Saturday, April 17, 2010

Part 27: Of Mice and Men

"Tell me like you done before,
about them other guys and about us...

"Guys like us ain't got nobody in the world
that gives a hoot n' hell about em."

~ John Steinbeck

"Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me, what's my lesson?
Look right through me, look right through me"
~ Roland Orzabal

It is funny how real life mirrored the books we were reading. Maybe that is why the book one person loves is a book another person can't bear to read, because a story hits a little close to home; somethings in life are just too painful.

If you look carefully at the class photos in the yearbook you can see the the guarded looks, the uncertainty and fear in some of the faces.

New Kids: we all bore some scars. Having become global nomads at a young age, some having been ripped from parents that loved them, some from parents who were indifferent at best. Transferring from country to country, school to school, most of us were inwardly nervous those first days, weeks and months. Would we fit in, would we be accepted, would we have friends? Brent was pretty good at absorbing new students into the group, but there were always those who were on the fringe, those that kept to themselves and never seemed to make friends.

The 1972-73 school year brought a wave of new students to Brent, the
U.S. Department of Defense parents were sending their kids out of the war zones. In January we got another batch of new students, a mixed lot of private business and military related kids. Some were boarders like Robin Ennis, Terry Drye, Leigh Gilmore, Beth and Kathy Duncan, Bill Rassmussen and others were day students: Anna Marie Franco, Dayne and September Florence.

Leigh, Terry and the Duncan sisters soon became part of my circle of boarder friends. They joined me, Jaime Case and sometimes Peg Hamill at the same table at supper time. I really liked Robin and Kathy. Kathy was blond with pretty eyes and a big smile, we became friends and would go shopping or to movies together but that is as far as it ever went. I didn't understand yet that just because you like someone in a certain way doesn't mean they like you in that way too.

Robin was a cute little redhead and because I liked her I teased her. A lot. I was an ass. The more I teased her the more she didn't like me. One day, fed up with me, first she blurted out something that I didn't understand, and then something else that I did; I avoided her after that. Later she apologized and I guess she meant it, I told her I was sorry for teasing her; but there are some things once spoken that always stand between two people.

We all had our little quirks and peculiarities: my roommate would wash his pens and pencils, scrub his notebook and school book covers; Jaime's leg would bounce up and down at the dinner table causing the silverware to vibrate; he had this habit of tearing up paper into tiny little pieces which was quite annoying when it happened to be your homework. Beth had a loud booming laugh and if you got her going she would snort too. Kathy liked to try different things on her ice cream: salt, pepper, soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, vinegar and the salty fish sauce called
patis. Terry was quirky and eccentric, she could be very quiet, proper and reserved one minute and the next she would cuss like a sailor; I learned some new words from her. Leigh was loud and boisterous with a sharp tongue and burning wit. Then there was Matthew.

Matthew was a little weird and he made people uncomfortable. He wasn't ugly, he wasn't dumb, he made OK grades, it was just that when he opened his mouth the words came out wrong. When he spoke this goofy smile played about his lips and this didn't help things either. He would hang a sock or tie out his window. Norman asked him why and he said that all the windows looked the same and he wanted to know which room was his
when he flew back to the dorm at night. Sometimes he would get shoved or punched, sometimes someone would stop the bullies, sometimes not. He had this piercing stare that was magnified by his thick glasses, sometimes when you found him staring at you it felt like he was reading your thoughts. This seemed to bother the girls quite a bit. Like most loners he was observant, cataloging the words and actions of those around him, storing it up in some vast database. I think he was lonely and like anyone else, he wanted to be liked, he wanted to have friends. So, he tried too hard and the harder he tried the stranger he seemed, the more he was ostracized. Mrs Pettitt tried to get the guys to include him, but because he was different he scared people. I was a bit of a loner too, spending my free time in the library reading while the other boys were down at the mini court playing basketball. I could feel the pain he felt at being left out and sometimes when we in the sala watching TV he would sit next to me because I was the only one who would let him. He was polite and solicitous of other people's feelings; he had a funny sense of humor, but still I never really knew him. Mathew had a favorite expression "Buck Up", which he proffered whenever anyone was down. He never said what he felt, rarely spoke of what he was thinking. The way he was treated made me begin to review my own actions and inaction, not just with him but with everyone.

