Written by: MiJin Cho
To the second grade Erin with red-rimmed glasses and soft-spoken smiles, I forgive you.
When I remember your name, I still feel the foot-shaped bruise on my 9-year old stomach. I remember the muffled tears, the bus hopping, and the huddling in the left 12th row seat. Instead, I’d rather recall our time as sisters, cheek-to-cheek during the 40-minute rides on bus 52. I’d like to remember the way our heritage brought us together on the first day in Ms. Ravenelle’s class. Our dark hair, thin eyebrows, and the smell of kimchi stained on both our lunch boxes. We could easily spot the other’s dark manes from across the classroom. Perhaps our shared features was the first tick under my name in your checklist of hate – I’d never know.
I should probably tell you: when I was in second grade, being Korean was my sole pride and greatest vulnerability. It was only my second year in the States, and the 26 letters of the English alphabet still tasted alien to my lips. I made sure to keep my imperfect language to myself. The year before, during first grade, I made the mistake of opening my damn mouth and trembled at the sight of turned backs and mocking giggles from the majority-Caucasian children in my class. But I was a muted veteran by grade 2, when I met you. I learned and matured. But I never hid my tongue from you.
We spoke in beautiful Konglish, the delicate balance of English and Korean. It was always “집에서 cheese pizza 먹자,” (Let’s eat 치즈피자 at home) and “같이 playdate 하자,” (Let’s 놀자 together). Two mouths fed on the grease of the pizza from the nearby Papa John’s, and our knees scraped from the playground pavement of our adjoining neighborhoods. Youth and language bound our hearts together, until you unravelled our fated strings and tossed mine to the dirt.
Two things happened in the middle of second grade. First, the cute quiet boy you had a crush on and I, your then-best-friend, received the Responsible Student Sticker together. It was a quiet morning, and I was tired, sluggish. You should know from the many times you’ve let me rest my head on your shoulder on the bus: I’m always on the brink of falling asleep before noon. So it wasn’t a surprise when, in the echoing halls of children talking, Cute Boy and I were silent – though I don’t know why he was. Ms. Ravenelle saw the bustling hallway, saw the two of us, two students apart, looking down, silent. (I was nodding off but she didn’t see that.) She marched her way through the crowd with two Responsible Student Stickers hanging on her index finger, placing them on Cute Boy’s and my chest. Everyone else quieted down to see what was happening, and I jerked awake, wondering what was happening. I didn’t turn around then to face you. Had I turned then, what kind of face would you have made? Were you red with envy? Did you scorn me in your head? Were you proud of me? I’d never know your expression, but that was when things started to change.
The second incident happened with Ms. Ravenelle. Ms. Ravenelle liked my dexterous nimble fingers: I was her little helper and her A student. Later that year, she recommended me to a Gifted and Talented program after I showed her the division tables I was working on during an afterschool event. I got in; I was to transfer schools the following year. When I told you the news on our usual route back home on Bus 52, you took a pause. Then you patted my shoulders and called me your smart best friend. Oh how proud you looked. No one gave me the warning about the chatty new friend you met the other day and the plans you had to ignore me for the remaining year.
So you did. You sat with your new friend on Bus 52 in our usual seat and giggled when I stopped in front of the seat, confused. You and your friend exchanged knowing smirks, fueled by my visible hurt and meekness, and you both turned your backs to me, as if cutting me from your view. You had the power in our relationship and you didn’t want to let it go. You never spoke to me after that. I tried to find you when you were alone, in the playground, in Papa John’s, in the bathroom. The only time you looked at me was through the bathroom mirror, and you didn’t say a word to any of my fumbling questions. You sneered at the mirror, finished washing your hands, and pushed me aside to get to the paper towel dispenser. No “excuse me.” No goodbye.
You bullied me. A loaded accusation, I know. Back then, I thought we were having “friendship problems.” Two sisters, divided by confused hearts, eager to reunite but succumbing to social cliques and pressures from a cool new friend by your side. But I also know too well a 9-year old Korean girl crying in the backseat of Bus 52, grappling her arms until her bitten nails tore her flesh. No one noticed the animal wounds on her virgin skin. Three days later, that girl went home with a bruise on her stomach, from the kick you delivered swiftly to her side during lunchtime. You had sat with your new friend at the table, pretending to gag and holding your nose at the odor coming from the girl’s lunchbox; my mother had packed me kimchi fried rice that day. Too many giggles, too many half-gags, you and your friend became intoxicated with hate. Other students didn’t see your leg jerking up under the table, making contact with the mute girl diagonal from you. That girl hid her stomach well. No one ever found out.
You tore a 9-year old child’s heart into pieces, and you didn’t have the decency to break it all at once. You nicked at it and carved on it, carefully and slowly so that your silence and actions seeped deep into her memories. There was pride, control, and authority in the wounds you inflicted, and only you would know which one fueled your onslaught.
There are days I wish I could forget your name, your face, your shy trust and tight laugh. It is not easy still being connected through the Korean community, the tangling of friends, and the memories that give me heartaches. But I believe in forgiveness. Or, at least, I’m trying to. May I learn to empathize with your confusion of true friendship, woven in rhymes of tinted jealousy and unfamiliarity no 9-year old can yet decipher. May I validate your power, your influence on your close peers – to hurt or to love. May I pray on you and your heartaches, for the sins you committed carry more burden than responsibility. I still pray for you. And me too. May my bruise heal and my heart better love you as any childhood best friend should.