너같이 착한 아이
Seo-ah isn’t like that, I’d told myself over and over again since the call from her homeroom teacher. My daughter would never do anything of the sort.
The teacher explained that they received the report last week, that the school had installed a special committee for school violence the first thing on Monday morning, and that they would begin their investigation into the matter soon. Until that point, I’d assumed that Seo-ah had been the one who reported bullying committed against her. If only I had followed my intuition, I would have asked her exactly what had happened. I thought it was just like first term—a minor issue that would heal with time. Not actual violence.
Seo-ah’s dreams of art school were dashed this year, and she was forced to settle for an ordinary high school. She had sobbed over her crushed hopes, and I’d tried to console her, saying that she didn’t need to go to an arts-focused high school to get into an arts program in university, but it didn’t seem to help. Sending her to class every morning was a challenge, and I felt like I was walking on thin ice each day. What if she woke up in the morning and refused to go to school? What if she feigned sick and came home early? What if she refused to go to cram school? What if she came back from cram school and started crying her eyes out again? I was afraid those fearful days would last forever. But thankfully, Seo-ah slowly adjusted to high school and made it safely through the first term.
She seemed to falter in the second term, though, and several days ago, she locked herself in her room. I was sure I could hear her crying on and on. When I asked if everything was all right, she told me, “When has everything ever been all right at school? I’m just having a bit of a hard time.” She was so eerily calm that it was obvious she was holding back a maelstrom of emotions. If I pried, she might crack. I didn’t have to go that far. She would chatter about the things in her life, big and small, without me having to provoke her. It was best to let those feelings deflate gradually, instead of riling up her emotions. But that fateful phone call shattered my complacency. I realized I wasn’t really leaving her alone for her sake, but for my own. I’d been looking away because, deep down, I knew that what she said would make me anxious and uncomfortable. And when that thought took hold of me, I couldn’t help but blame myself for not even considering that my daughter was the victim of school violence. My husband could call me a failure as a mother, and he would be right.
But when I asked what had happened to Seo-ah, the homeroom teacher awkwardly explained that Seo-ah was not the victim. I had to ask again. The report had come from the parents of Hyeon-ji in the classroom next to hers, and Seo-ah was one of the students who would be interviewed for the investigation. She was a “student of interest.” Parents were also required to attend separate interviews, and the school would give notice when the date was fixed. I breathed a sigh of relief that Seo-ah wasn’t a victim, but hoped that she wouldn’t be framed as a bully. It had happened before when she was in the sixth grade. We didn’t want to go through that kind of trauma again.
Why did this keep happening to Seo-ah? She was a sweet, mild-mannered girl who couldn’t say no, and couldn’t bear to hurt anyone’s feelings. She always put her friends and her younger sister Ji-ah before her. She was afraid of being alienated by her group of friends, so she always tried so hard to win them over. Other kids saw how desperate she was, and some of them even took advantage of her desperation. At least once a year. I would always invite those kids home for a chat, and even speak to their parents and the teachers, but everyone acted innocent, as though Seo-ah was just being too sensitive. It always broke my heart.
Looking back, Hyeon-ji was one of those kids. Seo-ah had met her at cram school for English in fourth grade, and they’d been friends ever since. Hyeon-ji was an envious child. When Seo-ah scored better on a test or got praise from the teacher, Hyeon-ji gave her the silent treatment. When Seo-ah bombed a test, Hyeon-ji would gloat about her own results. Seo-ah stuck with her anyway. Tried so hard not to annoy her. I’d wanted to split them apart, but Seo-ah had cried, saying Hyeon-ji was her only friend. Hyeon-ji had always included her in their hangouts, that was true, and being with Hyeon-ji encouraged Seo-ah to study harder, so I decided to let them be. They had their share of fights over the years, but they had been together for so long that I assumed it would all be okay in the end. I knew Hyeon-ji’s mother, too, so if something had really happened between the girls, they would have spoken to me first instead of going to the school. I didn’t know what Hyeon-ji was going through, but I knew that Seo-ah was only being called in to give testimony. Anyone who knew Seo-ah would agree: she was the furthest thing in the world from a bully.
As I stood there in silence, the teacher explained that I should come to the school tomorrow for more details. It was only after the call that all the questions came flooding into my mind, but when I tried to call the teacher back, all I got were busy signals. Obsessively, I picked up the phone and put it down again, then picked it up again, wondering if I should call Hyeon-ji’s mother, but realized she would still be at work at this hour. I couldn’t just sit around waiting. I decided to call Ha-yan’s mother, who lived in the same condo complex as us, to ask about Hyeon-ji. The call went to voicemail, but eventually, Ha-yan’s mother sent back a text:
Sorry, I was on the phone with Se-yeon’s mom. Did you get a call from school, too?
When I replied, Yes, she called back.
“What did the teacher tell you?”
