Friends from a long time ago

We all are a member of some sort of groups on Facebook whose members are people we have not seen for ten years or more. Aside from the occasional informally organized reunions that take place once every two years during the Christmas season, we ‘ve never truly caught up with most of these people because we’ve already moved and treaded on with our own individual journeys. Holding on to the past will simply slow down our ply forward.

I’ve recently received notification on Facebook about a photo taken more than eleven years ago of the Delta platoon of my high school CAT program. It was a very old photo taken by our high school’s official photographer scanned for the sole purpose of being uploaded on Facebook. For throwback Thursday said one of the hash tags.

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I was not in the picture but was tagged by one of the private cadets on the photo who’s a classmate. He is now working in the Middle East. He’s a family man. His profile picture on Facebook is that of his beautiful daughter, smiling innocently at the camera. Had I taken a similar path as this classmate, I would’ve already had a child of my own, and my Facebook page would be less a celebration of  the self than about my child.

I was my high school CAT corps commander. The conversation about the photo revolved on an incident that happened one Friday afternoon more than eleven years ago. It’s a funny banter about a control freak corps commander who found them hiding in one of the classrooms of first year students, foiling their effort to evade the unforgiving 4pm brigade formation under the still scathing afternoon sun. Of course they never forgot to mention the number of push-up they had to perform as punishment for their act.

I joined the happy exchange. My tone was that of a nostalgic old man looking back with a satisfied smile at a past long gone.

Versions of the story varied a little; some people I couldn’t recall to be there had sworn they were. Our memories being less stable than the ground we tread on shake uncontrollably most of the time. Every time we retrieve data stored in the mildewy recesses of our minds we struggle to recall. But we always allow for so much leeway, for some inconsistencies in details, for contradictions because this is how memory works. We invent, recreate, imagine. However, we seldom care. The past is for all of us to define.

But what bothers me more than the many versions of that incident is the apparent feeling of distance. My participation in the conversation on the page felt forced. My fakeness was so palpable I was ashamed of myself. The language they used, the slang from eleven years ago which they still pepper their sentences with sounded dated. Nothing changed it seemed to most of us.

That classmate who posted the photo said I was furiously shouting at them that afternoon. I was very mad, he wrote.

I laughed. How could I be so passionate about something that my memory has failed to store?

This is what eleven years does to all of us.

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Paths

Last Monday, I saw her again after eight long years, right in the middle of a morning train rush to work. My last glimpse of her, she was my seatmate in our fourth year, was during our high school graduation in 2003, crying, like all high school students do when it dawns on them that the road from this point on radically diverges and that they’re bound not to see each other ever again.

I was standing, holding the still-warm metal handrail when I heard a woman say my name, ‘Fev’, a couple of times. The timbre of the voice did not register. Nobody calls me Fev anymore except those people whom I spent with most of my childhood and teenage years. Seeing her after many years brought back memories of the better times  in the province. We were classmates in fifth grade when she, along with a handful of her classmates, were distributed among the 13 other sections in grade five after their class adviser died of cancer in the middle of the school year. They were from section 6. She performed really well in class, did even better in subjects like Filipino and Civics than my section 1 classmates. She silently made her way  and consistently maintained her good grades. She remained my classmate from then until our last year in high school. I learned from former classmates that she studied Fish Technology at Mindanao State University in General Santos City then moved to Laguna after graduation and eventually to Manila. We planned to meet once or twice when we began working but it never materialized.

I looked to her direction, she was seated between two old men. She seemed to have aged well beyond 25. I saw gray hairs peeking through her coarse crown. “Kamusta na ka, Fev?” It took me a while to recognize her. I simply blurted “Janice!” We did not talk as she hurriedly got off at Ortigas station. She was carrying a tote bag that dwarfed her small frame but this did not keep her from ambling confidently and joining the crowd scurrying out of the station, and getting lost in the plethora of strangers.

People indeed pass us by in a matter of seconds to say ‘hi’, or if we’re lucky, minutes, and for some of us who are not very fortunate, without us even realizing it. Our paths, though at some point may fortuitously converge, remind us that whatever we have now is ephemeral, that however we wanted to chat and catch up with a high school classmate we have not seen for almost a decade, we all must proceed with our own journey and just be hopeful that in the next train ride we can ‘stop and talk a while’, says a line in a famous commercial for coffee in the 90s.

