Gifted Education Project (GEP)
Taking a puff of bubblegum vape in the staffroom was Shelly Lam, my school guidance counsellor and homeroom teacher. To be honest, her being either one of those things by themselves would already have been mildly disturbing, so the fact she held both appointments definitely involved nepotism of some sort.
“Don’t be shy,” she smiled. “Take a seat.”
People say not to judge a book by its cover, but to be honest, Shelly acted exactly how she looked. She had attention-seeking dyed blonde hair (in a good way), wore lots of makeup (in a good way) and dressed carelessly (in a very good way) — in other words, she looked and acted like your typical university party girl. The only problem with this description, of course, was that—
“Darren Chong,” she said, poking me on the forehead with her juul. “Do you know why I called you here?”
“Uh, no ma’am.”
“Not even a guess?”
“Were you bored?”
She stifled a giggle that sounded more like a high schooler’s than a teacher in her late thirties. “Ahaha. Well, yes, but that’s unrelated to why I called you here. I’ll give you a hint — it’s almost November. Does that give you any ideas?”
“Someone’s turning 40?”
“Hey. A woman is always 28 years old unless she tells you otherwise.”
“I didn’t say it was your birthday party.”
“I-in any case, the point is that the school year is ending soon,” Shelly continued. “And it’s extra important because it’s your last year of secondary school. I guess nowadays they call it middle school, but still… my point is things will be different next year.”
I found her use of ‘nowadays’ odd given that it’d been called middle school my whole life, but making fun of her age again didn’t seem like a polite thing to do.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll have decisions to make about my future.”
Like going to high school, or a vocational school, or getting a job… though in reality you don’t get a choice.
In an Asian society, there’s only one viable path to take at the end of compulsory education — continuing it, of course. You’re supposed to go to high school, then university, then get a professional degree and remit money to your parents like the filial son you are until they die. After that, it’s your turn to pressure your own children into becoming lawyers or doctors or computer science graduates. Diverging from that path makes you something of an undesirable — it means you were either too lazy, too stupid, or your parents screwed up by not imbuing you with the right values to function in society. Short of being someone extraordinary like a national athlete or idol trainee, circumventing high school is an unforgivable sin.
Then again, so is puffing nicotine in front of an impressionable teenage student — but standards are different if you’re hot and a girl. (Just to clarify, I am a sexist. The ‘hot’ part doesn’t add anything to the statement, I just felt like calling Shelly hot.)
Shelly tilted her head quizzically. “Huh? What do you mean?”
Wait, I didn’t say that last part out loud, did I?
“I mean… This is a guidance session. And you know about my plans for after I graduate and whatever.”
“Oh yeah. I don’t care about that.”
“It’s just…” her voice trailed off.
Looking at me with upturned eyes, Shelly suddenly started twirling her shoulder-length hair.
“Once you leave next year… I won’t get to see you everyday.”
She’s so hot, she’s so hot, she’s so hot.
Shelly was staring at me while biting her lips.
She’s so hot, she’s so hot, she’s so—
“Jesus,” she spat. “Look at you taking that seriously. There’s no way I’d be into you, you little shit. I’ve been teaching longer than you’ve been alive.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be 28?”
Rather than a proper response, all I got was a sardonic puff of second-hand vape smoke.
“Let’s get back on topic. I called you here to talk about what you want to do after graduation.” Shelly took out a crudely folded piece of paper and unfurled it. The header of the page read Future Plans, and it belonged to a certain student named Darren Chong. “Look at this. Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?”
Taking out a red pen, she circled a ticked checkbox that read “Find Employment”, underlined it twice, then firmly nudged it across the staffroom table. The other three boxes, “Continue General Education”, “Vocational Education”, and “Others” were all left empty.
“...I don’t see anything wrong with it,” I said.
“‘Why are you trying to find a full time job at 16?”
“Well… Why not?”
“I mean, even though you flunked the national exams, you could probably get into any prep school you wanted through appeal. You’re actually one of the smartest kids in… Hey. Did you get someone pregnant?”
Shelly’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh my God… Did you actually?”
How did this woman manage to think about sex so much?
“Ma’am, I’m a minor.”
I started rubbing my temples in disgust. “Look, I don’t think taking a few years off school is as bad as you’re making it sound.”
“But it is. Society will judge you for it. Take it from an experienced adult,” she declared, though I couldn’t tell what her message was supposed to be thanks to her nicotine addiction and outfit choice. Was it to conform to society or not? What did the boobies mean? “And what about your aunt? Doesn’t she have anything to say?”
“Yeah, about that...”
My aunt, huh? Where was I going to begin with that one?
“That’s kind of the reason I need money,” I said. “Her condition got worse.”
Shelly finally put her vape down and stared out into the window in apparent contemplation.
After a while, she sighed. “How much money, exactly?”
“I think if I try to pay off her surgery over a year, I’m looking at about $4000 a month excluding her monthly treatments.”
“But hey, if I try to do it over two years, then it goes down to $2000! That’s like a fifty percent decrease! Except she might die first.”
“Say no more, you’re fucked.”
“I figured as much.”
“Actually, maybe not,” Shelly suddenly said, though this sudden 180 in her demeanour didn’t feel like one of her typical master baits. “There might be a way for you to get to high school. Hold on.”
