We hope that our young readers and those who are “young at heart” enjoy the following short story.
By Linda Black
Park SoDam and Park SooAh played soccer in high school. It’s what they did, what they knew, what they were good at; it was who they were. Playing soccer meant leaving your family at a young age in Korea, to board at a school that had their own specialising sports programme for just a select few attendees. Therefore, the little contact they had with their family was through the school pay phones after lunch, for just five minutes; for they were always too tired in the evening after a long day’s training. Their parents had sacrificed a lot for them to train at this school, so even though they couldn’t show their love by being there in the little moments, SoDam and SooAh knew their parents loved them.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh were good friends. They had only met that year when they both arrived at this new high school, but they had a lot in common and a secret bond. For years both girls, along with other soccer players, had exercised day after day in hot, cold or iffy settings. They had followed the routine of exercise, drills, practice and the dreaded few minimal hours in classes that showed every soccer student just how little they knew compared to their peers.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh, however, both secretly liked these brief ventures into the world of regular students and took that interval to pretend that they were just the same as every other schoolgirl. This was the only period they had to mingle with other pupils or learn snapshots of information on the random subjects that happened to be scheduled that day. Most soccer girls never felt this way or thought these things. They were too preoccupied with the heavy lethargy that overcame them or the latest graphic novel they had borrowed from the library. It was difficult to study with a full-time sports regime, so students and instructors alike dismissed the idea.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh were also uniquely united because they had a natural ability at speaking English. Perhaps it was because so many terms they had to know for games were from that foreign speech, or because some of their favourite players and teams were from nations of that language. Whatever it was, this is what secretly set them apart. To work as a team and succeed, however, soccer students could not have differences such as this. These girls had worked hard all their schooling lives to hide their enjoyment at lessons and their higher ability in English. They had done this well, but still were able to recognise the unsaid passion in each other. It was important to support one another by keeping quiet and only silently acknowledging their shared enthusiasm.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh were soon to be given a new challenge in their schooling lives. For many years, the students specialising in sports did not need to worry about their academic abilities. They could still continue and move forward with their friends without the stress of grades. Of course, this meant that the many who couldn’t follow a professional career, to earn money through their discipline, were at somewhat of a loose end when they had to find a job to support themselves or a family. This was not a major concern for SoDam or SooAh, who excelled in their footwork, but their country had noticed the disadvantage and, to many an active young boy and girl’s dismay, amended the rules of what was expected of these athletes. They now needed a basic academic education, which worried their teammates.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh, however, had a plan. Almost without thinking, they both knew it was their duty to help everyone else bring their grades up to par. As they glanced at each other during game schedule announcements, they realised there would be little time to study between training, competing and sleeping (in or out of class) before the end of the semester. This is when they silently decided to rendezvous as soon as possible to discuss ideas to put into action. At lunch time, they scoffed their food and dashed out to the phone booths to beat the usual queues. Instead of calling their families, they used the handsets as props for their first incognito action meeting.
Park SoDam said to Park SooAh, “So, what are we going to do?” “Set up a study group,” came the reply. “No, no, that won’t do! We tried that before; no one will join and the few that come will fall asleep or give us those dazzled looks. We can’t just study. We need to teach them. All of them!” exclaimed Park SoDam. “But how do we do that?” Park SooAh pleaded. To all other players, now waiting in line for their own calls to home, it looked like the two Park girls were having significant family discussions. Then swiftly, as the main school bell rang for the rest of the school’s lunch, and the last soccer girls filtered by with querying looks, the girls simultaneously put their phones down and skipped off to their dorms for their post lunch snooze.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh tried to sleep on the problem, but no sleep was to be had. They both lay awake on their beds, listening to the snores and chattering of girls in their rooms. Each shared a room with another soccer girl and a plain old student, so no hidden meetings could be had in those locations. Then, Park SooAh had an idea! She always admired the student, Kim SeungHye, who shared a room with her, but was a grade above, making her an older sister to be respected. Park SooAh had always shown her respect by doing extra little chores in the room that should have been Kim SeungHye’s responsibility. SeungHye in turn had been kind to SooAh and recognised her understanding of English, which happened to be SeungHye’s best subject, so from time to time they would drop an English word into conversations or even pull out full sentences to make a joke about the room. “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome,” were regularly put to use as SeungHye would recognise SooAh’s kind actions. Perhaps sister SeungHye could offer advice or assistance for SooAh and SoDam’s plan of action.