Detour

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This trip home, which I’ve been planning since I finished college but has been postponed several times, is finally realized. I am currently enjoying an all expenses paid, free board and lodging living that will last for at least a month until I leave for the university next month. No bills, electricity, or rent to pay. And courtesy of my loving parents, I will not have to worry where to get my next meal. I will not have to bother myself with waking up so early in the morning and staying up late for work. Life can never get better than this. I have all the time in the world to read and write, bum around, watch television (something I stopped doing days ago after I found out that our vintage television shows nothing but insipid local noon time shows, boring melodramas, and unimaginative news coverage by both primetime news program), and go to the gym.

However, my old self haunted me. While I am supposed to be resting to my heart’s content, I found myself volunteering to teach Journalism in the two local high schools here. And it was already too late; the moment I hinted the suggestion, the schedule was already ironed out, the venue prepared, and the list of participants completed. Nonetheless, it’s a supposedly un-thought of decision I never regretted. It felt good going back to the high school where I graduated from and share with its students my knowledge and burning passion for journalism and writing.

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A text message from a pastor named Reden Casinillo

Text Message

When a high school classmate sent me a text message a while ago addressing himself as pastor, I knew it was he. It reminded me of my atrophied spirituality, which is a totally different story.

He was already evangelist-like and pious even when we were in high school, so it did not anymore surprise me that he went on and becomes a full-fledged gatherer of the flock.

I remember him to be the only student in campus then who had enough guts to challenge me for the post of president of our high school student government. Many thought I would run and win uncontested. I won albeit narrowly; I got 20 votes more. That election was one of the stiffest in my school’s history. He got the majority of the votes from second, third, and fourth year students. But my stronghold was the solid votes from the most numerous (and gullible) freshmen who gave their confidence on me because I was more popular and a consistent head of my class academically.

He was more responsible, more dependable, and in my opinion, more able in performing the duties plus he has the character fit for the post. That time I was already the corps commander of our CAT and the editor in chief of the student publication; I did not need additional responsibilities. The responsibilities of being the president of the student body organization did not help to make me a better leader; I was more of a stressed and burned out leader.

Reden Casinillo, I knew then, was better suited for the job, but I was too proud to admit this then. Resignation was unheard of during my time.

We were not close. We belonged to a different circle of friends. The people he went with are those whom I silently branded as too morally clean to be my friends. Not that I was morally contaminated.

When you are young, the world is simpler, and simplifying things using a rudimentary scheme is more convenient. Save for some congenial smiles and compulsory interactions because we were classmates, we graduated from high school as strangers to each other.

He took his baccalaureate in evangelical studies from a Baptist seminary in Jaro, Iloilo City. I only learned about this when I was already in my second year in UP Visayas Miagao, roughly 40 kilometers away from Iloilo City. During that time, whenever I had free time during the weekends, I go to Iloilo City to stay with my relatives in Sambag then I would take my bike from the place I was staying to his school to pay him a visit.  We exchanged stories about our individual struggles as students.

He has this natural lightness in the way he speaks that is infectious. I didn’t expect him to understand my academic concerns but his simplicity of words and thoughts allowed me to dislodge, although not in a dramatic way, my teenage angst. He was older than I by around two or three years, so I look up to him as my older brother.

One time, he asked me to listen to a short talk with their senior pastor. He said 20 minutes was all it would take. Trying to sound hesitant but not wanting to refuse his sincere offer, I gave in not because of the words from his pastor which I already heard countless of times but because of Reden’s too serious-in-a-funny-way of pleading is more convincing than an admonishing from Jed Mabilog to stay away from drugs. I realized he was always like that even during high school.

So I sat there acting as if I was listening attentively. As anticipated, the pastor capped his interpretation of the gospel with the staple “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?” I was at the height of my rebellion against organized religion that time, and I regretted having said yes to Reden’s prodding only to insult his senior pastor in front of him. I replied, “This is a very important decision, so please let me think about it. I have no definite response as of the moment”. The pastor was dumbfounded having not prepared himself for such a response.

I said I was sorry for what happened after that. He gave me a smile and said it was okay, and quipped “God can wait.”

I am happy hearing news about former classmates, who like mules with steady strides, slowly but confidently go after what they’ve really been wanting to do ever since we started having talks of when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be. I, on the other hand, seemed to be caught in a standstill.

And this surprise text message from Reden who mysteriously got my number from an undisclosed source simply means I have not totally cut my connection with my high school classmates.

He added that he’s gatting married. I asked if it’s with Melanie, another classmate of ours who also took up evangelical studies from the same school. He said “No, not with Nene Melanie”. His use of “nene”, a patronizing Illonggo name of endearment was funny for me. “With Jerusalem, you remember her?”

How could I forget; she was his shy girlfriend that time.The only one he had all this time.