She got up and scampered off in her high-heels, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
What did Shelly’s plan entail? Knowing her, it probably involved something ridiculous like selling myself off to a sugar mommy for a monthly allowance. I couldn’t think of any other way that a 16 year old could make $4000 a month while attending high school, plus she looked so confident when she left that it must’ve been an occupation that she was familiar with (Shelly’s handbag cost 70 grand.) Though $4000 a month for a male sugar baby sounded completely ridiculous.
No matter how you sliced it, making $4000 a month through a part-time job at 16 was impossible. The only way I could potentially hack it was to work full-time, and even then it’d involve working double shifts on every day of the week plus completely banning myself from decent food. I’d have to cook one-pot lentil-rice stews for the entirety of next year.
“Oh yeah, there’s electricity too…”
Shelly was right — I was fucked.
Still, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I was the one who decided to put myself in this fucked situation.
There’s no rule that says a child has to do this. I think most people would prioritise their own future ahead of family if the alternative was to be subjected to crippling debt. To be honest, that’s probably what my aunt would tell me to do as well.
But there’s always a second chance for a young person to fix their lives if they try hard enough. There are no second chances for someone who’s dead.
I’d made my choice. It’s obviously better if—
A silvery voice disarmed my train of thought.
It sounded like the crystalline flow of spring water.
“Um, hello… Excuse me,” she repeated.
Long black hair. Pristine skin. A face so symmetrical you’d wonder if it was sculpted by God. Despite wearing a normal hairstyle and a normal uniform in a normal school setting, she looked different from every faceless girl that I’d seen in that exact outfit.
She was sparkling.
“Are you talking to me..?”
“Of course,” she smiled. “There’s no one else around here.”
I realised I knew this person. It was Park Jiwoo from Class 3-1, and the former student council president.
Though saying I knew her was a bit of a stretch. It’s like the difference between the question, “Do you know Faker?” and “Do you know who Faker is?” I could answer the second question with a definite “yes”, but only a select few individuals would be able to respond similarly to the first.
Yeah, I guess this was a really convoluted way of saying I only knew Park Jiwoo by name.
“I’m looking for Ms. Shelly Lam. Have you seen her around?” she asked.
“I-I was just talking to her. I think she’ll be back in a moment.”
Jiwoo gave a quick glance at the plaque on the table that read Guidance Counsellor, then shifted her gaze back to me. “Oh, I see… I don’t want to intrude. I’ll come back another time, I suppose.”
“No, please stay…”
“I mean, uh, it’s not what you’re thinking.”
“...I’m supposed to be thinking something?”
What the hell am I saying?
“I… um… uh…”
“You’re just nervous because she’s hot.”
Out of nowhere, Shelly appeared with a grin and wrapped her arm around Jiwoo. Talk about unprofessional. Though, now that I’m looking at them side by side, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me if they were the same age.
“Unhand me,” Jiwoo said firmly.
Okay, so maybe Jiwoo was the older one.
Despite getting rejected so unceremoniously, Shelly managed to continue like nothing happened. I guess being shameless had its use cases. “Ahem. It’s actually great that you’re both here, because I wanted to talk to you two about the same thing. Ta-da!”
With her hands now free from molesting Jiwoo, Shelly produced a colourful pamphlet and held it out with an over-enthusiastic smile.
Apply to National Affiliated High School!
“...Your idea is a school advert?” I asked.
For some reason, my comment seemed to make Jiwoo visibly tense up.
“Not just any school,” Shelly corrected. “It’s considered the most prestigious high school in the country even though it's only a few years old.”
She placed the pamphlet in my hands, which featured students in navy blue uniforms in the midst of a lesson. It looked candid enough, but something was very obviously fake about the photo.
“These are paid actors, right? I mean, that girl has dyed hair… and isn’t that literally Yuhua from G-IDOL?”
“It’s a real photo,” Jiwoo said. “One of the selling points of the school is their lack of a dress code besides the uniform. And Yuhua is an NHS alumni.”
“Maybe if you read past the front page, you would have figured that out.” And then she whispered, “Fucking idiot.”
Before I could dwell on it, Shelly started talking. “That school only takes in students on full scholarships. And since it’s a boarding school, this covers almost every single expense — lodging, food, stationery, medical fees, even haircuts.”
That seemed too good to be true, but Shelly was simply reading off the pamphlet. The advertising also boasted that the school had a 80-hectare large campus with its own entertainment facilities, a performance laboratory for athletes, a private hospital and even a helipad.
Why would a high school need any of those things?
More importantly, I was still confused as to why Shelly thought this would solve my predicament. After all, if I really wanted to go to high school, I could easily walk into a public one and declare I was a financially distressed student. I didn’t need to bust ass to get a prestigious scholarship — the point was to make $4,000 a month, not to get an education.
The point was to help my aunt.
Then, just as I was about to dismiss this as another one of Shelly’s rubbish ideas, I spotted the following on the very last page of the pamphlet:
New students at National Affiliated High School will be compensated with up to $240,000 in enrolment bonuses, as well as up to $2,400 in monthly grants as part of their scholarship. The monthly grants will be adjusted according to their performance in school.
Grants will be credited directly to student’s accounts and do not need to be vetted by the school before being spent.
That should’ve been the tipping point where I said no, where I realised Shelly was a farce, when I realised no one ever gives out money for free without a catch and that I was being corralled into something more than just a fancy school. But there’s something about the human mind that causes tunnel vision when it sees an out to an impossible predicament, and years of evolution made me rely on impulse instead of stopping to think.
And to be honest, I’m glad I chose to live.