“Well . . . do you by any chance know what happened to Hyeon-ji? Apparently her mother reported someone for bullying. What do you think happened?”
“Is that all you heard? They didn’t tell you Seo-ah was a student of interest and ask you to come in for an interview with the teacher?”
“Oh. Um, right.”
I hesitated, wondering if Seo-ah had been singled out by Hyeon-ji, but Ha-yan’s mother went on before I could add anything.
“The school called Se-yeon and Hye-yun’s moms, too. Oh, but Seo-ah’s in the same class as Se-yeon, so I guess you don’t know the details, either. I don’t understand why Ha-yan and Seo-ah’s homeroom teachers won’t explain these things properly. Hye-yun’s teacher called in the morning and told her mom what happened. Did you know that Hyeon-ji was in a car crash a few days ago? Ha-yan says she’s in the ICU.”
“Oh. Um . . . right.”
I had no idea what had happened to Hyeon-ji. But I didn’t want to let that show. Why would Seo-ah not tell me something so important? Had something really happened between them? But then I realized that Seo-ah was probably still in shock, and that was why she had come home and cried every night.
“But here’s the thing,” said Ha-yan’s mother. “It wasn’t an accident. Hyeon-ji ran into the street. And her mom called the school violence hotline, saying she tried to commit suicide because she was being alienated by other students.”
The four students of interest, as well as Hyeon-ji, had all been in the same class in sixth grade. They’d all hung out together from the beginning. At first, they had been a group of seven, but some had split off to different junior high schools. But they kept in touch on social media and group chats, until five of them were assigned to the same high school and began to hang out together again. The other moms and I all knew that
Hyeon-ji was part of that group.
“But it doesn’t make any sense. Seo-ah didn’t say anything about Hyeon-ji being in an accident. Are they calling in our girls because they’re friends?”
“Don’t be naïve, Unni. These days, they call everyone ‘students of interest’ until the committee’s issued a verdict, regardless of whether they’re bullies or victims. Hye-yun’s mom says our girls were reported as the perpetrators. I don’t know what’s going on. There must have been a mistake somewhere. They’re not going straight to the school board’s review committee, though. This is just a preliminary investigation to make sure the charges are real. And even if someone really was bullied, the principal can technically resolve the issue on his own. The problem is if the victim doesn’t accept the verdict. That’s when the review committee gets involved. I’m pretty sure they’re only calling us in to fact-check everything. I’d like to talk to Hyeon-ji’s mom before that, but I have a feeling it might backfire since I haven’t seen or spoken to her since the girls were in grade school. Do you keep in touch with her? Hyeon-ji and Seo-ah were inseparable in junior high, right?”
“I haven’t seen her in person since the girls were in sixth grade, either. Hyeon-ji’s mom was busy with work, so I only ever talked to her on the phone when I picked up the girls from cram school during their first year of junior high. We fell out of touch when they started going to different cram schools the year after.”
“But you’re still the closest to her. Try giving her a call.”
“I was just about to, actually. I’m worried about
Hyeon-ji. But what can I even say if the girl’s in the ICU? Let’s wait for the kids to come home and talk to them first. We can discuss things again afterwards. Maybe someone is making a mountain out of a molehill, just like last time.”
“Exactly. I swear, what did we do to deserve this again? Maybe it’s time to see a shaman and hold an exorcism.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at being able to avoid contact with Hyeon-ji’s mother and the possibility of being blamed. Then I remembered how the girls had made it through the same thing in sixth grade. Things were going to be okay this time, too. I just knew it.
Still in her uniform, Seo-ah sat at her desk with her eyes glued to her phone. I was glad she didn’t burst into tears in the foyer like the night before, but it was frustrating to see her sit there as if nothing was wrong. If I were to ask about Hyeon-ji now, she would probably start sniffling and use that as an excuse to skip cram school. Midterms were only a few days away, and if she missed those extra classes, her grades would slide even further than first term. But the interview loomed threateningly over our heads, so I couldn’t just wait for her to bring up the subject.
“Honey, I heard from your homeroom teacher that Hyeon-ji was in an accident. Apparently she was being bullied by a group of students. Do you know anything about that?”
“Did something happen between you, honey? Your teacher asked me to come in, saying you were a student of interest. Please, you have to tell me.”
“Nothing happened, and I don’t feel like talking,” Seo-ah replied, eyes glued to the screen. That only convinced me that something had happened between the girls.
“Don’t you understand how serious this is?” I pleaded. “You can’t just clam up right now. I know you must feel awful about Hyeon-ji’s accident. But I need to know. Your university application is on the line here.”
“I just don’t get why they’re on our backs about this.”
“Me, Seong Se-yeon, Oh Ha-yan, and Song Hye-yun. They’re blaming us, saying we bullied Hyeon-ji.”
“You were all so happy to go to the same high school together. What’s happening here, honey? You’re still friends with Hyeon-ji, right?”