10 things you’ll not forget if you attended a public school in the Philippines

Public School

I am a product of the public education system, and based on the way I turned out, public schooling in my country can’t be that bad. I spent two years of my kindergarten and six years of primary education at Dole Cannery Central Elementary School, four years of secondary education at Polomolok National High School, my college at the University of the Philippines. Furthermore, I took several units from the Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi University of Foreign Studies in Vietnam both public institutions of higher learning in both countries.

If you spent most of your years of schooling at a public school in the Philippines you should have experienced any of the following:

1. Your teacher was selling ice candies, yema balls, colorful threads for your HELE ‘kinds-of-stitches’ project, art papers for your organ systems projects, and anything imaginable to her students.

2. You were scared to death by the rumors that your school was a former cemetery or that a ghost of a teacher who died of a violent death is haunting your classroom.

3. You spent and hour or more of your time every day watering plants, pulling weeds, scrubbing the floor or planting cabbages in the vegetable garden of the school.

4. You remember clearly well that the class bully was the stupidest student in your class.

5. Bringing of home-made sandwiches made from mayonnaise and Tasty loaf bread to school during recess was a sign of being well-off that can either inspire respect or scorn from your classmates.

6. Staple afternoon games played while waiting for dismissal were Chinese garter, hide-and-seek, tumbang preso, luksong tinik, patintero. (In my elementary school we had 21, dampa, bahay-kubo, baguongay, takyan, baseball using tennis balls and the arm of a chair for bats).

7. Going to school not in uniform and wearing slippers were not prohibited.

8. You escaped from class before the afternoon dismissal time to watch Japanese animations such as Cedi ang Munting Prinsipe, Sarah ang Munting Prinsesa, Maria at ang Pamilya von Trapp, Ghost Fighter, Flame of Recca, Mojacko, and Gundam

9. Some of your classmates professed to be prophets of God capable of ‘performing’ miracles which had earned them a significant number of gullible followers which might have included you (but of course, something you will vehemently deny).

10. Your teacher had a basin she used for peeing and all her bodily needs since restrooms were non-functioning. These heavily ammoniac bodily discharges were used to water plants that inevitably made these plants, most of the time bougainvillea, smell as sweet.

(This note was written a long time ago, sitting untouched with my other files. I only remember that I have written this note that enumerated the things I experienced in my elementary school after watching the play Mababang Paaralan ng Caniogan, one of the featured plays in the Virgin Labfest V held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. And I was surprised with the almost similar experiences the three characters have in their school in Luzon to that of ours in Mindanao.)

A high school love story

After having weathered several romantic relationships, trying to figure out what went wrong, what happened along the course of the journey, or what has prodded each of the parties to leave, my previous romantic affairs concluded in un-extraordinary fashion. I loved, lost, loved again, just like anyone of us. Their ends were never preempted by the happiness brought by their beginnings. There was nothing spectacular about their endings, no spark, or anything near magical.

I wrote love letters before. Some I sent and was read by the intended recipient; some were sent but were read by other people other than to whom it was supposed to be sent to. And a few were never sent at all either because of fear to be rejected or for the fear that the person who will receive them will laugh at the cheesy lines I carefully concocted or I simply was not confident that my letters were free of any grammatical blunders.

Youthful insecurities kept me from fully expressing love, too young to understand the complications and complexities of baring my emotion for people to trample it, crush it, or simply ignore it. But I knew I tried to love. That for me was enough no matter how the adult world tried to underrate my ability to feel and to express what I feel in a way I deemed appropriate.

I was so young then, barely 14, when I felt so sure that I was starting to fall in love with a very beautiful girl of my age. We were high school classmates. For reasons of privacy, I will not mention her name here. We both have already moved on. Now she is living a happy life with somebody she loves and loves her in return. She is also running after her dreams like what I am doing.

Then, life was simpler. We were too innocent to care about the future. What is to become of us after a year, a month, or even the following week was the least of our concern. For us then the present was the only thing that mattered.

She was from another elementary school in the poblacion; and being first year high school students then, we were too shy to approach anyone we think a stranger. She caught everyone’s attention, including mine, because she’s beautiful. In that public high school where I graduated from, it was rare to see a beautiful girl who dresses so well and modest all at the same time. You either see a pretty girl who looks drab, a well-dressed one but just too provincial, or both good-looking and nicely-dressed but an epitome of egotism and pride.

