I was thoroughly thrilled upon getting the invitation to speak for my beloved Alma Mater’s Twentieth Commencement Exercises. With this engagement in mind, I was restless for a few days, and I admit, I couldn’t bring myself to write what anything for a considerable length of time. But perhaps, that problem begs a question that requires careful definition: What is it really that I want to write? What do I want to say? Among the things that I remember, with so much sense of tenderness, is that I had been fortunate enough to experience having to sing two Alma Mater hymns—I was at Casa when it was undergoing some sort of transition—that began with:
The red, the blue, and the white—
a place for us called home. . .
The rest of the sequences, I have already forgotten. All I know is that the song builds up to a repetitive:
CDNMS, our beloved Alma Mater.
CDNMS, the school of our dreams.
I belonged to the last batch of high school students to occupy the Phase 6 Pacita 1 Campus during my freshman year. Come sophomore year, our batch relocated to the Pacita 2 campus. By then, I already knew by heart—and I still very well do until now—the new hymn. Correct me if I’m wrong with these beginning lines:
Hail to you, our dear Alma Mater!
As the banner of victory prevails,
we shall uphold thy noble ideals
to be of service first to God, then men.
In the midst of remembering these precious lines that never fail to awaken my high school spirit, I recall very vivid images of me and my friends rushing on our way to school to make it in time for the daily flag ceremonies, making sure we wore proper uniforms—from haircut to socks—and seeing to it that we brought every textbook and workbook needed for our daily courses of study. I remember us, me and my friends, going through long 7:30 AM to 5:40 PM days, looking forward to sitting on the plant boxes that framed the classroom doors of the main building, crossing our fingers in hopes that our school transport services would arrive late: The more tardy they were in picking us up, the more time we had for anyone’s typical idea of high school foolishness that involved ranting and raving about our most hated and most favorite subjects, running around in very random games of tag, and whispering to each other about our crushes, whom we believed gave us very kilig-able glances and gestures at several instances in our real, but often imaginary, worlds.
In the future, perhaps most of us would try to evade our high school experiences in conversations with our friends. Perhaps we would like to stick to the achievements that we have yet to reach when we enter the Colleges and Universities that we have entrusted our next educational steps to. “It’s all foolish, and I was just growing up; it was all utterly embarrassing,” we’d say in one way or another. Going through the phase of being a jaded teenager I would have to admit that I went through that, too. And here I stand in front of you, claiming the right to speak of high school, and yes, college—a kind of right that is almost always attributed to only the successful, only the achiever, only the exceptional. What gives me this right? Will all this talking be just a justification of possessing that right? Perhaps at this point I’d begin tracing what I want to say. Perhaps I can tell you a bit about how it all started. Perhaps you will allow me to go back to kindergarten for my point’s sake—for my own sake—as this will be the first time that I shall disclose this kind of information to anyone aside from home:
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher forbade me to laugh in class. That was a very big problem for me as a toddler. You see, I started schooling when I was three, and I was a hyperactive kid. I remember my teacher, my ugly teacher, opening her ugly mouth telling me, “Kapag tumawa ka, parurusahan kita,” and so my way of dealing with not being able to control my laughter was teaching myself to be guilty about doing it. I laughed once, she tied me to my chair. I laughed twice, she made me kneel on a bed of monggo beans. The list of offenses was endless. I was even sent to the Principal’s Office for crying because my classmates ate my baon without leaving any for me. The Principal told me, “Hindi maganda sa bata ang masungit!” So I thought, It’s not right to laugh, and neither is it right to cry. But that afternoon, when my mother saw the skin holes that the beans created on my knees, I saw her magnificently rush to school with her magnificent anger, making sure what she wanted to say was well articulated: “You do not have any right to do these things to any child; you do not have any power to call yourselves educators.” It was then that I realized that laughter was—and will always be—a beautiful thing, that crying was lovelier, and that my kindergarten teacher was ugly.
I went to Casa the following year.
The immensity of the space that the Casan campus offered overwhelmed me. I didn’t know that schools could be that big. It had more than one building, several playgrounds—or rather, spaces in which one could do all sorts of play—and it made me feel small. There was comfort in that: In feeling small, I could sense that there may be others that were exactly like me. I was detached and connected at the same time, and in feeling this, I knew that I was ready to grow up. The years went by, and in retrospect I feel as though it all happened in a flash, and then I was a Casan high school student.