“We were all friends during the first term, but she stopped hanging out with us after the holidays. And me and the other girls only hang out together at lunch and walk to and from school together. We all go to different cram schools, it’s not like we have time to talk. I’m only hanging with Se-yeon because we’re in the same homeroom, and Ha-yan and Hye-yun hang out with their own classmates. Ha-yan’s in the same homeroom as Hyeon-ji, but she says Hyeon-ji never says anything even when people talk to her. She just studies all the time. I passed by her class during break, and she actually had a three-sided partition made of folders standing on her desk. None of the smart kids at school do that, everyone thinks she’s a total tryhard. She was never like that in elementary school. But then she started acting all prissy in junior high, and when I failed the art school applications, she stopped treating me like a person. I swear to God, she made me want to die every single day. Everyone knows she failed her science school application too, it’s so gross how she pretends that never happened and acts like she chose our school for the GPA. I bet she hates us even more ’cause the four of us are the only ones who know that.”
The girls’ first year of junior high had no exams, so we hadn’t known for sure how they were doing in class. Seo-ah studied ahead like she was taught at cram school and kept up with classes, and the teachers had all called her a model student. It was only after the first midterms during her second year that I realized Seo-ah had no talent for studying. Until then, I had blindly believed that Seo-ah was good at everything. She was always better than her little sister Ji-ah, who was slower than her peers overall, and she was ambitious. She’d won so many competitions in elementary school and even served on the student council, so I’d never in my wildest dreams expected to see such grades. Meanwhile, Hyeon-ji, who Seo-ah had always thought was on her level, had scored second highest in the entire grade. It was no wonder Seo-ah was so stressed. To say nothing of my husband, who had always bragged about Seo-ah’s grades. Rattled, he blamed me for not raising her properly. When I argued that she had tried her best and this was the result, he said it was because she took after me. The same man who went to a worse university than me and transferred to a much better school to launder his academic background. The best thing he’d ever done in his life was marry me and take over my father’s business, but whenever something went wrong, he acted as though it were my fault. I would be just about to shoot back, tell him to know his place, but I would stop myself, afraid the girls would learn about their father’s inferiority complex.
He never gave up hope for Seo-ah. He’d raved about her artistic skills since she was a little girl and insisted on giving her an artist’s education. Seo-ah liked art too, and fantasized about art school, so she did as her father told her and went to after-school art classes. Poorly versed in both academics and art, we had no idea just how brutal that path would be. Seo-ah was determined to get into an arts high school and refused to show any sign of weakness. She would get into art school and instantly make a name for herself as an artist, we assumed. It ended in disaster. When her application was rejected, she saw no way forward. If she’d been rejected by the high school of her dreams, she said between sobs, what hope did she have for beating the competition to get into university? What hope for the career she wanted? She tossed out all her art supplies, saying she would never draw again.
If not for him, Seo-ah wouldn’t have experienced failure so early. I felt so guilty for not having stopped him. That first failure left her horribly scarred. And to think that her closest friend had been rubbing salt in that wound with me none the wiser. Children were supposed to grow up, their rough edges filed away with time, but apparently, Hyeon-ji’s edges were as sharp as ever. Maybe that was why she ended up falling away from the other girls. The accident was a terrible tragedy, yes, but I was astounded that her mother would drag innocent classmates into this.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” I asked. “Or anything you haven’t told me? I have to know what happened so we can plan for what’s coming.”
“Mom, do you really think we bullied Hyeon-ji?”
I certainly didn’t think so, but I had to make sure.
“Okay, the truth is, it’s been forever since I even talked to her. But she started it. She hates being around us. The rest of us hang out together because we like each other, she’s the one who refuses to come along because she hates us, so how is this bullying or school violence or whatever? Why do I have to be all buddy-buddy with some girl who’s always looking down on me? Hyeon-ji’s the one dissing us behind our backs, why is everyone blaming us?”
Seo-ah’s learned how to stop being a doormat, I thought with a hint of pride. Was she such a bad girl for refusing to tolerate someone who treated her badly?
Se-yeon’s mother invited us all to her home, saying we should get the facts straight in person before we let the school investigate the girls. It was a little scary, pulling them out of cram school when midterms were so close, but we knew our priorities. I’d spoken with Ha-yan’s mother occasionally, but this was the first time since Seo-ah was in sixth grade that I met the other moms. We smiled awkwardly when someone noted that we only got together for occasions like this. These would be trying times just like before, but we were reassured by one another’s presence. We would support one another, this time without fear. Our hearts were steeled.
“From what I can tell, the girls just drifted apart from Hyeon-ji,” I started. “Why did her mother report it as school violence? I don’t think the girls singled her out or bullied her. That’s what the girls all said, right? I’m sure things will be fine as long as we can prove they’re innocent. Let’s have faith in our kids and get through this together.”