Park SooAh called Park SoDam into her room as soon as the other soccer girl she shared with went out for a shower that evening. SooAh quickly told SoDam her idea of pleading SeungHye for assistance and they sat on SeungHye’s bed together to meet with their older dorm sister.
Kim SeungHye was more than a little surprised to find a different soccer girl in her room, and sitting on her bed. She could tell they were in desperate need, so Kim SeungHye listened carefully to the two Park girls as they explained their situation and sweetly pleaded for any ideas SeungHye would have. She nodded in understanding and scratched her head in contemplation. “The only way to help,” SeungHye realised, “is to make it interesting and relevant. We must meet them where they are comfortable. The field!”
Kim SeungHye quickly developed and explained a plan to study while training. Since SoDam was the captain of the first grade quad, she could control the dynamics of practice to test students and teach them during every pass or drill. They would need to do some homework to prepare for each session, but there was a new incentive that made it worthwhile, exciting and interesting. For extra effectiveness, teaching and testing would be done in English. This also, SeungHye noted, would offer cover from any complaints their coach might have, since they could claim that the English was football terms they were practicing, to be just like the National squad. SooAh was impressed that SeungHye knew about National squad practices, and SeungHye took that as a compliment to her intelligent plan. If SooAh was fooled, their coach would be too.
Park SooAh and Park SoDam set about their task. SooAh prepared questions and small facts to call out and teach, while SoDam arranged how she would slot them into practice, with passes and penalty shot opportunities for rewards; then Kim SeungHye reviewed material for relevance and accuracy and all three helped each other with the English. The girls were prepared for their first trial the next day.
Park SoDam started soccer practice the next day by huddling her girls together to lay out their new routines. The girls were used to a quick pep talk at the start of training, so some did not even notice the different content of the talk until her command of ‘Only if you answer the English question correctly, will I pass the ball to you for a kick at the goal.’
The soccer girls took a moment to piece together all this new information. They were not completely happy about it. How were they supposed to answer questions if they had never learned the facts, and how on earth could they do it in English? Park SoDam was a respected captain, but the fear of this new idea far outweighed their love for her. However, with their coach approaching to start the day, they had no opportunity to complain. They got into their drills and attempted a vague repetition of all the phrases SoDam called out as they followed her running, dribbling and knee lift reps.
Park SoDam felt that everything was going fine, until penalty shots. The girls had repeated her chants of facts, which meant they must have the basic knowledge for the questions she would ask before she passed each ball. As the first girl ran up to her and approached her receiving position, Park SoDam called out ‘What is the capital of England?’ A worryingly black face looked at the ball in anticipation, then up to SoDam in frustration. ‘No answer, move along!’ After a few seconds of waving her off, the silent girl finally got the picture that she wasn’t going to get the ball and SoDam decided to recycle the question for the next girl. And then the next. And the next, until the time for penalty shoots was over and not one girl had spoken a word of English, or Korean, to SoDam or SooAh. The rest of the day went clumsily along much in the same way, causing their coach to pull SoDam to the side for a serious talk about the worrying decay in their abilities.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh collapsed in front of an upbeat Kim SeungHye. ‘Wow, I knew you would be tired, but you aren’t you pleased with yourselves?’ SeungHye watched as the girls rolled around on the floor and SoDam began to cry.
