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When the Invaluable Benefits of a Good Education — BAM! — Clicked in My Head

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It was 1980 or 81. I was a sophomore in High School, which in the Philippines back then meant I was no more than 14-years-old (no Middle School). I attended a private Catholic school, immediately putting me among the relatively affluent minority segment of the populace — and that fact always became highly visible during interschool competitions.

Those competitions, at least those that eventually worked their way to the nationals, always started at the “district” level, and back then, there were something like 5 or 6 schools in our district that always butted heads during those events. Thing was, my school was the only private one, and we pretty much won every single one of those events. Academic, athletic, it didn’t matter, we won them all.

We were treated and held separate from the pack to boot. That’s something I distinctly remember when I did the rounds in my pre- and early teens, duking it out in the math “quiz bees,” oratorical contests (English, since I pretty much sucked at Tagalog) and even politics — as student body president one year, my officers and I were shuttled off to meet up with student officers from all the other schools, and we then elected officers for the district; guess who got the presidency, or all the top spots on the roster for that matter. I remember walking into loud, boisterous rooms for those events and meetings, dragging along my “entourage,” and everyone would automatically quiet down and stare as we took our assigned spots. Now that I think about it, it was kind of eerie weird.

That was the district academic scene. I don’t remember many of them being held at my school; the athletic meets, however, those were practically always on our turf, and for one very simple reason: We were the only one with the facilities. Football field, basketball court, track… you know, the basics. The public schools could barely get the funds to pay for stuff like classrooms and books; I honestly do not know where districts with nothing but public schools actually held their athletic events.

Interestingly enough, it was at one of these athletic events, not in academics, where the value and benefit of having a good education became absolutely, positively crystal clear to 14-year-old me.

It was a track-and-field meet. My friends and I were walking around the field, checking out all the various events that were occurring simultaneously. One of my friends said his brother, let’s call him Roger, was jumping. He meant the high jump. So we walked over to the corner of the field where they were holding the event.

Roger was two years older than we were, a senior at the school. The guy fancied himself an athlete, and he most certainly was. Special, however, he wasn’t. I knew it. Heck, Roger knew it. What I didn’t know was that he jumped high enough to represent the school, but there he was, warming up next to the high bar.

It was the guy next to Roger, however, the guy that was doing some practice jumps over the bar, that caught my attention. It was immediately apparent that he was the top contender from the other schools. He looked like he was a head taller than Roger. More muscular. But more importantly, he was clearing that bar like it was just resting on the ground by his feet. That guy could jump! I just stared in amazement at his practice leaps as he just went straight up and over, his whole upper torso vertical and, well, like he was just sitting and floating in the air as he pulled his legs and feet up slightly to clear. He was jaw-dropping impressive.

After that guy finished with his practice and returned to his coach’s side, Roger took a few practice jumps of his own. Totally different. Roger was doing the Fosbury Flop — you know, that head first backward jump that just slithers over the bar that we see everyone do at the Olympics. My school chums and I weren’t impressed by that — it’s what they were teaching us to do in PE (what Americans call Gym) class — and we were even less impressed by the fact that no way no how did Roger’s vertical leap even come close to that other guy’s.

Dangit. One less gold medal for our school. It was pretty obvious that among the high jumpers, the medal belonged to that other guy, the one I started calling Luke (Skywalker, get it?).

Fast forward: After a few rounds, the field was down to Roger and Luke. The bar still hadn’t gone up too much from where it was when the competition began, but already all the other competitors — all jumping vertically like Luke — were out. Luke had absolutely no difficulty and was starting to look really assured that he was going to walk away with the gold. Roger was harder to read as he flop flop flopped around from one bar height to the next, but he was still in the game.

Move ahead about 5 or 6 jumps. Luke still looked like he hadn’t broken a sweat, despite the bar now being significantly higher. As the bar inched upward, he would just raise and tuck his legs in more with each jump. Roger, on the other hand, although not struggling, looked like he was in the middle of a work out, expending considerable physical effort with every attempt. And he was barely clearing the bar each time. But he was clearing it.

Frankly, it was getting boring and anticlimactic, watching those two. Luke was just too, well, strong and naturally talented, Roger little more than technique.

The bar inched up yet again, and Luke stepped back a few short yards, taking off powerfully then — BOOM! — launching himself fully way above the bar, pulling up and tucking in his legs and — thoomp — landing on his feet in the cushion, the bar bouncing softly on the cushion behind him. He didn’t clear the bar!

Luke looked embarrassed but was smiling and unperturbed. He still had a couple more tries to go. After consulting with his coach a bit, he tried again… and brought the bar to the cushion with him yet again. He lost his smile, the agitation and concern thick over him and his coach as they conferenced. His focus was deadly serious when he made his last attempt, but that was nothing compared to the look of utter disappointment and pain on his face when he brought the bar down with him one last time. He just couldn’t tuck his legs in that extra half-inch or so he needed to get his feet to clear the thing.

It took Roger all of one jump to do the same height. Barely — no part of him even came close to the heights Luke reached effortlessly — but he contorted and writhed and flowed his head, body and legs up and over that bar without touching it… and won the gold.

Click! Lesson learned.

Can you imagine what Luke could have achieved, the heights he literally could have reached, had he gone to my school? I guess this is yet another one of those unfortunate we’ll never know things. Sigh.

Now that I have a 2-year-old boy to raise, I wanted to write this all down for posterity. Because if the kid’s anything like me, the inevitable day will come when, after being guided to focus his efforts on not only getting into school, but the right school, he’ll give me the old teenage refrain: “Talent’s all I need” or “This other school’s good enough” blah blah blah blah blah.

“Have a seat, son. I’ve got a true story to tell you…”