Column: Teachers, for and against

Time to play column catch-up again. This one was published on October 5, 2010.

I wanted to do this last year, but my plans fell through. Several weeks ago,
however, I got an invitation from Metrobank Foundation, encouraging me (together with other columnists too) to say a word or two today, World Teacher Day, about the influence of teachers. I would like to oblige my friends at the foundation; at the same time, I need to call them to account, for an error in judgment that—in my teacher-influenced view, at least—undermines the dignity of the profession they have served and honored since 1985.

It has been my privilege to have dawdled, or doodled, in the classrooms of
master teachers, some of whom have been recognized by the Metrobank Foundation’s own flagship program, the Search for Outstanding Teachers. I think of Onofre Pagsanghan, the great Mr. Pagsi (1985), who taught two entire generations how to read; it is not enough to know how the story runs, a reader must pay attention to individual words, in their lonesome gravity. (In my own case, he also taught me how to speak in public, spending countless hours during “recess” and lunchtime to help me practice my speeches.) I think of the inimitable Ching Chee Kee (1996), who taught us one of the best lessons of all: the ideal way to read
literature was to absorb it through the osmosis of infectious laughter. I think
of the peerless Gigi de la Cruz (1998); I wish I could say she helped me recover
from the damage done in first-year math, but a year was not enough for that;
instead she taught me, trusted me with, responsibility.

In college, I had the benefit of studying the giants of European philosophy
under Ramon Reyes (1987), who taught his classes an essential, elegant lesson in
elemental fairness; each philosopher—Descartes, Hume, Kant—was discussed under his own aspect, that is to say, on his own terms, as responding to the
philosophical questions he had himself chosen, not those we may wish to impose
on him. I took a late course in theology under Tina Astorga (2000), and it made
all the difference; she was not only a living example of Christian commitment;
she encouraged me to write a reflection paper which helped me with a major life
decision, and which I keep to this day.

Manny Dy (2004) had a decisive influence on my life even before I walked into
his classroom. In my last year in high school, I thought I was headed for a
course in management—until a “course orientation” seminar one sleepy afternoon,
when he showed up with nothing—no notes, no posters, no brochures—and simply
said: “In Philosophy we offer you only two things: clarity of thinking and a
sense of values.” He went on to explain, but it was his first sentence that I
remember, word for word, and to this day; right there and then, I decided to
major in philosophy. (This was in early 1981, when it was still possible for
parents who took their marriage vows in the 1950s, like mine, for example, to
think of philosophy, especially in a Jesuit college, as the gateway to the
priesthood!)

There have been other influential teachers; in truth, the list begins with
Marc Hernandez, my grade 7 class adviser. He encouraged my reading, referenced
another student’s precocious writing as an example to inspire me with (Dennis
Arroyo’s poetry, published in the grade school annual); not least, he taught me
to ride the bus and the jeepney. (It was a consequential lesson, especially for
someone who was less than two years in the big city.) The list includes
legendary Jesuits, among them James O’Brien (“Fr. OB”) in high school and Roque
Ferriols, Francis Reilly and Tom Green in college.

Some were never my teachers formally, but deeply influenced me just the same,
through seminars, retreats, workshops and just plain learning-by-wandering-around. I think of the poet Beni Santos (also a Metrobank awardee), the poet-prefect Rofel Brion, the political genius Vic Baltazar (who started “political study circles” in the college), above all the peace psychologist Tina Montiel, who allowed me to discover the romance, the sense of possibility, in politics.

* * *

What, in my admittedly partial view, makes teachers great? I say, APEx.

They pay Attention to a student, take a sincere interest in their lives. (The
Jesuits have a term for this: cura personalis.) They encourage Possibility; they
have the gift of seeing through the clutter of dreams and frustrations and
hormones and projects that surround a student, and discover true potential. (I
remember and thank Joel Lopa, who thought I ought to take up law.) Not least,
they set an Example: they point out the good that people have done, they show
proof that excellence is fact not asymptotic fantasy, they offer themselves as
examples of commitment, deeply dedicated to their work.

* * *

All of this is undermined by the election fraud that characterized the race
for the last Senate seat between Koko Pimentel and Migz Zubiri in 2007.
Unfortunately, the Metrobank Foundation erred in tasking Zubiri with the
co-chairmanship of this year’s awards committee. I realize that the foundation
“rotates” the judges’ seats, asking senators to serve by turns. But it could
have done what the Asean did in 2006 when it forced Burma to skip its turn as
chair.

The fraud is a fact; that has been established by the ongoing proceedings at
the Senate Electoral Tribunal. Zubiri’s counter-protest has proved exactly
nothing: his pilot test showed he “lost” less than one vote per precinct—as any
politician and political operator knows, this is squarely within the limits of
error. And yet he continues to “game” the system. He is a nice guy and all, but
he’s a cheat. His service on the awards committee insults the work of all those
teachers who teach their students Lesson No. 1: play fair.

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