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“Ang tinig namin, sana’y inyong dinggin
Malayong lupain, amin mang marating
Di rin magbabago ang damdamin”
– University Hymn
 
 
A surprisingly gentle wind blew soft kisses and cloaked me in its embrace on this sunny yet cold winter afternoon. The slumbering embers, delighted to learn that I haven’t forgotten, glow bright in recognition. Memory and awareness greet with the familiarity of old lovers. Turning inwards, I let it take me by the hand to that beloved place where the sunflowers bask in the midday sun.
 
A man stood naked, looking up to the heavens, arms outstretched in sacrifice. His whispers carried to my ears. Welcome back, dear child. It’s been a while since you visited me in your reminiscence.
 
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First Encounters
 
It was perfect. Love at first sight.
 
It symbolized every aspect of that long-awaited freedom: 493 hectares of sprawling green grounds, fresh air, tree-lined sidewalks, rich academic and socio-political history. Huge and imposing, it played with my then naïve senses.
 
Welcome banners strewn all over. Posters and flyers exhorting people to act on various issues wallpapered the waiting sheds. Every student seemed like they’re walking around, carrying big ideas (stress on the word “seemed”).
 
Right there and then, I decided that this is it for me. No doubt about it.
 
Only one hurdle left standing in the way: the unforgiving admissions exam. I turned my head and saw hundreds of hopeful faces vying for a spot. All young, bright and determined. Confidence dropped rock bottom.
 
Proving grounds: Math building. A nondescript monolith situated far away from its neighbors. Structural metaphor for the brilliant but eccentric mathematician who labors in isolation over daunting formulations. A place where headaches and nosebleeds reside.
 
Goodluck everyone, you may now begin. Pencils flew, eyes hurriedly skimmed the pages, brains furiously scrambled for answers. I discovered how it feels to want something so bad that you can actually taste it.
 
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Project 6, Quezon City
 
First evening away from home. The day before my first university experience. Keys and control finally handed over. Sweet Freedom. Heady. Intoxicating.
 
That evening, before leaving the townhouse where I will be staying with two former high school classmates, mom and dad made me swear to four things:
No boyfriends until I graduate from college
No joining in organizations or sororities
Strictly no participation in any form of student activism
Prioritize education on top of everything else
 
My housemate’s eyes filled as we heard the last car leave. Just the three of us and the entire place to ourselves. Homesickness threatened to creep in, but I was too drunk from the recently given independence to even take notice.
 
With the exception of a few “friendly” dates, pledge #1 was kept.
 
#2 was observed until the 2nd year, with me finally prevailing over my folks after an endless barrage of pleading, wheedling and shameless groveling.
 
#3 was broken with a series of tentative baby steps. Semester after semester of walkouts and boycotts culminated in a few (as in, very few) anti-government rallies during my graduating year (all without my parent’s knowledge, of course). I am all too aware that I could never refer to myself as an activist — not in a million years will my pitiful attempts be worthy of that esteemed calling. I was just someone who got fed up with crappy governance, adding her voice to a collective that has long been crying out for change.
 
As for #4, well… I graduated, didn’t I?
 
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Bits and Pieces (…that I miss)
 
1. 97-13617: Student number. Seared into my brain for eternity. For four solid years, it was the sole token of my identity among countless others.
 
2. Abandon all hope, Ye who enter in: So says Dante Alighieri of the doors to hell in his Divine Comedy. Something that should be posted on the doors of professors who assume that their students have mind-reading abilities. They face the board, manipulate a couple of God-help-me-what-the-hell-are-those equations with no explanation whatsoever, scribble QED with a flourish, and expect you to exclaim “Oh, I see!”. Like what just transpired is the most natural thing in the world.
 
3. See them run: Fratmen. Birthday suits. TV coverage. Females (and quasi Females) squealing their way to kingdom come. It’s the annual Oblation Run held every December 16 (give or take a couple of days if it falls on a weekend). I won’t deny and be a prig about it — yours truly was a constant watcher for four consecutive years.
 
4. Blue Books: Otherwise known as examination booklets. Personally referred to as Aneurysm Triggers. I kept a few for old times sake. A reminder of how simple my troubles used to be back then.
 
5. UP Ikot, UP Toki: The two jeepney routes going around the campus. One going clockwise and the other counter-clockwise (forgot which one is which), thus the reversed names. On several occasions when I have time on my hands but didn’t feel like hanging out with anybody, I would get on one and just go round-and-round alone with my thoughts (what a loser!) until the driver takes notice.
 
6. Zombie existence: Junk Food, cup noodles, instant coffee, coca-cola, ice cream, fishball. Fuel that got me through several sleep-deprived days of cramming, programming, debugging and shuffling around like the living dead.
 
7. UP Fair, Engineering Night. Or no particular night at all. Just an excuse to leave the books and stay out late.
 
8. Intellectual freedom. And the part that I loved the most — the freedom to question authority. An environment where the professor is not the sole keeper of knowledge. Where questions are encouraged and everything is open to a logical debate. A breath of fresh air after more than a decade of a strict Catholic education that places greater premium on unquestioning obedience. You could just imagine how liberating that felt.
 
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Iskolar ng Bayan. That’s how we were referred to back in the university, owing to the fact that our education is largely subsidized by taxpayers’ money. Day after day, for four years, eyes growing heavy from lectures glance at top of the blackboard and see the words “Ialay ang talino sa bayan” (Loose translation: Use your knowledge to serve the nation). Those same words now return to ask me how much of what was given have I returned.
 
Yes, I still feel a twinge of guilt for leaving the country so soon right after graduation, to work in a foreign land. Countless times I’ve wondered how things would’ve turned out if I decided to accept the teaching position that the university offered. Or if I made an effort at serving the society by at least working in the Philippines for while before leaving the nest.
 
Then I remember how Albert Einstein shunned the exclusivity of nationalism, even referring to it as the measles of mankind. Service can be rendered anytime, anywhere, to anybody, by anybody — not limited to any particular group. What it all boils down to is finding out how you can contribute to the place and situation you find yourself in.
 
Excuse or no excuse, for now at least, I take comfort in that… until the time comes to return and fulfill what is expected of me.

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