This may enable you to be a bit more interested: I never envisioned in all my elementary and high school years that I would eventually become a professor. My college education was well-lived and complex: I took up Economics, experienced a few failures, realized that I really wanted to write, shifted to Literature. There, I found myself. I was able to endure years of reading and criticizing a minimum of three novels, two anthologies, twenty articles, and fifteen poems a week—all for the dream of becoming a writer someday. I knew I developed this dream when I was in high school; I just didn’t know that there was an actual venue—a course, a discipline of study—that enables one to have that direction. But it wasn’t easy. I know you will need this information no matter how certain you are as regards the difficulty of college life. I had to maintain an average in order to stay in the literature program. That meant the inevitable group study sessions, the countless sleepless nights, the focus and patience necessary for a critical mindset, and yes, the oh-so-tender love for black coffee.
I juggled these responsibilities with extra-curricular activities: I was a member of the Economics organization, and an active singer of De La Salle-Innersoul, the Lasallian group that prides itself for being the “premiere pop and soul vocal performing group of the University.” The latter one also gave me a huge tuition fee discount; it helped me a lot to get through the very expensive fees that De La Salle charges. This meant that aside from all the academically related obligations that I had to fulfil, I also had to make space for a minimum of three hours of singing rehearsals three times a week, and two hours of travel time allowance to go home every single night to San Pedro Laguna. See, my classes began at 8 AM, and ended at six; my rehearsals began at six, and ended at 9 PM. I got home at eleven, studied until 2 AM, slept until four, woke up to study again until five, then prepared for another day that I didn’t feel began for the simple reason that each day was never really punctuated. It became a regular routine for me and today, I can’t even imagine how I did all of that. But what I can still imagine is how I learned to love the pleasure of reading—of filling the mind with things that most other people would label boring. Short stories, novels, poems, plays, creative writing, critical writing, literary criticism, deconstruction, political correctness, feminism, genders and sexualities—I studied these things with so much gusto, with so much love for their very difficulties. I studied not because I wanted to become successful; I studied just because I loved to. Because I thought that intelligence was attractive, because I thought that the intellect was beautiful, and because I thought that all that studying was geared towards making me a better person. It all paid off towards the end, when I received a Gold Medal for Most Outstanding Thesis during my college graduation. And when I received that call from the literature department? When the Chair—who is also a writer (poet and critic)—contacted me to express his interest in allowing me to teach, I was thoroughly ecstatic. I saw in that invitation the opportunity to mold minds, to destroy wrong beliefs, to teach others of patience and discipline and scholarship and love and beauty. And Words. And Worlds. I remember fighting off all the nervousness during my first day, when while carrying a venti cup of double espresso on my way to my first classroom, to my first class of first ever students—most of which were my age, mind you—I mustered enough strength and confidence to do the following:
1) Walk elegantly through the door, to my table;
2) Place my cup of coffee on the table, without shaking;
3) Scan the students, establish assertive eye contact without my neck twitching; and—
4) Say, in the most well modulated voice possible: Good day, class. I am Professor Johann Vladimir Jose Espiritu, faculty of the literature department, and I will be your professor in this course.
It took so much gutts to assume the power with which one should begin holding an entire class, and I would have never nailed this feat if I weren’t a Casan.
My Casan teachers taught me that the smallness that I felt when I first entered the Casan campus could be stretched out to an infinite number of beautiful possibilities. My Grade 1 adviser, Ms. Rose Taguba, saw in me the talent for public speaking. She enlisted me for the first ever declamation contest that I competed in. My Grade 2 teacher, Ms. Venus Velasquez, found fabulous flavor in my writing and encouraged me to produce my youngest essays. My Grade 3 teacher, Ms. Lolita Saavedra, raised my notebook in the middle of a penmanship session in English class and proudly announced, “This is what you call good penmanship!” My Grade 4 teacher, Ms. Myrna Oficiar, was the first one to recognize my skill for proper English enunciation; she conversed with me in English all year with a knowing eye. I knew it was a year-long test, and I knew I aced it. My Grade 5 and Grade 6 teacher, Ms. Julie Abarca, saw in me the alternative talent for another language: Filipino. And she made me feel welcome to her vast knowledge of it; she even accompanied me to my first victorious attempts at using the language in several oratorical competitions in and out of campus.
My preschool teachers taught me how to fold myself—like an origami piece—how to spend my school hours in the most passive manner possible. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t laugh. Bata ka lang, wala kang magagawa. But my Casan teachers taught me that every origami piece was also meant to sway with the wind and dazzle one’s eyes. They empowered me to slowly unfold myself open the gaping world. You are allowed to move. Express yourself. Enjoy. Bata ka pa man, marami ka nang magagawa.