I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth, feeling guilty about teasing my roommate for washing his bar of soap, pondering the injustice of the world when I happened to look at myself in the mirror. And it struck me like thunderclap, now all the innuendos and slights, the subtle slurs became clear. I did not fit into the cookie cutter mold, I was not up to the
common standard. What I saw in the mirror shook me to my core, I was seeing myself for the first time: a skinny kid with dark brown eyes and jet black hair. Now I comprehended the words "you ugly, stupid dirty little Flip" and how it applied to me. Now I knew why some girls wouldn't consider me as suitable; and all this time I thought we were the same. Sure, I knew that some people had blond hair and some people had black hair, but I thought that was just part of the variety of nature. I didn't realize that distinctions were being made, you were constantly rated: your weight, the straightness of your teeth, shape of your nose, color of your hair, shade of your skin, cut of your clothes or the accent of your voice. It never occurred to me before, I thought I was just like everyone else. The box was opened; I wanted to go back to being naive again.

Because we were always looking for things to do, a bunch of us boarders signed up for The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) workshops. They sent up some instructors from Manila to do classes at Brent. These workshops were to teach acting techniques and we did stuff like learning to project our voices, enunciation and pretending we were inanimate objects like trees or chairs, or animals like cats or dogs. I am not sure if we actually learned anything that stuck with us, but we had fun. It was a break in the routine, we could be out of the dorm at night. Jaime and I bummed cigarettes off the instructor:
"Mr Slim Menthol 100s" and tried to act cool, we thought we were pretty hip.

One evening we gathered in Binstead Hall to do some "past life" exercises; the idea being that an actor can use those experiences to help them flesh out a role. It was a simple drill, where we sat in a semi circle around one individual who held a flashlight and shone it up to their face. We each took turns sitting there in the dark with a flashlight shining up at our faces, trying to imagine what we were in a past life. Then each member of the group would take turns saying what they saw and lastly the person who had the flashlight would tell what he imagined. In the 1973 post
Rosemary's Baby era there were some in the group who were very uncomfortable with this Ouija Board like activity. Some were extremely nervous at sitting in the dark calling up past lives. But at first it was pretty boring and uneventful. Then it was Matthew's turn and after several minutes as he sat there I saw his thick glasses fade away, his hair was streaked with gray, his t-shirt turned into a collared shirt and heavy cape. It kind of looked like he had fangs. I guess someone else saw it too, because one of the girls shrieked making everyone jump, then we all started nervously laughing and talking and the facilitator turned on the lights.
"I was a vampire"
Matthew blurted out of turn. I was a little uncomfortable because I had seen something like that too. Maybe it was the power of suggestion because some of the others said "I thought that too!" The facilitator tried to get things back on track, getting us to tell what we saw, but Matthew interrupted again to say "I killed her", pointing at one of the girls in the class. She was visibly upset and refused to stay for the rest of the session. The incident was reported to the Headmaster, decisions were made, phone calls placed.

Well, that was it. In this day and age of "zero tolerance" it would come as no surprise, but back then it was a shocker. Within a few days Matthew was taken out of school and sent for psychiatric evaluation. He never came back.

A month or so later found us nervously climbing the stairs to the Faculty Lounge in Ogilby Hall. Matthew's mother had come to Brent to speak to some of the upper school students and boarders at an assembly. None of us knew what to expect. One of the students in front of me said
"this is so sad". I blurted out "Buck Up!" which caused her to laugh, releasing the tension. I remember thinking how brave Matthew's mother was to come before us and talk about her son. The headmaster's wife stood next to her and gently held her arm as Matthew's mother spoke with a quaver in her voice. Gently and clearly she told us about his condition, of the happy little boy she had raised, of the young man he now was. She told us "I know some of you are hurt and angry about him being taken out of school. I want you to know that he truly needed help and getting this help will make him better. I am hopeful that one day I will have my son back" Then she smiled through tears as she read a note that Matthew written telling us "to be happy for him" and "not to worry and buck up"; about his "new friends in the loony bin". It was a good letter, funny and self deprecating. But I couldn't help thinking that just because he really did need psychiatric help that didn't absolve us from the way we treated him. He was a better person than the rest of us. His letter made me think of a book I had read "Flowers for Algernon"; maybe Matthew had read it too. Here it is, an excerpt from the book by Daniel Keyes:
"If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont
be sorry for me Im glad
I got a chanse
to be smart becaus I lerned a lot of
things that
I never even new were in
this world and Im grateful that I saw
it all
for a little bit. I dont no what
I did wrong
maybe its becaus I dint
try hard enuff.
I remember I dids
something but I dont remember what.

