A continuing master class of learning-by-doing
The morning fog had just lifted. With the sun lethargically rising from the covers of the mountains in the distance, the high-pitched whistle of the kettle reported hot water was at the ready. The thick walls could not keep the cold out, and with the sun far from reigning the skies, only warmth from within could hope to overcome the biting cold.
Mindanao State University, Marawi City. October 2010.
Almost two decades had passed since he last called these sacred grounds home. Deeming the place and the times unfit for raising children, he left significant career opportunities early in the 90’s for the better of his family. He’d already been appointed as College Secretary and was easily on track to be one of the stalwarts of the college being mentored by none less than its founding pillars.
He had initially planned to pursue his engineering degree but given the reputation of the accreditation exams of the College of Engineering then, a Bachelor of Arts in Filipino appealed to him. With the advantage of being a native Tagalog, the primary basis of the national language, and the close guidance of the faculty, it was set to be a breeze. He began to flourish and versatility became his strongest suit. He joined the university choir, he became an active member of a campus ministry, he joined the university Karate club, and when he finished his degree, he pursued a Bachelor of Science in Education major in Secondary Education for Filipino. Knowledge and learning, as it seemed, was a dear friend to him. To further this, he began teaching as a professor in the Filipino and Other Languages Department of the CSSH. But he just couldn’t be stopped. When the College of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation offered diploma courses for Physical Education, he joined in. Aside from Karate, he played Lawn Tennis, Table Tennis, Football, and Volleyball for the colleges that he became part of. His reputation secured him an invitation to the International Order of de Molay, a Masonic organization. He was invited in at a time when everybody else was just a relative or a close friend of a mason.
Also skilled in the arts, he easily became friends with the local artist and art curator of the Aga Khan Museum. Most enduring of his artistic output is the College of Social Sciences and Humanities logo he designed that the college still uses to this day. He captured the essence of the college just as much as the college captured his soul.
You see, he wasn’t a nobody. He had built a life of honor for himself and rose in stature from nothing. And no one can say it was just luck — that he had just stumbled upon this fortune. It was blessing after blessing paired with a toiling of both hand and heart. He came an orphan with nothing but the hope that he can make it better for his family and he went accomplished just that and more.
But all these, he decided to leave behind. All the connections, all the friends that became family, all the recognition, the blossoming career, two decades of hard work, he had to leave behind. All for family. All for love.
Orphaned at a young age, he grew up as the youngest of six siblings that were left to fend off for themselves. Both of his parents gone, he knew early on the value of family for family was all he had. I know no account of the day the siblings decided they’d support him through college but from hindsight that’s how I first understood what family meant and what my uncles and aunts meant to him. They all made a sacrifice — that they’d do anything for him to finish college. At a time in their lives when education was more of a privilege than a right; when what was bread to everybody else, to them was considered gold, family chose to give him gold. Since then family became the obvious choice for everyone.
Early in life, he learned that there are things that far outweigh ourselves. That there will be decisions that will be perplexing for the mind but elementary to the heart.
From him, I learned the value of making sacrifices.
He was a teacher and he was popular. Most people who remember his name would definitely remember him as being a teacher — a rock star of a teacher. He taught high school. Yes, that disgruntled yet beautiful period of a teen’s life that cuddles whatever innocence is left before throwing us onto college and the harsh realities of real life. A typical ride through the barrios where most of the students live would not be complete without someone shouting to greet him.
He was very popular. Before high school, I always thought he was popular because he was funny. Yes, my father liked to crack jokes and tell stories, even in class. Even when with our relatives you can see he knows how to have fun, especially with the kids. He has his way with kids — he could connect with them. Perhaps it was the light aura around him that comforted people, that whatever it is they’re going through, it’s going to be okay.
It’s no joke to be a likable teacher in a barrio where it made more sense to get a job at a nearby factory and help provide for one’s family than to waste time sitting at a classroom. They’re imprisoned in a system that doesn’t work for them and the teachers were the jailers. But my father was different. He understood them. Like I said, he has his way with children. It wasn’t just the kids that were good in class that were close to him. To the contrary, those that shout in the streets to greet him, they were the troublemakers; you wouldn’t expect to find straight A’s loitering in the streets, anyway; They the ones that get in fights and skip classes. But for some reason they stayed around for his.
Just what is it that he did?
I was around third or second grade when I got to sit in his class. We were dismissed early in class and my mother was on a meeting so I had to stay with him for the rest of the day. Of course this is all afterthought, at the time I didn’t think of any of these. I distinctly remember that at that time I only wished everybody stopped looking at me while I sat in their class.
