Friday, February 23, 2007

14. Ateneo Grade School - Padre Faura 15. On A Hot Gravelly Road, Sadly

Black Hawks
I hardly remember anything about school in Juan Luna Elementary, which I attended from grade one to grade three. Much of the memories of that time were of the things I did after school. I had zero recall of the classroom, my classmates and teachers. It was as if the memory of it was skipped over and that in my mind life resumed in grade four at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School in Padre Faura, Manila.

On the day that I took the entrance exams at the Ateneo de Manila the school grounds took on a festive atmosphere despite the niggardly look of patched up schoolrooms amidst the ruins and quonset huts left by the US army after the liberation of Manila. Mothers with small boys in tow were milling around the grounds perhaps looking for acquaintances, relatives or anybody to chat with or who might be able to influence the entry of their sons into this institution of highly coveted and expensive Jesuit education. The canteen which was beside the ruins of what was once the Jesuit owned Manila Observatory was doing brisk business selling soft drinks, sandwiches and providing the early comers with tables to hang onto the whole while.
Mothers were doing quick reviews of materials of weeks of preparations with their little aspirants. I was the last of the three brothers whom my mother accompanied for the entrance qualifiers. The year before, at about the same week, my two older brothers were admitted to the school. Having two older brothers at the time that I was in grade school was useful. I would make this known ostensibly to all as an insurance against bullying from bigger classmates. About ninety percent of the class was bigger than I was. I never had the occasion to use this advantage so I wouldn’t know whether my brothers would have come to my succor. I suppose it worked as a deterrent and should really credit my brothers for it.

*I remember a time when one of the bigger boys in class, Sinto Genuino, a regular playmate of mine, and I were comparing the size of the rubber balls that we had rolled up layer by layer from the sap of the giant old rubber tree beside the basketball court. Finding my ball definitely bigger than his infuriated him. Actually, it was my incessant taunting of him having a smaller ball that irritated him. He grabbed mine and threw it to the other side of basketball court where it did a magnificent bounce, hurtled in the air and landed on the head of one of the upper grade boys playing basketball. Angered by this, the boy gave the ball a swift goal-kicklike boot that sent it flying to the football field towards the Assumption Convent side of the campus. That ball took three and a half months of painstaking sap bleeding and layering from the barks of the rubber tree to reach the size of a golf ball and in an instant it was gone. That classmate of mine was really big, much bigger than any of my brothers. Although I felt that my brothers would come to help if I asked I had doubts about their being able to beat my bully classmate. So, prudence told me to just imagine my kicking him in the butt and making him swallow his little ball. I just vowed that I will get even one day and my mind raced to find ways of getting back at him stealthily. I was obsessed with the thought of a furtive retaliation and dreamed of schemes and plots to get even but soon got tired of it. After three days we were back to playing marbles and I started to roll up another rubber ball that was already the size of a raisin by then.

I thought my Mom was remarkable with her cool mien and aplomb. While gaggles of mothers flitted about in frenzy-like haze my Mom just stood there with me in hand just waiting for a cue from one of the registrar employees. I guess the experience with her first two boys the year before somewhat jaded her attitude about these things. I would like to think that her cool stemmed from her confidence that her kid is special and would just get through it no sweat. No, really, my Mom has always been the cool one, a veteran of raising eight children, five boys and three girls. The two oldest brothers, Cocoy and Tito were in the state university where my parents, themselves, studied and the three girls; Nita, Patty and Angge were in Maryknoll.

*Apart from the pleasant memories that the Observatory ruins evoked there were some unpleasant ones like the secluded nooks in the ruins of the bombed out administration building which was used as a place of reckoning to avenge a wrong done by one classmate over another. “Ruins!” would be challenge word. Disputes were settled honorably through a “square fight” between two classmates. Having two older brothers was of no help in those situations. I could not ask my brothers to proxy for me in a fight of honor. I could not back out of fights like these even if I ended up having a shiner every time. I recall a classmate, Victor Reyes, to whom I would have several rounds with in the ruins. I always ended up at the short end. It was no fun losing fights even if it was with honor always. I just had to learn how to get out of scrapes like those without looking cowardly. I learned the virtue of pacifism, a pacifist being someone who had the ability to get out of scrapes and coming up with acceptable though plausible reasons why he should not fight.

Just like my two other brothers who were older than me. I, too, was admitted to the hallowed grounds of this pantheon of knowledge, the Ateneo de Manila. And with that, my Mom’s entreaty, which has been said to my older brothers, had a reprise with me. “We are not rich and are making all the sacrifices to provide you with the best education to make you better set for life. Your father and I expect you to do your part by taking your studies seriously.” At that time I cared little about this and could not be expected to understand and take to heart the gist of this plea. The words just jingled in my mind like the lyrics of tired Christmas carol, nice and familiar and yet vaguely meaningful.

15. On A Hot Gravelly Road Sadly

Later on, after having been kicked out from high school, a strong feeling of guilt and remorse descended on me. My parents had sacrificed a lot when they enroled me in the Ateneo. It finally dawned on me that I have thrown out the opportunity that my parents provided when they put me in this exclusive institution. Their disappointment was evident on their faces and in the way they regarded me after I told them of my expulsion. Being sorry for what I have wrought was not enough to assuage the pain I have inflicted on them and on myself.
In the Ateneo, one day that had remained in my mind and was to augur future events was my first day in history class.

*The teacher, Mr. Opinion, also called “bungo” affectionately by some, was calling out the names of the students as he went through each class card. Suddenly he stopped and took a longer glance at one. “Roa…Roa how are you related to the last two Roas I’ve had in my class?” he asked. “They probably were my two older brothers”, I said. He made a mock gesture of tearing his sparse hairline and in an exaggerated expression of anguish moaned “Oh no not again!”

