Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Part 31: The 1973-74 School Year Begins

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist
and that there are few great teachers as there are few great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the
medium is the human mind and spirit"
~ John Steinbeck

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school"

~Albert Einstein

Well, that summer was one of the worst yet and I was partly to blame. It was the first summer where I did not cut my hair before I got home. Mildly put, this drove my Dad nuts. It was the cause of a daily round of belittling and beration: "I have a daughter now! Bakla!". But I stuck to my guns and grimly marked out the days on the calender, counting out the days before my release.

Finally, one rainy August morning I found myself boarding a plane back to Manila. I was going to arrive a full two weeks before school started but I couldn't take it any more. I think my parents suspected that I was leaving early but were glad to see me go. I lost no time upon my arrival in Manila and took a cab straight to the PNR bus depot and caught the next departure for Baguio. Five hours and five thousand feet later I was home. With the first waft of cool mountain air a sense of freedom and tranquility came over me. This is where I belonged.

When I arrived at Brent I was excited to be the first student moving into the New Dorm, bright and shiny, smelling of varnish and stain. No one seemed to mind that I was back for the school year early, Mr and Mrs Pettitt were already moved in to the dorm masters suite on the main floor. Juniors and Seniors on the top floor, Freshmen and Sophomores on the main floor and all other grades on the lowest floor. I found my room quickly, my name was taped to the first door I checked. Jaime's was down the hall but I moved his name to the door across from mine, our rooms were right by the side entrance (I didn't know it yet but that would come in very handy whenever we needed to enter or exit the dorm undetected). All the rooms in our new dorm were identical: dark stained paneled walls, matching parquet flooring and garish orange, yellow, white and avocado green curtains. Each room was furnished with two metal bed frames, two over-sized desks/bookshelf units that also served as room partitions and one large double wardrobe. It was too late to get pillows and bedding from Mrs Tabafunda, but I had some sheets and blankets of my own, so I dug my foot locker out of storage, unpacked and then went down the hall to get a mattress. One of the rooms was full of mattresses and another was crammed full with assorted pieces of small furniture. It was a gold mine. This was one of the advantages to getting back to school so early, first dibs on rooms, furniture and mattresses. I started going through them, trying to find the best one, testing them out first. One of them was a real mattress with matching foundation, I realized that this must have been Mr. Craig's. I settled on one and was dragging it down to my room when I thought why not? So I went back and took the mattress and foundation, now I was the only boarding student with a decent bed!

The next morning after breakfast I went and got my class schedule from the registrar and headed over to the bookstore to get my books and supplies for the year. There were a lot of required reading books on the list for my English class taught by a
Giussepe De Rugeriis? Must be a new teacher. After stowing them in my locker I went back to the dorm to sign out and then went to the cashier and signed for some "incidentals" cash. I learned this technique from Norman, instead of painfully saving my allowance for the things I needed like shampoo, toothpaste, soap, underwear, socks and shoes, I could get cash from the office as long as I provided an explanation for the need and provide receipts if requested. I headed straight for Lambino's Tailors on lower Session Road to pick out some Ramie fabric and get myself measured for some new pants. Then I navigated the department stores up and down Session Road picking up the additional items I needed.

The time went quickly, I spent my days at the library or in my room reading the books on my English required reading list. It didn't bother me that there weren't any kids around, I'd watch a little TV after supper at night, sometimes some of the teachers would invite me to go to the movies. The following week boarders started arriving, one one day, two the next and by the end of the week the dorm was full. Next door was a tall, gangly kid from England, Gordon Strachan. He kind of looked like a cross between David Bowie and Mick Jagger. He had a great stereo system and a huge record collection. He didn't think too much of me but I thought he was alright.

That first weekend before school started I learned the meaning of "a woman scorned". I found myself lying in front of the fireplace between two girls, one two grades above me and the other one grade below; we were watching the flames and listening to Jaime play his guitar. I liked the older girl better, but it never occurred to me that she would even consider me. So I turned my attentions to the other girl. Bad mistake, not only did she turn out to be crazy but the other girl was really pissed. Scary pissed. Over the next few weeks she took time to let me know how I screwed up and what I was missing out on. I already was miserable from my choice and she really seemed to enjoy twisting the knife.

After two years at Brent, Jaime and I had developed our own rituals and routines. That first Sunday night before school we selected a table in the dining hall that was to become "our table" for the next three years. Located next to the windows in the center of the hall, we had a fine view of the evening sunsets. Jaime sat at the head of the table with me on his right. Leigh Gilmore sat on his left and three new boarders Cecily Drury, Lulie Lawry and Leeanne Colvin joined us. This league was not set in stone, depending on how we were getting along the members changed, but basically this was our group.

