2: A New World
At the heart of Gwang-jin District with a picturesque view of the Han River, Seoul Integrated High School was an internationally accredited private school that mostly housed upper middle class to extremely rich and elite class students from grades 10 to 12. A minority of students from the lower middle class and below who seldom got enrolled were either ones whose parents pushed their children to study there despite their meager salaries, or those potential students who got admitted through a scholarship, freely funded by some sort of foundation.
Seo Ye-jin was part of the latter group, having won a slot after passing the arduous exam and interview portion. Her grades had exceeded the school board's expectations, so she qualified for a grade acceleration. Instead of entering the 11th grade as she was supposed to, the school board deemed it recommendable for her to skip it and attend their school as a 12th grader instead. She was only 17, but will be entering her senior year this coming March.
A few days before the start of the new semester, S.I. High's admissions office organized a school tour for the new enrollees, a small batch of 35 students overall. A sweeping tarpaulin draped across the top of the main entrance of the institution, was printed in the school's official school colors: dark blue, gold, and white.
"Welcome new students to Seoul Integrated High School! Let's have a rewarding year together!" Mr. Cha, the head of the admissions office, read the greeting cheerfully, beaming at the students, whom he noted were mostly 10th graders. He started with the usual formalities, introducing himself and the 3 student facilitators who were with him to help manage the group during the tour. They looked quite respectable in their uniforms, in contrast to the casual attire that the new enrollees were currently wearing since they weren't required to be in their uniforms yet.
Starting with the main building, Mr. Cha showed them the auditorium on the first floor where various events like graduations were held. Next to it was the cafeteria, a spacious dining area with a high ceiling and multiple dining tables that varied— long tables and benches for big groups of students, smaller round tables for a few close friends, and some bar-style tables by the wall if some preferred to dine alone. Right above the cafeteria were the classrooms: for 10th graders first, going up to the 12th graders' rooms which were on the top floor. Each floor had specified reading and study rooms to ensure a conducive study environment for when the students needed it.
There was a second building separated from the main one by a cobblestone walkway, where the facilities for their different subjects were located. Laboratories for various science subjects, cooking rooms with modernized kitchens for their home economics classes, a gymnasium with a mini indoor oval track, were conveniently put together for easy access. For the art-related subjects, there were practice studios for music and dance students; there also was an art room with extensive glass windows to let the natural light in.
Ye-jin was most impressed by the art room in particular, already imagining herself spending a lot of her time in it. She couldn't remember a time since her childhood when she wasn't holding a paper and pencil, scribbling or doodling her time away; now having this space she could feel at home in, her mind began to dream up the ideas she could start to work on once the semester began. She pressed her face closer to the small window on the door when it clicked. Open for entry. She stumbled inside but caught herself before she fell on the floor; her footsteps echoed and broke the silence as she regained her balance.
It was surreal to actually be inside the room, as though Ye-jin had stepped into a different world, set apart from the rest of the touring group. A bunch of empty easels were lined up on the side closest to her, while the shelves served as storage to lots of paintbrushes, pencils, and other materials.
A narrower door at the end of the art room which Ye-jin hadn't noticed beforehand suddenly opened, and she stepped back in surprise, not expecting to have another person inside. A middle-aged woman wearing a beige button-down shirt and slacks saw Ye-jin and was equally surprised, dropping her mop and the bucket, spilling the dirty water back on the floor.
"I'm sorry!" Ye-jin came to the woman's help, helping wipe up the spill with some of the rags while the woman mopped it back up. "I didn't know there was someone in the room… not that I'm allowed to be here in the first place."
"You're one of the new students?" The woman asked.
"Yes." Ye-jin squeezed the water out of the rags back into the bucket.
"Thanks for helping. They did tell us there was going to be a tour today. We were just cleaning up the campus before the semester started."
"Well the art room is clean now. I'm sorry I startled you, ma'am—" Ye-jin bowed as she apologized, but another voice had interrupted her.
"You!" One of the student facilitators who helped Mr. Cha stood at the entrance, glaring at Ye-jin. "What are you doing here?"
"You better go," the woman urged her.
"I'm really sorry. The door was open, and the janitor just happened to be here—"
"Then was it okay to enter the room just because it was open?" The guy was furious. "Next time, make sure to lock the door to keep this incident from happening again," he told the janitor rudely, not using honorifics when she could easily have been the same age as his mother.
Ye-jin cleared her throat. "Again, I'm sorry. I know you're mad at me but don't take it out on the janitor—"
"What part of 'group' tour don't you understand, miss?" The guy strode through the hallways back into the main building's lobby, while Ye-jin kept up with him. "Are you sure you're really qualified to study here if you can't follow simple instructions?"
"Hey— that's out of line," Ye-jin shot back. "I admit it, I shouldn't have lingered in the art room. But you can't question my qualifications. I applied and took the exam like everyone else."
The guy ignored her and reported back to Mr. Cha as soon as they had returned; Ye-jin kept her distance as they spoke. If he told Mr. Cha that she had been in the art room, Ye-jin was ready to apologize again, ten times over. The admissions director walked towards her, but instead of a reprimand, his voice was gentle.
"It's easy to get lost in this place when you're new," he told her. "Make sure to ask your classmates if you need any help, all right?"
"Yes, sir." Ye-jin agreed. "I'm sorry about what happened."
"Don't mention it. We were just worried because the head count didn't match up, and we realized you were missing. You may go. Do you have any concerns before we end the tour?"
"I'm all right." Ye-jin thanked Mr. Cha and said goodbye, also nodding curtly at the disgruntled student facilitator before leaving.