The others agreed. But Hye-yun’s mother noted, “Unni, I think there’s still room for them to frame the girls as bullies. Things were different last time. Remember? Ah-in’s mother asked the homeroom teacher to arbitrate, but then she dropped the case. She never filed an official report, so it never went on the girls’ permanent records. But Hyeon-ji’s parents went directly to the school violence hotline. There’s no dropping this case now. In the best-case scenario, the school will investigate and determine there was no bullying. In the second-best scenario, the principal arbitrates and settles the matter instead of forwarding it to the school board. If the case makes it to the review committee, there are going to be consequences. We could get into serious trouble if we’re not careful. If we really dig in our heels and claim it never happened, and they never find evidence, that would be great. But what if they do? Or what if someone comes forward as a witness?
Hyeon-ji’s mother isn’t going to let this go so easily. If we refuse to admit what happened and refuse to apologize, the girls could end up with even worse consequences. It might be safer to admit it happened, apologize, and maybe even make reparations if we want to make sure this doesn’t get sent up to the school board.”
Everyone seemed to agree that the second-best scenario would be the safest, but I had faith that we still had a shot at dropping the case altogether. It was for the girls’ futures. We had to make sure that they were not punished—that this whole mess was cleaned up as if it never happened. That was the only just outcome for the girls. They were innocent. The other moms seemed to think things were different from the sixth grade, but I disagreed.
In the winter just before graduating from elementary school, the parents of Lee Ah-in, a classmate of our girls, went to the homeroom teacher for help, claiming that Seo-ah and six other girls from the class had alienated her and spread rumors about her. Her family demanded an apology, threatening to make an official report to the school violence hotline. The homeroom teacher contacted all of us. Looking back, we could have easily ended things with an apology, but my husband and I had gotten so worked up that we escalated the situation. Ever since daycare, Seo-ah had always been on the wrong side of the bullies. Our blood boiled at the ludicrous accusation. We wouldn’t stand for it. It turned out that Hye-yun and Se-yeon were the ones who started talking behind Ah-in’s back first, and Seo-ah only happened to express agreement. Somehow, that made her a perpetrator. My husband consulted a lawyer specializing in school violence. The lawyer explained that because this case involved a group of students ostracizing an individual student, consequences were inevitable. She explained that if we wanted to avoid the worst, we had to reframe this as a collection of individual-to-individual issues; not something persistent, but separate one-time conflicts. She coached Seo-ah to claim that she had expressed sympathy towards how the other girls felt, but not that she agreed with their actions. The lawyer explained that an effective strategy would be to claim that Ah-in started it first, gossiping about our girls and starting arguments. Our cloud had a silver lining: seven girls had been accused, so we could work together to fabricate a scenario where Ah-in started the whole mess, and prep the girls to give testimony supporting one another’s claims.
My husband insisted to the other parents that we had to present a united front if we wanted to protect the girls’ futures. The other parents’ looks of doubt soon changed to nods of agreement, and before we knew it, we were all coaching our daughters as the lawyer instructed. My husband spoke with the homeroom teacher in person and professed his frustration at Seo-ah’s plight. Ah-in had been bothering Seo-ah for ages, he claimed, and Seo-ah had been traumatized by horrible things Ah-in had said. He put on such a convincing act that I even started to wonder if he’d been telling lies his entire life. I almost felt a pang of guilt, but told myself that it wasn’t all fiction. Seo-ah’s classmates had always given her a hard time.
The homeroom teacher promised to investigate the accusation. When she announced that she would speak with all related parties one-on-one, we insisted that the girls couldn’t make the time, and demanded that everyone be investigated together. The homeroom teacher didn’t want to drag the matter out, either, so she gathered Ah-in and all our girls together in the classroom. Seo-ah told us that the teacher stood as a neutral party and had Ah-in listen to the seven girls’ sides of the story in turn, not allowing her to interject. The girls each told their stories about how Ah-in had made them uncomfortable, and as the lawyer had instructed, acted as witnesses for one another to testify that Ah-in had started it all, talking behind their backs. Ah-in insisted she had done no such thing, but it was always harder to prove you hadn’t done something than the other way around. The scenario had been designed to perfection. The homeroom teacher’s trust in Ah-in dissipated. Convinced that both sides had the blame, she told both Ah-in and our girls to apologize to one another, but Ah-in claimed that she had done nothing to apologize for, and refused. She claimed that she had evidence and witnesses to our girls bullying her, and that she would report the case. The homeroom teacher lost her temper at the awful girl who refused to admit her own fault and only blamed others. When the girls told us the story, we were convinced that the homeroom teacher was at least, not on Ah-in’s side. Even if Ah-in’s parents were to report the case, the homeroom teacher’s testimony would not be in her favor. There was less than a month until graduation, but we were constantly on edge, wondering how Ah-in’s parents would respond and when they would report our girls. My husband called the school and regularly stopped by to meet the homeroom teacher and the vice-principal in person, expressing his frustration and discreetly asking if the report had been made. During the second meeting, the vice-principal warned him that Ah-in’s parents, although they had evidence, were choosing to show forbearance for the time being, and asked him to stop making a habit of these visits. I convinced my husband to stop because I didn’t want to escalate the situation and because it seemed like Ah-in’s parents wanted to let things blow over too, but my husband only got angrier, saying that the vice-principal was just being lazy. After what seemed like an eternity, the girls safely graduated from elementary school. Our efforts had paid off.