He was telling them a story. It was his story. It was the other side of his success story. It was the story of how he lost both of his parents and a brother; how he had to study in Mindanao; how he was physically abused by my uncle with his image destroyed by gossip from my uncle’s wife; how my uncle thought he had been eating the same food they were but was in truth only fed dried fish from the day before when my uncle wasn’t around; how he was once hospitalized for ulcer; how for the most of his senior year he avoided talking to my uncle knowing they’d get into a fight if he did; how once when they fought he was dragged in the mud with the ducks in the rain; how he came so seek refuge in his peers and the Lord at a time when family failed him; how once he found out some of his friends hadn’t eaten in days he offered them food; and how his friends let him borrow a parent to walk with him at the graduation ceremony because my ill-informed uncle thought he wouldn’t graduate. I’ve heard the story several times and I know it sounds like a story straight from a soap opera but it was his life and that’s why the listeners usually well up in tears. But that’s not how it ends. It ends with forgiveness. My uncle went home early that day and found the ribbon meant for the graduates’ parents. Unsure whether to be elated or angered, he rushed in tears to the gymnasium where the ceremony had already ended. Clad in army camouflage and a ribbon that reads “Parent”, there were hugs and cheers and tears but most of all there was forgiveness. To this day they remain the closest of friends, making time to call each other just to catch up.
From him, I learned the value of forgiveness.
Fast forward several years and I went to the same high school he was teaching in. I met the other teachers and observed them and it was then that I understood — why he was so popular, why he was so dear to his students. Everybody else was working hard to gain respect by raising themselves above the students, distinguishing themselves as having accomplished many things in life and therefore deserve reverence. He showed that he was one of them; that he had his struggles and he overcame with faith and good resolve. Everybody else demanded respect to the point of hostility and hostility was they got in return. He became vulnerable with them and the students found comfort in that they were respected and they could only retaliate with the same.
From him I learned the reciprocity of respect.
The coffee mugs soon shuffled as he lifted one from their ranks. His favorite mug had a square brim that tapered onto a circular base — it was an oddly shaped mug but it was our birthday gift to him. He loved coffee.
“One military man is enough for this family. You just go ahead and finish your studies.” It was my uncle, the one he was with in Mindanao, who convinced him to go to college, instead. My father had offered to join the military like my uncle so he could provide for the family, too. My uncle understood back then that’s not how he wanted him to help.
His popularity among the students was met with some raised eyebrows. Here was a newcomer that gained what everybody else had spent their whole career trying to achieve. People outranked him but their rank never translated to respect, let alone endearment. To the irk of his fellow teachers, he could not be contained in the four corners of the classroom just as it were when he was in Mindanao. He went on and made a name for himself outside the quaint barrio. With a diploma for Physical Education, he taught Music, Arts, Physical Education, and Health. You can imagine it was the most fun of the subjects and it just added to his closeness to the students. He went on and coached a local football team and made a name in the provincial football federation; organizing local football tournaments, he was one of the first to establish Laguna as a football haven back then. This later earned him a spot at an international training for coaches and officials organized by FIFA, the international governing body for the sport.
With the rigid military training he received from MSU-ROTC and military discipline he learned from my uncle, he became an active member of the Army Reserve Command. This gained him the position of being the commanding officer of the school’s Citizen’s Army Training program. Back then, this kind of training was required for high school students as encourages discipline and camaraderie. Of course, this also meant he had forged another bond with the students. This time, not only was he dear to them, they were loyal. More eyebrows raised.
With his background in the university Karate club, he also became one of the officials for Karate-do in Southern Tagalog. Later, he joined the Boy Scouts of the Philippines and was fast-tracked from being the adviser of the school unit to being part of the training team. The reputation he built earned him a recommendation to the national training team and he went on to travel the Philippines to conduct training with the elite of Scouting in the Philippines — from disaster response volunteers to Philippine National Police generals. Later this connections got him involved with the Philippine Red Cross, organizing the first Red Cross Youth unit in our municipality.
All these things, he loved dearly. He volunteered for them and got not a single penny in return. These were causes he believed in. There was no prestige nor recognition in all these but he did them anyway, sometimes even shelling out from his own pockets. None of these could have advanced his career as a teacher but they certainly banked on his impact as a person.
He got flak for them but he surged through, believing in a cause higher than pride.
From him I learned the value of selfless service.
Looking back at that morning in October 2010, when a new beginning dawned before us all, I wondered what could be in store for us. My whole life, I lived in Laguna. I had my friends back there, family, achievements, and a name for myself and we had to leave them all behind. Back then I thought, “This is unfair, I worked hard for those things just to have the rug be pulled from under me.” But then I looked even further, to my father’s past. He flourished where ever fate brought him. I think it was then that I understood how his students felt — here is a man before me that has gone through all the things that life may throw at him and he did okay, maybe everything’s gonna be alright for me, too.
It was that morning that I felt comfort. That outside my room sits a man having coffee out in the cold all calm and composed. My world isn’t ending, it had only just begun. And I have his life to thank for helping me learn through his example.
He’s gone through worse that I may go through mine with relative ease. I do not remember us having a sincere talk where he ever gave me advice. He never spoke these words to me but I know it was the best lesson he has ever taught. An unending master class of learning by doing — of leading by example. And I know I will be forever grateful that my father taught me not with mere words but with the conviction of his actions.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers.