Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Finding Miss Nelia

(This Brazen Teacher, one of my blogging idols recently wrote a post about the phenomenon of the favorite teacher. I was inspired to write on the same topic and this is the result. Thanks to the Brazen Teacher...)

My search has ended and my heart is broken.

The old man at the rusty iron gate who gave me direction was right on the spot with his instructions. Walk straight up to the end, then turn right, and you will find the apartment section, it's somewhere on the fifth row from the bottom of the block. Look closely and carefully read the inscriptions, because the paint is most likely beginning to peel off. Now here I am, misty-eyed and feeling stupid for doubting the soundness of his memory.

Before this, my search took me back to the town where I grew up, to the last known address where I used to visit Miss Nelia - my science teacher in fifth grade - back in those days when I was eleven and aching for affirmation, and desperately looking to make something meaningful out of my life back then. On the same exact place where the teacher's house stood during my youth, a fish sauce (patis) factory had risen in its stead, obliterating the last remaining vestiges of remembrance that I still keep of that house. The security guard, who was about my age, told me he had no idea what this place used to be and what significance it held if there was anything like it somewhere in time; like who were the folks who lived here before and what they did, and if they are alive, where they are now. No, he just can't have none of that. The past that this place held secretly in its deepest darkest corners and still had me enthralled after all these years holds no special meaning or significance to him if you want his honest opinion, and that past will remain a secret to this man forever, not that he cares to know anything about it at all even if I should insist that he listen to my story. So on that sad note I left with a heavy heart.

From there, my feet took me to the site of the old primary school which at least still stands to this day and which I see now as monument to my lost years, a symbolism that defies time to preserve the memory of the growth of my personal universe. I was subconsciously hoping the fire trees were still there but maybe it was too much to wish for.

I have a confession to make.

Under the unforgettably expansive shade of the fire trees that once stood proud at the school yard which from a distance assumed the collective appearance of a fallen crimson cloud, I once went on a killing spree, murdering innocent birds with my slingshot. The fire trees among other things made the school such a special place to me if only for the memories of the happy summer days that they are capable of bringing back to life, memories that are meant to defy the power of time to blunt the magic of my childhood nostalgia no matter how long it had been since the memorable event actually happened.

School was the extension and expansion of my life back then, as I was beginning to discover to my eternal amusement that the world is bigger and much bigger indeed than the four corners of the apartment where my family used to stay, that there is such a thing as a place dedicated to the attainment of the profound objectives of education, where you get to be transformed from a son or a brother or a neighbor to become at first a complete stranger, before fitting into the mold of a classmate, a student, and in my case, a surrogate son. And whatever lesson I learned from here it allowed me to ease into my next bigger roles in the higher scheme of things, as for instance a member of the church, of my community, of society, and ultimately of the flawed and eternally suffering human race.

And then there she was, Miss Nelia, she was as usual, in a mad rush to beat the 7 o'clock buzzer that would announce to all the start of the flag-raising ceremony, which the school considers as a sacred tradition never to be missed, and certainly not to be taken for granted or doom befalls the uncaring soul. And there I was, following her footsteps, on my shoulder hung my old school bag barely held together by stitches my mother had patiently sewn with nylon thread the night before, and which she gave to me with a heart-wrenching promise that "we will buy a new one son, as soon as we have some spare cash". I held in my arms, or rather I had embraced so tightly and so close to my heart the thick heavy pile of folders and lesson plans that to my mind were a special privilege to carry for her, because she is a person I truly admire and respect, even though I was too young to know what it meant at that time.

She would demand that I stay after class and we shall review - those were actually military drills on memorization and word-association techniques - to coerce my brain into memorizing the names of the great scientists and the great things that they invented that were to become their claim to fame and immortality, the distinction between force, gravity, and inertia and a million other scientific definitions, the table of the chemical elements, and the amazing explanation of science why food, travelling the circuitous route of the digestive system, would end up into despicable matter when expelled through the most despicable body part of all.

Saturdays, the mental military drills assume an almost sadistic degree of difficulty. There will be sanctions imposed if my mistakes would reach unacceptable numbers - a vicious tongue lashing that would often leave me in tears, a total emotional wreck. But I always look forward to the end of those sessions - Miss Nelia and I would have a late afternoon snack, usually porridge and ice cold drink from a roadside eatery just across the street from school. I was only half thankful that she pays for our food with her own hard-earned money because the school, and the government itself is too poor to spend for our ambitions- the other half of me tells me I actually earned it, considering the agony that I needed to endure for a measly reward of a bowl of porridge and a little refreshment.

All of these because we were preparing for war.

Back in those days, the Science Quiz Bee was fought with the ruthless intensity of some of history's most vicious wars, the kind of struggle in which honor is at stake and the saving grace is a team spirit bordering on a willingness to live and die together. We were a team to the bitter end, that was our mantra, that was also our promise and our threat to the whole world. On the day of the competition I remember wearing an ill-fitting Barong Tagalog, and a pair of trousers my father had worn the first time he came to Manila as a teenage boy. My battle gear was crude but the size of my heart immeasurable. I breezed through the easy and average rounds but qualified into the succeeding difficult round by the proverbial skin of my teeth. It was in the clincher round that the cookie finally crumbled.

