I was dead.
My earliest memories always began with me mimicking death. I would hide beneath my rickety bed and act like a corpse. I wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t breathe. I was just dead. I would let the cold stop my blood from circulating. I would see the bottoms of my mother’s feet from my hiding place, and I would make my eyes go blank. I believed that if she believed I was dead, she would bury me instead of making me go to school. I would hear her sigh. It was a very long sigh, the type of sigh that only people who haven’t slept for hours can sigh. She would lay down on the ground her head facing mine.
“Soojung. Again you down here?” Because there was no heating, ever, we would both shiver on the cold wooden floor. “You know Umma has no sleep again. Come out. Get dressed.” The grey floorboards would creak under our weight.
When I didn’t move, she would reach under the bed and grab my arm. With all the force in the world, she would hustle me out from under that bed. She stripped off my clothes, and slung me over her shoulder. Then she ran me into the bathroom and tossed me into the bath tub where she started a cold shower.
Every single morning was war.
My teacher scared me. She humiliated me, punished me, and hated me. Her cold eyes stared down at me. She looked at me like I was trash. Asian trash. I would have done anything to escape seeing my teacher. Once during spelling time, she asked us to tell her words that started with the letter ‘k”. I said cat. Her cold blue eyes stared at me for a very long time. Then she started to laugh. Her shrill cackle pierced my ears. She hated me, and she made that aware to everyone. I looked different from the other kids.
But every single morning Mom had me dressed and waiting outside with damp hair by 7:45 in drabby old hand me downs. When I heard those yellow tires screeching vulgarly down the wet sun cracked streets, I prepared for another day of torture.
I used to beg my mom. I would claw at her ankles. I would cry and scream and yell. After every begging session, when I looked into the mirror my face would be dried and cracked with the most neon yellow snot. She never relented, even as my nails dug into her skin making her bleed. Every single morning, after working all throughout the night, she made sure that I was on that school bus.
There is a particular day I remember from my early school years. I guess I was three or four. It was during the wintertime and the snow was past my waist. From my cold bedroom window, all I wanted to do was go outside and play in the soft white snow, but the flu had gotten me, and I did nothing but lay in my bed for days.
As the snow melted away and my fever started to subside. Umma decided that I should go to school again. Before she made me go on the school bus, however, she handed me her own handkerchief. It was beautiful. It had little specks of gold and blue butterflies embroidered into it. Grandma had made it for her when Umma left korea to come to the United States.
“For nose.” She said as she pressed it into my sweaty hand. I smiled up at her, forgetting for a moment that the yellow bus of hell was coming to pick me up. When the bus came, I went up triumphantly and even greeted a couple classmates here and there. I was a fairly shy kid back then, so this was a big feat for me. As the bus bumped along the icy upstate New York roads, I felt that I could go to school and turn a new leaf.
I guess the main reason why I felt so out of place was because I couldn’t speak English well. Yes, I was born here, and yes I was in preschool, but at home I only spoke Korean. I had a hard time explaining to the teacher what the problem was, and the cold young teacher didn’t have the patience to try to figure me out either.
As I walked into morning meeting that morning, I sat down knowing that I was worthy enough to hold my mom’s handkerchief. While the teacher was explaining to us what we were going to be doing today, I took out my handkerchief and began to trace the blue butterflies with my finger. The wings were so delicately made that I could see the thin veins running through them. It was a true work of art hidden away in a dirty old cloth.
“Anne!” A short voice shot out. “What are you doing!”
I looked up at her terrified.
“You know you can’t have things in your hands during morning meeting! You have to get a timeout.” The giant rose from her chair and thundered over to me. She yanked me up from my criss-cross- applesauce and wrangled my handkerchief from my hands.
The whole rest of the day was spent in solitude. Even when the teacher said that I could join the class, I stubbornly sat facing the wall, all alone.
Mom heard what happened. She got a call from the school. I was being disruptive. By the time mom came back from work, her shoulders slumped over from the day’s gravity, she looked at me with tired watery eyes. I looked down at my feet.
“I hate that school.”
The next day, I hide beneath my bed again. Umma didn’t make me go to school, though. I thrived with joy. Maybe she had forgotten about school. Maybe I could stay home everyday and make kimchi with my grandma. But in the afternoon, Umma strapped me in the back of her car and zoomed out of our driveway.
We reached a small little place where kids were all wearing the same green shirt. A kind women came up to me and lead me to where they were playing. They were all so nice. From that day on, I never went back to my old school again.