Later, I heard through the grapevine just how traumatized Ah-in had been during that meeting in the classroom, how she ended up getting counseling for years afterwards. And I heard why her parents never escalated the situation, even when they had evidence on hand. I would have done the same in their shoes. Dragging the girl from one investigation committee to another, forcing her to relive it all over and over again, would only hurt her more. When I learned that Ah-in was an outcast who couldn’t seem to acclimatize to junior high, I realized that our girls had never been at fault—Ah-in had been the problematic one. And if we hadn’t resisted with everything we had, Seo-ah would have ended up just as broken as her, and we would have regretted our powerlessness and complacency forever. Seo-ah was a good girl, and she was innocent, and because we were sure nothing like this would ever happen again, we didn’t feel a shred of guilt. It was strange to see history repeat like this. Yet again, all we could do was try our best to resist.
When I tried to rally the others, encouraging them to dig in their heels, Se-yeon’s mother asked anxiously, “But won’t Hyeon-ji’s mother know how we’re going to respond?”
“We have to believe in the girls. They said they weren’t ostracizing her. We just need to tell it like it is,” Ha-yan’s mother said nonchalantly, failing to hide the worry in her eyes.
Se-yeon’s mother turned on the voice recorder, and Hye-yun’s mother pulled out a pen and some paper. When we told the girls to tell us everything—about their relationship with Hyeon-ji, what had happened between them—the girls only exchanged silent looks. It wouldn’t be easy to get them to open up in front of us all. But finally, Hye-yun, who was brimming with anxiety, broke the silence.
“Okay, it’s true that we’re not on good terms, but I’m the victim here,” she explained. “I was dating this guy named Min-gyun since junior high, and he ended up in the same cram school as Hyeon-ji when we started high school. But Hyeon-ji started getting all friendly with him. I told her to stop getting close to my boyfriend, and you know what she said? ‘Then you should just get transferred to our class.’ How am I even supposed to get to the top-grade class when I’m barely surviving in the high-grade one? But I didn’t want to start a fight, so I let it slide. I didn’t want to lose both Min-gyun and Hyeon-ji. Then I ended up breaking up with Min-gyun, and Hyeon-ji started making fun of me for it. She went around saying I was being dramatic about some shallow relationship. I stopped talking to her after that. I’m not stupid, I’m not going to hang around her and let her destroy my self-esteem.”
Hye-yun had scarcely finished when Se-yeon piped up.
“Hyeon-ji was always totally self-absorbed. Not about grades back in elementary school, since we didn’t get ranked. But she’d always look for something she could lord over us with. Everyone used to call me pretty back then, and I was kind of popular, so she was desperate to be my friend. We kept up on Insta and Kakao in junior high, and you know what she said to me the first time we met up again in high school? ‘You look totally different.’ Like, she was calling me ugly. I know that. Anyone with eyes can see that. Apparently she said that I’d never be an actress with my looks, and even if I did, I was too much of an airhead to be any good at acting. Seo-ah told her to stop, but she just kept dissing me, when she’s the one who looks like a complete toad. Ugh, if Seo-ah hadn’t stopped me, I would have let the bitch have it. Why am I the bad guy, when I only ignored her because she was irritating me? If I knew I’d get framed, I’d have given her a good beating so I’d at least deserve it. This is stupid.”
Ha-yan was quick to pick up where Se-yeon left off. “I almost hit her too. We’re in the same class, so we did group projects and ate together sometimes. I’m kind of, I mean, seriously bad at math and art, but she really lent a hand. She doesn’t let her soft side show, but she’s actually helping out even when she’s swearing out loud. And she does have her own charm, sort of like a tiny frog. She’s actually nice, so I ignored it when she got irritating sometimes. But then I heard that she told the others how she hated me because I cursed all the time and that I was stupid and annoying. I got so angry I wanted to slap her. But then I thought about it, and she wasn’t wrong. I did kind of annoy her, to be honest, so I felt a little bad. I mean, she didn’t have to be my friend just because we went to elementary school together. So I just decided to avoid her on my own. It wasn’t like a big group of us singling her out.”
Finally, Seo-ah spoke.
“Nothing happened between me and Hyeon-ji. Ha-yan’s right, she’s kind of irritating sometimes, but she’s really nice to her friends. Hyeon-ji’s a total perfectionist and she knows exactly what she wants, so she gets mad if people don’t live up to that. I guess I was a little too slow and careless, especially after I didn’t make it to art school. She just cut me off. It really hurt. I thought we were best friends.”