The school year started and right away there was a tangible difference in my English classes.
Guissepe de Rugiris aka "Rug" was a whirlwind on two feet. He introduced himself and then announced that we would start each class with a vocabulary quiz, not only that but we would have these quizzes daily for the remainder of the year. Most days the class would end with another test on the days topics. Right after the quiz he launched right into literature. His classes were whirlwinds too. Besides the text books he would assign one book a week, sometimes two, and that was
Di riguer, a mash up of world literature from the ancient Greece to the Americas. Austin, Borges, Cervantes, Crane, Chekov, Eliot, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Knowles, Potok, Remarque, Salinger, Sophocles and Steinbeck in no particular order. Our heads were swimming with new characters: Asher, Agamemnon, Beowulf, Clytemnestra, Electra, Holden, Phineas and Silas. To help us keep up he showed some of us some speed reading techniques.

His classes were a mix of history, poetry, opera, literature and declamation: Rug would chant, recite, yell, sing and laugh, always pushing us to analyze, think, ponder and contemplate. What is this book telling us? How does it make you feel? How does this relate to your own life? What are the parallels? He was changing the way I thought, the way I viewed the world. I would never see things the same.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Part 30: Prodigal Summer

"And I am not worthy to be called thy son:
make me as one of thy hired servants"
~ Luke 15: 19

"The Prodigal Son returns!"

This was my father's standard form of greeting now that I was away at boarding school. From the moment I arrived at our house on the outskirts of
Tacloban I knew it was going to be a miserable summer. OK, to be fair, I already knew it was going to be miserable before I got there.

Dad's favorite parable from the Bible is the story of the Prodigal Son. I never liked the implications that went along with his salutation. A little young yet to be a regular patron of gambling joints, dirty bars and brothels, I could only assume that he felt that my time at Brent was equivalent to squandering away the family fortune. Although he went to great lengths to state his views on this subject, he never slipped rings on my fingers or sent servants to kill the fatted calf for a feast. I always felt that he was waiting for me to beg for forgiveness, ask to live in the pigpen and fight for scraps with the hogs. I didn't, so instead he set me to work.

Within hours of my arrival I was busy painting the same bodega I had painted last summer, Keith came strolling by on his way to the kitchen for a snack, he paused and smirked.
"I told dad the shed needed painting"
He was not too happy to have me home, my being there tipped the power balance between the four brothers.
When he left I quickly slapped some paint on the big 8x8 posts that held up the water tank. I knew he would be back shortly to gloat. Sure enough he soon came back with a bottle of pop and a piece of cake and leaned up against the water tower to watch me work. I painted in silence while he made snide remarks, secure in the knowledge that payback is a bitch."Watching you work is making me tired, I think I'll go watch some TV"
He went into the house and I stopped mid brush stroke to listen for the eruption that was about to begin. I could hear the sounds of the channels changing on the TV.
Sure enough, there it was. A hollow THUNK made by knuckles on the skull followed by
"*!#*! you are getting paint all over the *#% couch!" Then the swish and swat, swat, swat of metal hitting flesh as the Sword of Damocles was applied to his posterior.
My stomach turned over. Screams. Crying.
Somehow I had forgotten how bad it got; my revenge made me sick. More cursing and swatting. I hurriedly turned back to my painting, the sound of my brush drowning out the crying now turned to stifled sobbing. I turned my thoughts back to the previous two weeks and my best friend, Jaime.

Two weeks prior I was back at the dorm, my trunk was already packed and labeled for storage, my little suitcase sitting by my bed. I was watching Jaime packing up his stuff, his father would be arriving in the morning to pick him up. I kind of wished my family were more like his. There was always lots of hugging and laughing when they arrived for one of their frequent visits during the school year, lots of tears when they left. Then Mrs Pettitt came into the room and handed me a telegram: it was from Mom and I had permission to go! Two weeks with Jaime and Mark Becker!

In the Beginning, Jaime and I were thrown together by the fact that our beds were next to each other in our big common dorm room, as we got to know each other better we found many similarities in our backgrounds. Although he had been in the Philippines seven years longer than I had and could speak Ilocano fluently, we both had grown up in remote, rural areas of the Philippines and had spent more time with Filipinos than with Americans. We were comfortable in our "Filipino" skins and were used to a more Spartan lifestyle, we ate and enjoyed the foods of our regions from the most simple to the more exotic. We both had loud, noisy households, our parents were hard working and independent, we each had three siblings and we had been raised by a large extended family of students and helpers.

There were a few "lifer" missionaries living in various remote parts of the Philippines who had "
gone native". When they showed up at the Mission Guest House in Malate with their kids they really stood out, they were uncomfortable and awkward, speaking heavily accented English.