I beg the forgiveness of my cousins and nephews who likewise bore the family name Roa who might have suffered a similar comic but humiliating experience. By the time my son was in high school at the Ateneo it seemed that the family name no longer had that stigma. It would have been a cruel jest if the same teacher would ask my son “how are you related to Roa…Roa…Eduardo?”

I felt for my mother who had to forgo a lot of simple comforts just so she could provide us quality education. I was the last one to be expelled and with this her fervent hopes for seeing a son graduate from the Ateneo had dissipated to a wispy sigh. ‘Oh how we have wronged our mothers!’

*I remember my brother Dado, telling me of how relieved he was upon his expulsion from school because he could now go through the day without having to put up with the taunts from his much more privileged classmates. From then on he didn’t have to put on his toughness stance or his having to be superior in ways most rich kids could not be… things that invariably got him into trouble with the teachers. He has the distinction of having bullied Joseph Ejercito during their grade school days in the Ateneo of Padre Faura days. Later on during one of the parties he attended with my other brother, Pete, who became "kumpadre" of Erap, he met Erap who told him jokingly that he could no longer bully him because he was now the Vice President of the Republic.

With the three of us behaving disgracefully in the Ateneo, our parents have been summoned either by the dean of discipline or the dean of studies countless times. Invariably it was mother who attended to this since father was kept from going because of his work. One time Dado was asked by Father Lochboeler, the dean of studies to bring father to talk to him. He insisted on seeing father since the earlier meetings with mother did not seem to have any effect on the chronic recalcitrant that he was. Knowing that father will not come to these meetings, and that just by merely asking him would be a suicidal attempt, he had to search deep into his ingenuity for a solution to the problem. He did come up with one which involved a bit of drama and acting by his barber. He was able to coax his barber to play the role of father in the meeting with the good priest. It was an expensive enterprise which caused him to buy the barber a new polo barong to make him look presentable and in addition he had to fork out twenty pesos as talent fee for the performance. This was a windfall considering the cost of a haircut was twenty five centavos in Sampaloc at that time. The barber was instructed to respond only by nods and occasional yeses to whatever the dean had to say. He was not to contribute at all to whatever course the discussion took. It was a certainty that barbering and the sartorial arts will not be covered in the course of the session. It must have been a successful ruse for we never heard about the outcome. Dado seemed pretty pleased with himself but kept mum about the incident.

My other brother, Pete, was well known for his shenanigans in school. He seemed to have had a misdirected entrepreneurial bent in him that always ended up with regrettable results. One of his more famous or infamous business ventures was in the selling of garlic cloves with a margin of profit that could make Donald Trump salivate. The demand and likewise the price of garlic cloves soared up for a discovered alternative use in a niche market, not for cooking but for running up a fever which the school clinics’ thermometers can affirm. I don’t know where and how he found out that by sticking a clove of garlic in one’s anus it could raise the body temperature to fever level. At the height of this enterprise the clinic might have looked like a disaster center with sick boys on long queues.

My brothers were really terrible. I could never use incorrigibility as a reason for my failure in school. I was a child who did not mature early enough to endure the rigors of the disciplined Jesuit scholastic way. I was a child who was easily distracted by quick gratifications and prone to seek thrills no matter how senseless they were. I had the incessant curiosity and the volatile attention span of a Labrador puppy. It must have been a learning disorder of sorts.

On the day I was expelled a clerk from the administration office fetched me from the classroom. I thank the clerk for his discreet conduct of the summons but I knew that everybody in the class was on to the situation. I was not the first in our class to be summoned in that school term. They were unusually quiet for a class that had the reputation of being the worst section. My classmates were just staring at their empty desktops as I gathered my things and left. Walking the last mile in the corridor of death row with fellow convicts in commiseration, making ritual passage as it were. I was conducted to the office of Father Gough, the dean of studies. He sat there seemingly perturbed and peeved by the presence of a small boy peering in dismay through the half-opened door. It must have been a trying morning for him. He must have exceeded his quota of throwing out small boys that day and just couldn’t muster enough energy to hurl out another. I was matter-of-factly told of my expulsion. No admonitions, no wise advice and no good wishes for the future. I guess he was saying… “you are no longer ours. Begone”!

It was a long walk from the high school building to the bus shed in Aurora Boulevard. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought fleetingly, that I won’t be writing jugs for the dreaded “Garaver” (Mr. Vergara of the Registrar”s office) or doing duck walks around the quadrangle at Saturday post. No more whacks from Father Galdon’s “yantok” duster on my bare buttocks and that I never would have to undergo Mr. Dimasangal’s cruel and inhuman invention of doing computations on an uncut manila paper of a three digit number multiplied to the tenth degree. I cringed at the thought of Father Mores' sawed-off bat dropping at a measured distance to my noggin. Somehow I felt even more depressed realizing that I won’t be doing these things anymore. Teary eyed and scared of the reception at home I had fervently wished that the trek was a mile longer or that the clerk from the dean’s office would come running and say that it was Roca and not Roa. “A mistake…just a big mistake.” No miracles happened on that desolate and mournful road. Every sharp edge of gravel stabbed my burning sole and stubbed my throbbing toes. The gravelly dirt road of an early Katipunan Avenue was my “via dolorosa”. Don’t expect to have a band of angels to rescue you when you cross the Jesuits.

My childhood ended in a dusty waiting shed waiting for a rickety bus to usher me into a world that is spent of wonders and a world that is unforgiving to “ne’er do wells

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