Park SooAh explained to Kim SeungHye how the girls kept silent, even though it meant they couldn’t practice what they loved best and, through Park SoDam’s sobs, she tried to whisper the horrible telling off their coach had given at the end of the terrible day.
Kim SeungHye asked exactly what had happened and listened to the detail of every part of practice hoping for some inspiration. Finally she knew the answer. ‘It was too much information in English! If they don’t know the topics in Korean, how can they tell it to you in English? Tomorrow, teach them in Korean first, then repeat everything in English to show them the words they will already want to use, then they can answer your questions in English.’ Park SoDam had calmed down somewhat and was able to sniffle out her reaction, ‘But what about the girls who still speak in Korean? They were so upset that we didn’t do anything today! I hated not passing the ball to anyone. I think it did more harm than good.’
Kim SeungHye just smiled. ‘Then we keep positive. Today, they were surprised. It was a shock to change your usual routine, plus they had to try to listen and understand all this English. It was too much. If they answer anything at all, they should get the ball. But if they answer correctly, in Korean, they get points, and if they answer in English: bonus points!’
Park SoDam and Park SooAh wondered, ‘Bonus points for what’, but Kim SeungHye had a plan for that. ‘Now get to bed girls, you need your rest for tomorrow!’
Park So Dam and Park SooAh woke up the next day and everything started as normal, apart from the sceptical looks on the other girls’ faces. This time, everyone paid attention to Park SoDam’s morning talk, but she felt nervous about their reaction as she said ‘Only if you answer the question, will I pass the ball to you for a kick at the goal. SooAh will keep a note of scores, you get the ball for attempting an answer, if it’s correct, however, you get points and if you answer in English you get bonus points. At the end of the week, the girl with the most points wins a special prize for her good attitude to our study regime.’
The soccer girls were still fearful after yesterday’s disaster, but with the coach on his way to start and SooAh ready with her paper to note down their achievements, they had no choice but to follow their leaders. They were surprised as they heard information in Korean. At least they could understand what SoDam was calling out during drills today, and a whisper went through the team as one by one they realised that the English she started speaking was the same as what she had just taught them in Korean. Then the time came for penalties and the first girl ran up to her position and SoDam called out in English ‘What is the capital of England?’ ‘London!’ She knew it! It was in a rather strong Korean accent, but she knew the answer, got the ball and scored a goal. Success!
Park SooAh smiled at Park SoDam and they knew now that their plan had worked. All was going well. And it continued to go well for a few days, until one day it rained. On a rainy day the soccer girls had two options: clean the gym from one grimy corner to the other, or go to class. Most days their coach didn’t even need to ask which the students preferred, as they would usually do anything to avoid the main school building, but on this day, led by the smiling Park SooAh and Park SoDam (positive, keep it positive), hands slowly rose up for the second option. Coach couldn’t believe the results, but enjoyed the pride that built up inside him. His soccer girls were clearly more diligent than any others.
The soccer girls separated out into their classrooms for the day and for the first time in a long career as just soccer students, they paid attention to what the teacher said. At least for a little bit. As the day wore on, their attention dwindled, but they made a great effort at the start, and when Park SoDam asked them at lunch what they had learned that day, most were able to recall random pieces of trivia. And to their surprise, earn some more points.
Park SoDam wondered how she could encourage everyone for the last three hours of the day. They were doing so well she really wanted every student to make the most of this time in class, so that they could pass their tests at the end of the school year. Park SooAh, however, was the one to say ‘We need to think the same way in class as we do outside. Everyone get a piece of paper and when you learn a new fact from the teacher, write it down, tear it off and crumple it up like a ball. After class, we will meet and you have to say the fact and then throw the paper into a bucket and I’ll keep the score, this will be a bonus prize just for today.’ By this time, every girl was aiming hard for the weekly prize. Now they were excited to see what it might be earlier than anticipated.