She was simply the most beautiful girl, the kindest, and the most intelligent in class (second to me, hahaha): everything a thirteen-year-old boy was looking for in the girl of his life. We were competitors in class; she graduated with the highest honor when she was in elementary; I, in the other hand, was the valedictorian of my class. But we were friends. I tried hard to make her laugh at my jokes or impress her with my scientific knowledge and love for literature. I won competitions outside the school because I wanted her to notice me.

I started formally courting her during our third year in high school. I sent her love letters through a close friend of us both. Sometimes I deliberately borrowed books from her, although I never read then, to insert my love letter inside. She never replied any of my letters, but I know she felt something for me because I noticed a difference in the way she smiled at me. I felt it.

I joined the CAT (Citizen Army Training) program to become an officer so that in our fourth year I could ask her to be my sponsor during the induction of officers and presentation of sponsors. I faced pain, fatigue, and hard work while in the program. She taught me to think of the future and make my self better so that my life in the future will be far better from what my current life.

I started walking with her from our school to the town plaza every afternoon during the last months of our third year in high school.  I took those walks as confirmations that she also felt something for me. Although that time they had a new red car, which was her family’s transportation during that time, she chose not to go with her mother who is a teacher in our school, and walk with her friends, and me to the plaza and wait for the tricycle to transport her to their house four kilometers away in the town. I reasoned that any intelligent girl would not choose to walk on dusty roads surrounded by pineapples with a guy if she’s not interested with him.

Even though I was not a practicing Catholic, I would always accompany her every Wednesday to attend mass after class. One time we were both asked to carry the bread and wine; we did that while we were wearing our high school uniforms. Days following that afternoon we were our classmates’ object of teasing; I secretly liked it, though. I just smile every time I remember that ordinary Wednesday afternoon in the Parish of the Good Shepherd.

This continued until our fourth year, and on September 1st 2002 she said to me that she also loved me, the day we were officially romantically attached. It was however odd. That time, cell phones were just starting to be introduced in our place and so we were sending SMS to each other. I was ironing my school uniform while texting her using my mother’s Nokia 5110i phone (in case you forget, it’s a very fat and heavy Nokia model with an equally big antenna; this model was already not fashionable during that time) when she became my girlfriend. It was anticlimactic.

Earlier that day, as the Corps Commander, I lead my high school’s CAT Battalion  in the town parade so she asked me if I was okay because she heard from her mother that I was sick. The conversation went on further until I asked her if she cared for me. She said “a lot”. I asked her if it was because she loved me. And then she replied a very short answer: “yes”.

That was one of my most memorable high school experience. Looking back now that I am 22 and definitely more mature and experienced with life and how it is to love, that day remained too difficult to surpass. My young heart during that time, for the first time, knew how it was to love and to find out that somebody was also loving me back.

We lasted for seven months. On the 8th of April 2003, I remember it was in a park, I broke up with her. I gave her many reasons why our relationship cannot go on. I told her that I would be studying in a far place; we would not be able to maintain communication; and that I don’t believe in long distance relationships. She said nothing at first just cried. That was the first time I saw her cry. It almost made me regret saying those things and take back what I said telling her I was just kidding. But my resolve was final. She tried to negotiate, telling me that she could wait and that she loved me so much. I said I loved her too, but I could not anymore go on. I gave her reasons why I was ending the relationship but it’s only now that I accepted the fact that it was because of my insecurities. Insecurities about the future, about our fragile relationship, and about myself and who I really am.

We seldom communicated after that, and in the second year of my college she told me that she already has a boyfriend. I was devastated, but I had no choice but to accept it. She had moved on. I hadn’t. I tried my best to divert my attention to my academics just to forget about her. A lot of things happened to our individual lives after that. When we both finished college, we met again, and finally put and end to our love story. She told me her story which made me to fully I understand her.

“You hurt me so much,” she said.

“I’m sorry. It’s not only you who was hurt,” I said.

“I’m with somebody now. I know he loves me so much. He makes me happy.”

“Really? That’s good. I also wanted you to be happy.”

“By leaving me? I suffered a lot because of what you did. Two years after we separated, I still couldn’t move on. I compared every man who tried to love me with you. ‘Ah this man is not as good a conversationalist as Fev.’ ‘This man is too stupid, not like Fev.'”

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that all you can say? Yeah, but I’m so happy this man came. He loves me more than anyone did.”

“It was not only you who was hurt. I was only thinking of what was to become of us in the future.”

“I hope it made you happy.”

Silence.

Our story ended in silence.

Her story, however, will remain to be her story. I will not include it here because for me it is sacred and only she can tell it. I know I will never give full justice to the pains she went through because of a love story that began one Monday morning of June 1999.