Jaime and I were almost, but not quite, to that point: the remoteness from all things Western and other American kids had really left an imprint on us. Going to Brent was a momentous change, thrusting us from a rural provincial lifestyle into the Western World.
From the moment we met in August of 1971 we instinctively drew closer to each other. We both joined the Boy Scouts and signed up for the same extra curricular activities. We both shared a love of reading and going to the movies. Already good buddies when the 1972-73 school year started, by the end of the year our friendship was firmly entrenched. He was charismatic, outgoing, more athletic and smarter; excelling was what he did best. I wasn't much of a challenge for him, but every now and then he gave me a break from his relentless level of competitiveness. He would talk to me way into the wee hours when he was unhappy or frustrated and he knew that I could relate to the things that were bothering him. I guess I made a pretty good sidekick, although I think he wished I had better skills with a basketball and at least some kind of musical ability.

Jaime's dad picked us up at our dorm the next morning and we headed out. We would be making several stops before we reached their home in the town of
Solano, north of Baguio, in the Cagayan Valley, the rice basket of the Philippines. This was Jaime's stomping ground, he knew the area as well as I knew Leyte. The scenery was wildly varied, from the rugged mountains to the rolling grasslands that conjured up visions of Tolkien's Middle Earth. I daydreamed about Hobbits and Orcs while Becker, Jaime and his dad chattered away in Ilocano; occasionally I would catch a word or phrase I would understand. This made me the butt of some jokes by Jaime's dad. I took it in stride and Jaime made a point of using English so I was not too left out. We made some stops at churches in towns where they used to live; at Bayombong and Tuguegarao where we slept on the concrete floor of the church.

Summer was in full swing in the high plains. By the time we got to Solano it was already very hot. We went to bed sweating and we woke up sweating. We sweated all day long. The only relief was to take a bath in the open air bath house located just outside the kitchen door. Jaime's dad would coat himself with talcum powder every day after his bath. There with a
tabo and a bucket of water we would douse ourselves, soap up and rinse away the sweat, sometimes twice a day. The house was a big rambling old two story with a large tree filled yard surrounded by tall concrete walls. We would get up early, the droning sounds of cicadas a background to the enormous silence of the morning heat. Breakfast was instant coffee and fresh pandesal, sweetened condensed milk used for creamer and a topping for the rolls. In the early morning hours we would take a bucket and collect the giant snails that crawled along the walls (the same kind of snails my dad crushed and fed to our chickens). Then, filling the bucket with fresh water we would rinse them off. Some of them must have known what was coming because they kept trying to crawl away. On the stove a big pot of salted water was boiling and they scooped the snails up and dropped them in. When they were done Jaime would grab one and suck them right out of the shell. I could not do that yet, but did dig them out with a fork. The food here was familiar yet very different than I had experienced in the Visayas. Here various forms of lugao, sometimes with fish, other times with chicken, beef or pork was served over rice were common at every meal.

Jaime's parents had come out to the Philippines separately from the US in the early 50's as single missionaries. They both spoke
Ilocano fluently, but still maintained a faint echo of their American accents and would frequently switch back and forth from English to Ilocano during their conversations. While his dad was deceptively quiet and soft spoken, his mother was slightly more boisterous. Their home was filled with guitars, laughter and music and they sang the evening prayer at dinner time. I never saw any of the kids punished, whenever they did something he didn't like he would give them a look, say their name and they would burst into tears. The worst punishment seemed to be when he would say "I am so disappointed in you"; this was so crushing to Jaime and his siblings. His father continued to take great delight in teasing Becker and I. Apparently my buttons were easier to push than Becker's, because he soon devoted a great deal of his free time on me. When I couldn't take it any more I would get up from the table and go outside. He would say in Ilocano to Jaime "I think I hurt his feelings" and call for me to come back. I didn't understand it and asked Jaime why his dad was always picking on me. He didn't really have an answer and just brushed it aside. Most of the time it was simply teasing, but other times it seemed more specific. I began to realize that unlike my father he never criticized Jaime. Instead, he voiced his concerns about Jaime through his conversations with me. When he wanted to talk to Jaime about smoking he would "Say, Mark why do you have cigarettes in your pocket?" Well, they weren't just mine, they were communal property. Because he was so well known in Solano, Jaime had me go to the Sari Sari store to buy cigarettes and alcohol. Jaime's dad always managed to find out about it. I was a good soldier and did the deed and took the heat.

The big event for them that summer was a wedding, one of their students was getting married. Jaime's house was packed full of people, lots of singing and guitar playing. There was a huge meal after the ceremony followed by more singing and then more food. At some point we wandered outside to escape the hubbub only to discover that despite being Methodists there was quite a bit of drinking going on outside the gate in a dark corner. The groom invited us over and we managed to take a few swigs of beer and some rum before Jaime's little brother was sent with a message "Dad wants you to come in now." I thought we were going to really catch it and steeled myself for the expected explosion. His father was waiting for us and proceeded to give Becker and I a lecture on the perils of underage drinking and then he quietly said
"Maawatam? do you understand"
"Wen" Jaime whispered.
he said very softly, in a whisper that roared,"Kababain ka"

That night as I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, I pondered his life and mine, wondering which I'd rather have. The prodigal sons were chaffing at the bit.