Come first year high school, Ms. Angie Cayamanda, my speech teacher, recognized my sense of leadership: She made me, together with other classmates, leader of our first choral speech event. Ms. Vilma Ranada guided me through nourishing my love for science during my sophomore year. Biology was also such a pleasure because of the passion I saw in Ms. Divina Lallaban’s teaching. She was also the one who made me pick up the investigative project I threw into the trash can because of my lack of faith in it. She told me, “You do not throw away work that you believe in.” Misters Samuel Maramag and Sum Alatiit furthered my Tagalog writing by guiding me through several stages of victories for essay writing. It was also this year that Ms. Beth Consignado, the then conductress of the CADENCE choral group, and Mr. Chito Maramag of the Student Affairs Office made me believe that my voice was also made for singing. It was also through this newfound talent that I was able to gain enough confidence to join my first singing and band performance competitions. Mr. Herbert San Pedro, my teacher during both junior and senior years, was friendly enough to welcome me to the intricate world of Chemistry and taught me how chemical formulae can be understood in terms of colorful narratives. Mr. Benjie Aprecio, fourth year teacher for half of the academic year, opened a new horizon for my appreciation for Mathematics. He taught me the value of rigor of study.
Later on, I would continue speaking, writing, singing—see, I even made it to the Top 45 of Pinoy Idol’s first season in the country—teaching, believing. So many parallelisms are at play, as I recognize today, between the skills I developed at Casa and the passions I continue to nourish at present. At Casa, my abilities were opened, and my sense of self was ignited. At Casa, my chairs were big and comfortable, and any chance to stand up and away from them was a chance to make my voice heard. At Casa, monggo beans were promising subjects for experiments to make one ask, “How long can these bean sprouts grow? And how many colors of dyed water can their translucent stems exude?” At Casa, the heavy tones of teachers’ voices were assertions of proper authority that one obeys with respect and recognition. At Casa, my teachers were—my teachers are—beautiful. And so I thank them. From Casan to Casan. From teacher to teacher:
If it weren’t for your beauty, I would have never begun to see that I was capable of doing good things. I would have never been attracted to the brightness of intelligence, and fashioning the mind to become elegant and brilliant. A most heartfelt thank you to my beautiful teachers. I guess this is what I really want to say.
You are all gathered here, glad to be clad in your symbolic white toga robes, perhaps expecting to hear all sorts of encouragement and inspiration from any guest speaker. I would not dare to differ from the sum of your expectations. I am here to do just the same, but perhaps, and I would like to believe, in a different light.
A few weeks from now, you will be heading towards your first college classrooms. You will feel both excited and anxious at the thought of leaving your highschool comfort zones. You will be meeting new friends, you will be trying out new things, and you will be bombarded by a whole new different set of expectations from your future professors. At a certain point, you may even ask: “Why this course? Why am I in this room? Why am I studying this subject? This is like high school all over again! What’s the point of all this?”
Allow me to share one of the most important lessons I have ever learned: Education is only either all or nothing. It is not always all about enjoyment, dear folks. It is pain and pleasure combined: the pain that you have to endure to train the mind to be critical, and the pleasure of achievement that you will learn to derive out of that pain. For if education were all about entertainment, then we all might have just went to the nearest comedy bar for it. “Mahirap po masyado!” some of my students would exclaim after submitting a paper or an exam. I always have a ready reply for this: Walang mahirap sa marunong magbukas ng sarili. Walang malalim sa marunong makinig at umintindi.
We study to reach heights. We are sent to college to unlearn the ordinary and learn about the exquisite, the beautiful, the extra-ordinary. And there is no act of perceiving beauty that is ever easy. Our skills and limits will be tested to the extent of our very abilities, and what other direction is there to journey towards if not our maximized, heightened, intelligently magnified selves? To be of service first to God, then (wo)men, says our beloved Hymn. There is no other expectation but brilliance.
And when you are there—at the stage where you know you have met that pain and that pleasure—you will remember high school. You will remember your Casa and how it had prepared you for that realization. And you will remember that your teachers are beautiful.
Prof. JOHANN VLADIMIR JOSE ESPIRITU
AB-Literature; MFA-Creative Writing, De La Salle Univeristy-Manila
Asst. Professorial Lecturer, Department of Literature
De La Salle University-Manila
Proudly Casan, Batch 2001