Good-by Miss Kinnian and Dr Strauss
and evreybody. And P.S.
tell Dr Nemur not to be such a
grouch when pepul laff at him
and he
would have more frends. Its easy to
make frends if you let
laff at you. Im going to have lots
of frends where I go."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Part 26: A Christmas Carol

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try
to keep it all the year."
~ Charles Dickens

"Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought,
doesn't come from a store"

~ Dr Seuss

The rest of the school year went quickly, final exams, the candlelight service at St Nicholas Chapel and then before I knew it Christmas vacation had arrived.

I wouldn't be flying down to Tacloban this year, the family would be trespassing in my world for the holidays, we would be celebrating Christmas in Baguio and then my parents were attending an annual missionary conference.

So the day after school let out for the holidays I reluctantly took a taxi over to the guest cottages on the compound maintained by our Mission Board. Yellowing cabins with faded green trim, surrounded by pine trees; it looked just like Brent. It had been several years since I had been there last and I was happy to see it still was the same. I wasn't sure which one we were staying in but I just headed in the direction of the ruckus made by 2 boys being tortured by a third. Our reputation preceded us; the caretakers had wisely isolated us as far from the rest of the guests as possible. Our cabin was filled with all the old familiar homey smells. Mom and Dad were out visiting some other missionaries, but Auring was there, busy in the kitchen making up some of my favorite dishes. She gave me a hug and told me to put my things away. My brothers stopped fighting and huddled together, saucer eyed, staring at me like I was some alien from Mars. I gave them the evil eye and wrinkled my nose as if I had just stepped in something nasty. I put my bag in my room and told them
"touch my stuff and you die" before heading out the door to look around. My first stop was to look under the cabins to see if the roads I had carved years before were still there (they were!). Then after inspecting several of my favorite Matchbox play sites I went over to the camp Library. Except once or twice with my mother, all the years we had come here I never saw anyone else in there but me. I always thought of it as my own personal space. I went across the little bridge, in silence I opened the door to the empty sanctuary and breathed in the aroma of old books; I was 7 years old again. The room called out to me"Well, there you are. We have been wondering where you have been"
Here was the little reading areas, there were the tables for writing letters, here a table for playing games. There on the shelves were the worn and tattered board games. There were the novels, here were the mysteries, there was the children's section.Hello, Old Friends.

My heart beating fast I went to the shelves, touching a spine here, pulling out a title there. Here were
The Happy Hollisters waiting for me to help them solve a mystery, there was Nancy Drew about to discover The Secret in the Old Clock. I pulled a few favorites and curled up on the couch to read. The hours flew by and all too soon one of the little scabs came to tell me supper was ready.

As usual my parents had put off Christmas shopping till the last minute. One day it struck them that they couldn't put it off any longer and went shopping. Fortunately Baguio had a lot of stores and a large American community which insured that there would be a good selection. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best. Maybe they would just give me cash this year. Dad came back with a bunch of sacks and a Christmas tree. Mom came in with a few more sacks and began decorating the tree. It was beginning to look like Christmas, maybe there was hope yet.

On Christmas Eve we went to the UCCP church in town. The air was cold and crisp and the scent of burning pine filled the air, Baguio was magical at Christmas time. The service was solemn, the hymns joyful. Arriving back at the camp there were Christmas Carolers going from cabin to cabin singing. When they got to ours and finished their repertoire, in return Dad did his
knick-knack, paddy whack dance, patting each of his pockets in turn, searching for that ever elusive wallet he always managed to have left somewhere else, but Mom opened her pocket book and gave them some money.

Thank you! Merry Christmas! Malipayong Pasko!

We had a nice supper with some of the other missionaries staying at the camp, sang carols and went to bed late.

Christmas morning arrived with the sound of the metal grate scraping as my Dad lit the kerosene heater and my youngest brothers crying in the living room. I heard Dad yell
"Quit bullying your brothers!" followed by the hollow plunk of someone getting knocked on the head. Now the older one joined the two youngest in crying.Ho Ho Ho I whispered and pulled the blankets back over my head but I was wide awake now. Auring already had breakfast cooking; I could smell the bacon and the pancakes. So I got up, sipped a cup of hot tea and watched the little vermin rampaging through the gifts. They all seemed to have made out well, Dad even did fairly well by Mom. I was avoiding opening my gifts, not wanting to be disappointed. Auring handed me a package from her that contained two nice shirts, then Mom gave me a shoebox that had 6 paperbacks in it. That was it. I had been prepared for this and so busied myself with one of the books while the rest of the family continued to open presents. Auring clucked her tongue and mumbled "disgracia" and left the room. A little while later she came back and pushed some folded up bills into my hand. I protested, but she pulled my ear with one hand and wagged her finger at me with the other. Then she hugged me tight and I whispered thank you.

