feet. One of them grabbed me roughly by the collar and shouted, "Didn't Om Sokdae, the class monitor, tell you to come over?"
This was the first time I had heard the name Om Sokdae. It was engraved on my memory from the moment I heard it, perhaps because of the odd tone of voice the boy used to pronounce it. It was as if he were using the name of someone very great and noble, as if respect and obedience for such a person were only fitting. This made me shrink again, but I couldn't give in now. One hundred and twenty eyes were watching me.
Copyright © 2001 Yi Munyol. Copyright © 1987 by Kevin O'Rourke. Reprinted by the permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publishe
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