We moms could barely look at one another in shame. How had these friends—my own daughter included—become such a sorry sight? It certainly didn’t sound like they had conspired to ostracize the girl, and I began to wonder what evidence Hyeon-ji’s mother had to report this to the school violence hotline.
“Is that really everything?” I asked. “Try to remember. You didn’t talk behind her back when she wasn’t around?”
The girls couldn’t immediately deny it. They made a visible effort to recall something.
That was when Se-yeon asked her own mother, “Okay, I’m curious, is it school violence when a group of friends decides to talk about someone else? Like, about how someone said something in a group chat and it made me mad, that kind of thing? Or do we have to make sure we whisper in each other’s ears in person for stuff like that?”
The girls snorted with laughter. Ha-yan said between giggles, “We used to get in so much trouble for whispering like that when we were little. They said it was, like, the worst thing ever.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to talk about someone behind their back?” Ha-yan’s mother said.
Seo-ah spoke up. “We didn’t diss Hyeon-ji behind her back. We were sharing how she hurt our feelings. Who else are we supposed to talk about that with? Someone who doesn’t know Hyeon-ji?”
“You make a very convincing argument, Seo-ah,” Se-yeon’s mother said with a chuckle. “How very eloquent of you. But it sounds like you did gossip about her on a group chat. Let’s look those up and delete those logs right now. You didn’t say anything about Hyeon-ji in group chats with anyone else, right? Just delete the entire chat, because apparently they look at message logs when they investigate these things. But I don’t think they’ll bring digital forensics into it.”
“Come on,” Hye-yun said, taken aback. “We haven’t gossiped about anyone on group chats since what happened with Ah-in. We don’t do anything that can be used as evidence.”
Hye-yun’s mother looked up from her notes. “Then did anyone hear or see Hyeon-ji make fun of someone? In real life or through texts? Let’s start with you, Se-yeon.”
“She used to say I looked totally different to my face, like, every day,” Se-yeon replied. “And she told Seo-ah that I was an airhead and that I’d never be an actress. That’s why Seo-ah ended up fighting Hyeon-ji.”
“She told me in person that I just had to make it to her class. Seo-ah and Se-yeon told me they heard her talk about how I was being dramatic about Min-gyun.”
“I mean, friends call each other stupid blockheads all the time, right? Um . . . who was it that told me she went around saying someone was gross? It was one of the girls, but I don’t remember because I don’t really care.”
“Seo-ah,” said Hye-yun’s mother. “You and Hyeon-ji drifted apart because you never really got along, right? It sounds like she went to you a lot when she wanted to talk behind someone’s back. Can you tell me when?”
She knew. Just like me, Hye-yun’s mother had noticed that Seo-ah was a witness to every instance of Hyeon-ji’s supposed gossiping. Maybe it wasn’t just the two of us, but everyone else in the room. I hoped dearly that Seo-ah had a reasonable answer.
“I don’t remember, she just talks crap about people so much. I don’t want to hear it, but I swear, every time she opens her mouth, she’s trash-talking someone. So it’s okay to let her diss us to our faces, and not for us to diss her in private? What, is being in the hospital a get out of jail free card?”
This was the first time I heard that Hyeon-ji was prone to badmouthing other people. Seo-ah had been at her side for years, and never once told me anything like that. Rather, she had always complained that Hyeon-ji had no interest in other people, and expressed disappointment that even she, her supposed best friend, never got much attention from her. The fact that all the testimony about Hyeon-ji led back to Seo-ah had been bothering me from the start, and Seo-ah’s answer only deepened my suspicions. That was when I remembered something Ji-ah always said: Mom, Seo-ah’s always lying to your face.
“How could you say that?” I demanded, cutting her off. If I let her keep talking, she might end up crossing the line. I’d had no idea Seo-ah was capable of being so heartless. “Your friend is in the hospital!”
“Please don’t be mad at Seo-ah,” said Ha-yan, as the other girls nodded. “She’s the one who always took Hyeon-ji’s side when we got mad at her. Hyeon-ji dissed Seo-ah the most, but she still covered for her. You wouldn’t talk like that to Seo-ah if you knew half the things Hyeon-ji did.”
I finally noticed that there was no hint of concern about Hyeon-ji in the other girls’ eyes. And Seo-ah, whose first response to grief was usually tears, showed no sign of worry in spite of the fact that Hyeon-ji was on the brink of death. I began to wonder if her crying in her room really had been because of Hyeon-ji’s accident.
“So what exactly did Hyeon-ji do to Seo-ah?” asked Hye-yun’s mother. “Did any of you see?”
The girls hesitated.
“It’s . . . it’s just too horrible to say,” Seo-ah said. “Hyeon-ji’s smart, she’d never do anything where people could see. She just picked on me because I looked like an easy target.”