My parents were attending the
Baguio Religious Acculturation Conference, usually held the last week of December, where missionaries gathered for lectures and discussions on acculturation in the Philippines. Held at different venues each year the conference was hosted by one of the Catholic colleges and universities in Baguio. We had been in Baguio at these conferences in the past and they were always interesting and exciting. When I was younger I would stand outside the hall and listen to their debates. Most of the attendees were missionaries and religious educators, but there were a few anthropologists attending as well. At times the debates would grow passionate, standing, gesturing, waving their arms, clapping. One of the regulars was not here this year, Dr.William Henry Scott from Sagada was being held in prison on charges of being a "subversive" by the Marcos regime. His books on the natives of the mountain provinces were well known. Most of the old timers were there: Peter Gowing, Robert Fox, Edward Dozier, Richard and Eunice Poethig and the Grants to name just a few.

There were a lot of Americans from different denominations in Baguio that year attending the same conference. Most of the missionaries who had kids brought them with them, so there were a lot of kids around the camp. Among them were two cute girls my age who went to the International School in Manila. Their parents were in the same mission as mine and I vaguely recalled them from years past. One was a blond and the other was a brunette, they looked a lot better than I remembered. Even better was that they seemed to like me. The two of them eyeballed each other and began verbally circling. All of this was done very subtly and with great politeness and decorum. I watched in fascination, never having seen anything like this or ever been the object of dispute.

After some intense negotiations they sorted out who was going to take possession of me and I went on a walk with my "holiday romance". We were passing one of the cottages trying to find a place to be alone when I heard someone call my name. Looking up I saw Dr Grant calling to me from the window.
"You boys come up for some cookies, I just baked them."
Both the Grants had PhD's and were missionaries that had lived near us in Fil-Am Village when we lived in Quezon City. They were like grandparents to us, and always had something good to eat. I introduced my new girlfriend to her and she exclaimed
"Sydney! Like the city in Australia! You don't hear that one very often. Do you go by Syd?"
I tried to explain, repeatedly, carefully enunciating her name, but to no avail. Sydney it was. "Syd" laughed and winked at me. After we finished our cookies and drinks she hustled us out the door and we continued on our way. With the conference going on the camp was full, and it seemed that there was no place where we could be alone. Kids running around and toddlers with their
yayas were everywhere. Finally we found a spot by sliding down the hill and there perched above Bokawkan Road, overlooking the valley and pine forested hills beyond, we could neither be seen from the road below or the path above. Now and then we would hear people passing above us, once I heard my Dad and brothers walking by. It was warm in the sun and we lay in the tall grass, her head on my shoulder, laughing, talking and kissing. Syd must have been concerned that I might be harboring some doubts as to her gender, because at one point she abruptly produced two volumes of evidence for me to peruse. Boy, these IS girls sure were progressive.

After two weeks in Baguio Mom and Dad were relaxed and content. This whole conference was an excuse to have some down time and they needed it. True workaholics they seldom took vacations. I suddenly realized that all the times we had come to Baguio in the past were when they attended these meetings. With just a few days of vacation left Dad now was spending his time catching up on all the periodicals he had been missing out on back in Leyte. Auring watched the kids when they played around camp and even they had quit fighting and were getting along. Mom realized the disparity in the gift department or maybe Auring said something,
but she decided to take me shopping.Overriding Dad's half-hearted protests, she decided that Yes I did in fact need sweaters and a jacket just like they did.

"I walked a mile and back to school in the snow with just a burlap sack for a coat!"

Mom got me some warmer clothing and we found a trunk to store my stuff in so I wouldn't have to bring everything home for the summer. We went shopping at Easter School where she bought gifts to send to the relatives, then on to shops on upper Session Road: Old Pagoda, The Pied Piper and down at the bottom of the hill, the old Stone Market where Mom exclaimed at all the black market items available. She had been missing American candy bars and couldn't help herself and bought a dozen bars. She also bought some black market American canned foods, shampoo and a bottle of
English Leather cologne for me.

We went to the movies and had ice cream at the the
Magnolia shop afterwards. We went to eat pizza at a restaurant called Mario's at the top of Session Road. She was happy and light hearted, the weather was sunny and cool and she laughed a lot.It was like we had been transported back in time. At night it got quite cold and Dad would light the kerosene heater and we would eat popcorn and play Flinch or Monopoly. The scent of the pine trees, the odors of burning kerosene and popcorn all bring to mind Christmas in Baguio. For a short while we were a family again, it was a good time, a quiet time before the storm. I think it was the last happy days our family spent together, before the rage, before the discontent, before the cancer, before the death, before the disillusionment.