Serendipity (St. Scho in the ‘60s)
Serendipity was originally published in Daughters True, St. Scho’s centennial offering, which won the National Book Award 2007.
I was five when I entered St. Scho and sixteen when I left for U.P. Diliman. After twelve years of convent schooling and nuns hovering, it was great to be free at last! After all this was in the mid-sixties, when the youth (in America and Europe and colonies like ours) were questioning social convent(ion)s and testing limits, and the U.P. campus was an exciting place to be, inside the classroom, down in the basement cafeteria, out on the steps, and over at the parking lot.
But looking back on high school now, forty years later, I see that the sixties spirit was in St. Scho, too, sneaking past the Benedictine sisters at odd moments and rousing us to moments of mischief that we remember with glee. Like decorating the ladies’ room ceiling with wads of toilet paper (each wad had to be just wet enough and thrown upwards with a certain force and flick of wrist—a creative skill!). And playing pranks on each other behind closed doors – while we changed from gym suits to uniforms after P.E. a kamison might start flying around the room, and the owner would chase it to shrieks and cheers that one day got so loud it brought the nuns running. Another time some of us got caught drinking smuggled Coke, again while dressing behind closed doors, and our PE teacher got so mad she lost it, so to speak, and the nuns had to step in. When we were seniors, despite rules that bangs should not touch the eyebrows and hemlines should touch the floor when kneeling, some bangs got longer and longer, and some skirts shorter and shorter. Until one day someone’s bangs got snipped away and another’s hemline was ripped down, and finally we got the message.
Fortunately or not, such episodes were few and far-between. Mostly we were resigned to our fate, no escape from books and exams, not if we wanted to keep up, and keep moving on to the next level.
What I didn’t know then that I know now is how significant a time high school was pala in terms of starting me off as a writer. I didn’t think then that I could really write – I could never come up with a decent plot for a short story, and my best efforts at poetry were pathetic, without rhythm or rhyme. But our class teacher in fourth year, Sister Mary Sylvester Marpa, who was also the high school principal, assigned me the task of writing high school news for the college paper, and there was no saying no, so I learned how to write news; then I tried my hand at a gossip column, and that was fun, and a big hit with the girls. Still, I didn’t take up english or literature or journalism in U.P. I took up psychology instead, thinking I could get into counselling, or go on to medicine and become a psychiatrist. But as it turned out, by the time I was 30 I was writing feature articles and a TV review column for a weekly magazine; by 40 I was also writing for television, stage, documentary video and film; by 50, I was writing political commentary and had published two history books on EDSA – a chronology in English and a critical essay in Filipino.
Sister Sylvester was right, I could write. But I suppose that first I needed those psych courses to give me a scientific handle on things. Also I needed to be exposed to the culture of U.P. which turned me on naturally to the nationalist cause. Next I married a musician who travelled a lot, and it was while I was bringing up our babies and watching too much TV that I finally started writing critiques of local television and showbiz culture for a weekly magazine. As it happened, this led to all kinds of writing gigs, many of them cause-oriented, that took me deep into national concerns (the deplorable state of the environment, the failure of development programs, widespread poverty, the oppression of women, the foreign debt, the diaspora…) and St. Scho receded from my consciousness, a past life that seemed barely relevant in the real world.
Or so I thought. In the late ‘80s I was doing research for a docu script (“Kiss Maria Clara Goodbye”) for the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women when I stumbled on the definitive historical essay on the high status of Filipino women in pre-colonial times. It was written by the national chairperson (1986 – 2004) of the activist women’s alliance GABRIELA, who was also a St. Scho nun, no other than Sister Mary John Mananzan, now Mother Prioress, who taught us religion and history in the sixties.
I was impressed no end by the scholarly work and thrilled by her passionate advocacy of women’s rights. It was like a jolt of electricity reconnecting me to my St. Scho roots and affirming my politics, telling me in no uncertain terms that the nuns, too, had evolved, and that we were moved by the same feminist nationalist cause.
I have since kept track of Mother Mary John through the world wide web, every time exulting in St. Scho’s commitment to academic excellence and social responsibility, and celebrating every inch won in the struggle for social, economic and political salvation in ‘a land where injustice and oppression abide.’
It’s great to be a Scholastican in these interesting times.
High School Class ’66