The last vestiges of my trust were swept away. And I knew that I was not the only one who would doubt Seo-ah’s claims. The other girls all took her side, but the mothers only listened in silence. I was terrified that they would voice their doubts too and decide to agree that Seo-ah was the one who had spearheaded the bullying.
Ha-yan’s mother broke the silence.
“I understand, Seo-ah. You’re always trying so hard to be nice to your friends. We all know how gentle you are.” She turned to the mothers. “Can you really call this bullying? I’d love to ask Hyeon-ji’s mother to her face. Yes, it’s awful that she’s in the ICU, but does that woman even realize what kind of monster her daughter is? It looks to me like she’s just taking out her frustrations on us.”
I didn’t know if Ha-yan’s mother was just that oblivious, or if she was actively trying to help me. But either way, I nearly shed tears of gratitude.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll just tell the teachers exactly what we heard today. There wasn’t some big group of people ostracizing Hyeon-ji. She was the one being awful, and she was the one who started it. There’s no evidence, and Hyeon-ji can’t testify for herself, so you girls need to make sure your stories are consistent. And us moms can tell the teachers about how the girls were stressed out for months because Hyeon-ji badmouthed them. No going back on your testimonies. Remember, consistency is key.”
I made up my mind to not tell my husband about what happened. It would blow over soon; he didn’t need to know. He would only blame me for it anyway.
The teachers said they wouldn’t call in the students of interest all at one time, but because there were so many people, some of our schedules overlapped. They said that wouldn’t be an issue, because the accusing student and the students of interest would not run into each other anyway. The homeroom teacher called in Seo-ah first to talk to her alone, then invited me in, explaining that Hyeon-ji’s mother wasn’t the only one who reported the girls. Many other students had also filed reports. My confidence that things would quickly be resolved shattered. The girls hadn’t lied, true, but from Hyeon-ji’s perspective, she clearly had been the singular victim of verbal abuse from a group of students. It was similar to the incident with Ah-in, except this time, it went beyond bathroom stall gossip and group chat trash-talking. The homeroom teacher gave an overview of the circumstances, citing Hyeon-ji’s diary, her testimony to her mother, and the witness accounts of other students.
Se-yeon had been calling Hyeon-ji “Toady” and drawn horrible caricatures of her, comically exaggerating her features. Hyeon-ji had spent an entire day with the caricature taped to her back, after which she was only ever known as “Toady,” and was mocked by total strangers on Instagram. Ha-yan would bump into her and pretend it was an accident, even apologizing. Ha-yan had gotten hurt on one of those occasions, so Hyeon-ji had never considered reporting her. Eventually, Hyeon-ji was covered in bruises, and she flinched when a bigger student so much as passed near her. Hye-yun spread rumors that Hyeon-ji, contrary to her model-student persona, was an aggressive flirt with not only boys in her cram school, but also the instructors, and even the manager of her favorite café. She’d insisted it was because Hyeon-ji had no father, and claimed that she felt bad for her. Seo-ah had been the one leading the other girls, gossiping about Hyeon-ji and even getting between Hyeon-ji and anyone who tried to befriend her. There had been an incident between the two girls just before Hyeon-ji’s accident, which Hyeon-ji’s mother said was probably the breaking point.
Some time recently, Hyeon-ji had lent Seo-ah her science notebook. Hyeon-ji’s notes were tidy and organized, so her classmates would borrow them regularly. Hyeon-ji didn’t mind, as everyone took photos of the notes and gave them back immediately, and she believed that sharing those notes wouldn’t threaten her academic ranking. Her notebook was easy to recognize, as it was covered in colorful stickers from the classmates who had borrowed it before. It was just before midterms that Seo-ah asked to borrow those notes, and Hyeon-ji, although reluctant, had been unable to refuse. The notebook, practically borrowed by force, was never returned to its owner. Hyeon-ji had been upset—the notebook had meant a lot to her—but she said it was okay because she could get the photos of her notes from the students she’d lent it to before. That was what Hyeon-ji told her mother. The rest of the story came from the other students’ testimonies.
Seo-ah had knelt in the hallway, begging Hyeon-ji to forgive her. Hyeon-ji had said no harm had been done, and told Seo-ah to get up. But Seo-ah went further, insisting she would redo the notes for Hyeon-ji. Hyeon-ji had politely declined and tried to get away, but Seo-ah had whined that Hyeon-ji was refusing to forgive her. Hyeon-ji’s response was that this wasn’t about forgiveness, that she had the photographs and so her studies wouldn’t be hindered, but that she could not stand being forced to forgive her. Seo-ah had burst into tears then, saying she’d thought Hyeon-ji was her best friend, that she was looking down at her for being stupid. The students watching it all took Seo-ah’s side, calling Hyeon-ji heartless. Seo-ah pleaded with them, saying it was all her own fault and that they shouldn’t blame Hyeon-ji. Shut up, you bitch! Hyeon-ji had shrieked. Stop acting like you’re the victim here! Her curses had echoed all the way down the hall. Hyeon-ji became afraid of going to school after that.