The soccer girls paid more attention in class than they had ever done and had many other students and teachers marvelling at their new fervour for note taking. At the end of the day, after a rushed dinner, all the girls gathered in the gym and cheered each other on as they threw their notes into the bucket to calculate the winner. Although this time Park SoDam and Park SooAh were eligible to compete, since they had not written the questions themselves, they were much more content to cheer the others on and even hid some of their own notes so that they would not overshadow the outstanding achievements their teammates had made.
Park SoDam and Park SooAh were nervous to announce the prize that Kim SuengHye had invented for them. ‘Congratulations, Cho SooBin! You are the winner today. Your prize,’ never before had the whole squad been so interested all at the same time, ‘is a wish that will last for thirty minutes. You can ask us to do anything you need or want, and we will all help for thirty minutes tonight.’ Looks and whispers scattered through the team and the Park girls tried to smile (keep positive) through this terrifying moment. Maybe Kim SeungHye was too optimistic with this extravagant prize. ‘Well, what do you want us to do for you?’ The voice was one from the middle of the group, and supported by nods and nudges to Cho SooBin. It was a success. And SooBin’s room had never looked so good.
The soccer girls went through days, weeks and months of their new study routine. Some girls chose ‘clean my room’, while others asked for ‘a back massage’, or ‘write a letter to my mother’, but each craved it and respected the kindness involved with every half hour at the end of a hard day’s class or week of training. Each time there was a problem, Kim SeungHye was there to offer a fantastic solution, such as ‘Well, if she keeps winning, ask her to make the questions and be quizmaster’, or ‘Change the prize to a dare, the winner choses a dare for one or all of the team’. But the best advice of all came a few months down the line. With all this hard work, the fear of failing had begun to worry each soccer girl and they needed some kind of evidence that all their efforts were worthwhile. Kim SeungHye was there to suggest, ‘Why don’t you ask a teacher to give you a practice test before the final exams?’
Park SooAh and Park SoDam ventured to the teacher’s office, a place they usually only went to when they had a problem with their coach, an incident at home or wanted a treat from Mr Woo, such as ice cream. It was very odd to go in there to ask a favour about work, like all the other students. They stood outside the doors and stared at the pictured seating plan hoping that one teacher, they might know, looked friendly enough in their photo and would want to help. After some time, they decided to enter the office and looked around at the busy desks lined with other students anxious about the tests scheduled in four weeks’ time. There was just one teacher’s desk that did not have any waiting students: the native English teacher, Linda.
Park SooAh poked Park SoDam and pointed to the odd looking lady with curly, basically blonde hair, listening to something on her computer. Park SoDam nodded and while she had slight hopes because of her good rapport with this teacher in class, she was still exceedingly nervous.
Park SooAh and Park SoDam slinked up to the desk and leaned their heads on the partition surrounding it. For a second, Linda looked up at the students to see who was there, and when she realised it was her star soccer students, she took off her headphones in surprise and delight. Linda always stopped what she was doing when the girls came to visit.
Park SooAh smiled at Park SoDam, so SoDam knew it would be her responsibility to take the lead and explain their request. ‘Linda teacher, we have been studying very hard for the final tests.’ Linda smiled and nodded. Park SoDam must have said the right words. ‘Can you give us a test?’
Park SoDam was frightened at Linda’s confused face. A smile took over as Linda asked, ‘What kind of test? You already did a speaking test for my class.’
Park SooAh was very proud of her speaking test, so she nodded and suddenly felt confidant to speak up, ‘Yes, but we need another test. About everything.’ Everything. This clearly baffled Linda as much as it had baffled the girls to learn it all. Thankfully, Mr Woo arrived and the girls quickly asked him to explain everything to Linda. He was always chatting to Linda in class, so SooAh knew he would be able to explain easily.
Park SooAh and Park SoDam watched the teachers talk to each other about the situation. Linda had a few questions like, ‘Why do you want my help, I don’t speak Korean?’ and ‘How have you learned all this?’, but when the girls shared their secret of the bonus English scores, which really had boosted the competitions each day, Linda finally agreed to assist with the help of all their notes. ‘Basically all I need to do is arrange your notes into test questions and spend some time with you girls to do the test. When do you need to do it?’