"Why do we see lightning first before hearing the thunder?" It was the million dollar question that I picked from the crystal bowl. I searched my mind, reached into the very depths of my soul and my being but couldn't quite find the stroke of wisdom equal to the task at hand. I searched for her face in the crowd looking for salvation as the seconds ticked away, and found Miss Nelia head vowed and face buried in the palm of her hands. I honestly couldn't remember anymore how I struggled to answer the question in the most honorable way I can and how desperately I tried to make my last ditch stand against the inevitable like the proud warrior preparing to go out on his shield. Perhaps my forgetfulness towards that episode was the mind's way of blocking off memories of many humbling moments in our lifetime which could otherwise leave a person permanently damaged for life.

She met me at the backstage and we cried. We cried the entire trip back home.

Today, twenty years later and after a long and painful search, I found her at last, but not in the joyous manner I had so desperately tried to envision whenever I dream of this reunion. There will not be another long conversation like the ones that we used to have before and which I had honestly been looking forward to having with her once again. There will not even be a short talk or some pleasantries for that matter and yes, there will be no explaining where I failed and where I succeeded in the dreams that we have built, which was the part I feared the most about this meeting - to be telling my teacher face to face that the disaster at the Science Quiz Bee was not the first nor the last but just the beginning of a series of many countless heartaches that came to be the story of my life. The life of her favorite student, the boy he predicted to become a brilliant lawyer someday had fumbled and failed in a big way. I did find work at a law firm alright but not as an attorney. I am a just a lowly messenger.

The long and painful search did not exactly prepare me for the bigger tragedy of its conclusion. How I wish this is just another one of my bad dreams. How I wish I were completely mistaken to be in a place like this. How I wish that I could change the irony of my fate. Yet the inscription on the stone brought a heartbreaking finality to my search. Indeed, the paint was beginning to peel but still it clearly read: Cornelia Dimaculangan, RIP...

21 comments:

This Brazen Teacher said...

Oh! Bestill my Brazen Heart! I am guilty of using the last 10 minutes of my planning time to read blogs- and I stumble upon this beautiful and inspiring dedication. I am humbled to be considered a blog idol by anyone of your writing caliber. When I have more time, I will be back to pore over this post with the attention it deserves.

K. Fields said...

Beautifully written! So poignant the thoughts and feelings of youth! How one person can have the power to change a life, a direction, and a mindset is absolutely amazing.

Please don't stop writing!this reminded me of some people that have had brief yet important parts in my life's choices. :)
~K

Clarisse Teagen said...

YOU EVIL CHILD!!
HAHAHAH.
How can you go around killing birds like that :D
Such a boy!

This Brazen Teacher said...

Your short stories are often dreadfully sad... and yet interwoven in them, are threads of humanity, which makes it all the more compelling to read. As always- lovely writing.

"Hanging on a Hyphen" said...

Thank you for your comments. I don't deserve them but I'll take them anytime... Thank you...

aminhers said...

wow, nice

Anonymous said...

I've always said to Des Ona that you write great! A prolific writer, I should say. Keep on writing, paƱero...junbrioso

"Hanging on a Hyphen" said...

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you... Again, I don't deserve it, but thanks anyway...

manju said...

Very poignant, touching story! I will read your earlier posts, too, later.

AnAestheticBard said...

The flow of your writing is smooth like a cruise and the story, moving and evocative. It brought to my memory a past littered with strikingly similar situations,
so poignant and serving as some sort of milestones, down life’s narrow road. It has certainly come earnestly out of a loving heart with attributes of universality.

timethief said...

What a wonderful story. You are an extremely talented storyteller and writer.

Tony Masiello said...

Not sad or morbid. You write from the heart with pure emotion and feeling.

YogaforCynics said...

Great post, though far different from my experience, at least in grade school: "School was the extension and expansion of my life back then, as I was beginning to discover to my eternal amusement that the world is bigger and much bigger indeed than the four corners of the apartment where my family used to stay, that there is such a thing as a place dedicated to the attainment of the profound objectives of education." For me, it was the opposite, school was where my imagination and creativity were stifled, and it was at home where, in books and writing my own stories, my mind was able to flower. That's not to say there weren't some great teachers, but they could only do so much within the general culture of forced conformity.....

Liara Covert said...

A human being can change any aspect of his or her life any time. You are the master of your destiny. Your fate is only 'ironic' if you choose to view it that way. You can also choose to perceive blessings in everything. When you evolve to remember more about why you exist in a physical body now, you choose to take responsibility. The source of wisdom within you is always there. As you raise awareness, you perceive life and behave differently. The emotions you feel are a gauge. If you feel anything other than loving, happy and comfortable, then emotions urge you to learn to read them and sense what you really want. Then, you can recognize your own guidance system and stop resisting being yourself.

Kat said...

wonderful writer, how did I not find you before

Cashmere said...

You write so well...
Ever considered writing a book or so? I'm sure it'll do well.. =)

James said...

What a well written story. You are very talented indeed. Great story teller.

Creative Junkie said...

Your writing makes me pause and think. I wish I had the ability to bare my soul as you do.

Gabriel Gadfly said...

Very nice. I love the descriptions, especially in the scene with the fire trees and killing the birds, and the military analogy works well throughout the scene with the competition. Nicely done.

Kim said...

I liked the simplicity of your story a lot.

Tim Wicks said...

I think many of us think about our schooling and our favourite teacher this way. Nice story