I remembered picking up a messy notebook from Seo-ah’s floor one morning, and shelving it with a sigh. The motley mess of stickers looked a little insane to my eyes, and I had worried about her emotional state. Now, I realized, I would prefer emotional instability to what was really happening. I could so clearly see the face she made in that hallway, hear the tone of her voice. My face burned red. But I was still her mother. I had to say something. Anything.
“Please, you’re a teacher. Don’t you see this kind of thing happening between kids all the time? Mean jokes and little clashes that they grow out of? And I’m getting suspicious about all these witnesses you’re talking about. It’s almost as if someone’s maliciously threading together unrelated incidents to frame our children. Is this all real? Do you have witnesses?”
The homeroom teacher explained she had only told me about incidents grounded in testimony and evidence, but that the details were confidential. I had no clue just how little I knew. It was embarrassing just how lax we had been the other day in our preparations. We should have braced ourselves harder. All the words I had practiced and rehearsed were rendered useless.
“How are Hyeon-ji and her mother? I’d like to apologize in person, if that’s all right.”
“They’re refusing contact and visits to the hospital. It seems Hyeon-ji’s condition isn’t looking good. I believe the review committee will convene once the investigation ends, so you’ll have your chance to make an appeal or apologize then.”
By the time I left the classroom, the girls had all finished and left. Only Ha-yan’s mother and Se-yeon’s mother stood like strangers in a corner of the grounds, waiting for the rest of us. They must have been just as shaken as I was, because we all stood in silence until Hye-yun’s mother joined us. She had been in the meeting twenty minutes longer than me. And because Hye-yun’s teacher was more thorough with her explanations, Hye-yun’s mother learned more details than the rest of us. She was confident thanks to two key facts in our favor, she said. One was that one of the incidents had no evidence to back it up. She chattered excitedly about using that incident to get the girls out of this whole mess, but as she went on, we realized that the incident had been such a minor one that it would be embarrassing to even try and use it as ammunition. We all remembered our discussion with the girls the other night and our grim determination. And it made us ashamed to even look at one another. The second fact, Hye-yun’s mother said, could turn this whole case around.
“Did your teachers tell you about the key witness? Or just mine again? It was Lee Ah-in. Surprising, right? She went to see Hyeon-ji in the hospital and told Hyeon-ji’s mother everything, and that’s how the whole thing got reported to the school. Hyeon-ji’s mother had no idea until Ah-in told her. That girl used to take voice recordings and pictures obsessively even in elementary school, remember? The stubborn little thing had a mountain of pictures and audio files. Scary, huh? She must still be holding a grudge from that silly case all those years ago if she’s reporting something that has nothing to do with her. Hyeon-ji was one of the people she accused in sixth grade. There’s no way Ah-in’s doing this out of the goodness of her heart. Isn’t it suspicious how she went to visit her in the hospital? And how this report came in right before midterms? She’s dead set on tripping up the girls on their way to university. We have no idea if Ah-in is telling the truth or not, and we don’t know if she tampered with the pictures and audio files she sent. But think about it. Even if they find out this was all a lie, they can’t undo the damage to the girls’ midterms.”
We tried to consider our options, but grew frustrated at every turn. Maybe we could bring in the grudge angle with Ah-in, but if we brought up something we’d worked so hard to move on from, it would ultimately only hurt us more than it would her. We would be better off ignoring that direction, we concluded. But all our brainstorming led nowhere. We couldn’t make it out unscathed. We knew at this point that we would be best off hiring a lawyer specializing in school violence, admitting fault, and begging for forgiveness so that we could minimize the consequences, but for some reason, we felt wronged. I wanted to tell my husband what had happened, scream at him that he had made a terrible mess all those years ago, and that mess had come back with a vengeance. He would blame me, saying Seo-ah had taken after me, that I hadn’t raised her right, and demand updates every single day until the issue was resolved.
I suddenly realized that Seo-ah resembled my husband in her inferiority complex and the way she blamed others. But it was fascinating how I didn’t hate those things about her the way I hated them in her father. But at the same time, I was terrified that all I could do was lie to myself about her, thinking, I’m so glad that I had a good daughter like you, a good girl like you could never do something so horrible, because I simply wasn’t clever enough to raise her right. Standing in a daze, I sadly watched a girl trudge all alone across the grounds. I didn’t know if the other moms felt the same way I did.
Translated by Slin Jung
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AUTHORS Chung So-hyun Chung So-hyun was born in Seoul in 1975. She made her literary debut in 2008 after winning the Munwha Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She has published two short story collections, The Human Who Makes Mistakes (later renamed as Someone Who Looks Like You) and A Dignified Life, as well as the novella Assailants. She has won various awards over the years, including the Munhak Dongne Young Writer’s Award, the Kim Jun-sung Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, and the Hyundae Munhak Literary Award.