Park SooAh and Park SoDam alerted the soccer girls that they would have a practice test at the end of that very week. Every girl was shocked, but amazingly, each quickly went to work to try to write down everything they could remember from their studies.
The soccer girls read their notes, memorised and tested each other. Some even asked roommates or classmates for studying tips and tried different techniques out. Their favourite was listening to the notes as a recording while they slept, but all agreed that this was the least affective, even though one girl did dream that she was taking the test and passed.
On the day of the test, the soccer girls walked into the assigned classroom as the bell for afterschool classes rang. Each girl had her pen, pencil, eraser and whiteout ready on their desk. All were silent, except for the taps from their fingers and some from their toes. After a few moments, Linda walked in with a whole bunch of paper and a bright, encouraging smile. ‘Are you ready girls?’ They looked to one another, unsure if they should answer; this was not the normal teacher attitude from any other test they had taken. Linda actually looked confident that maybe these girls could achieve something, not sympathetic that they had to sit through some test time, and handed out a paper to each one of them, not missing one out in expectation of their lack of interest. This test was real. It was for them. Now they had to try something.
Park SooAh and Park SoDam were the first to finish their papers and walk them up to Linda’s desk. They were excited by the smile they received upon submission and wished they could give something like that to their sisters still sitting, scribbling or reading away. Unfortunately, they were under strict instructions to leave, but that didn’t stop them standing and pacing outside the room for the fifteen minutes left of test time.
Cho SooBin was the first to join them, but she was soon followed by many more and as the last girl exited, a cheer began, with all the girls hugging, high-fiving, dancing and clapping. The noise was so outrageous, that a few teachers popped their heads out of the classrooms nearby; angry that their student study had been disturbed. This did not dampen the girls’ excitement, and though they had to be quiet, they still celebrated with huge smiles and hugs all through the hall, down the stairs, out the door and up to their dorms.
Linda was happy to hear their celebrations, but she had a massive task ahead of her; grading all those papers. It took a while, but as she scribbled the number on the final exam and circled it, she breathed a sigh of relief. ‘They’ve done it.’
Park SooAh and Park SoDam came out from their lunch in the cafeteria a few days later to call their families. They were both nervous to call, since the recent phone calls were an eager plea from their parents to hear their practice grades. They both wished they had never explained to their parents what they had been up to all these weeks, even though they understood that each mother and father of every soccer girl was overly proud of all the extra studies they had all achieved. As they reached the pay phones, the first thing they noticed was the lack of a queue. They were sure they would have to push for a quick call among all the other players. Then they noticed a bustle of sports kits over by the dormitories, but closer to the teachers’ office. Could it be? Were the grades posted already? Linda had told them she would check all grades with Mr Woo before the final approval. They were sure it would take at least a week, since all teachers were busy with making the school’s final tests.
The soccer girls crowded by the doors near the staff room all turned at once and ran up to the two Park girls. ‘You look first!’, ‘Tell us what happened!’, ‘We can’t look, it’s too scary!’ came the cries from each and every girl, except Cho SooBin who was already in tears. Park SooAh looked at Park SoDam and they both ventured back to that office, possibly more nervous than the first time they went to ask for Linda’s help. But ask they did, and now they had the results; quite varied, some only just passing, but they had! ‘We’ve done it!’ It is hard to compare the screams from the relief of finishing their test and those of elation from passing it all together, but perhaps, if you count the rejoicing from the hearts and minds of all the teachers in that room, you could hear a roar louder than any you’ve heard before.
Linda Black is a Scriptwriting MA graduate from the University of East Anglia, England. Originally from Northern Ireland, she now teaches English at a university in South Korea where she loves finding unique cafes to write in. Her novella can be found at http://elsiebblog.blogspot.kr/p/free-novella-project.html