A teacher’s tales

close-up smilesstudent\'s cartoon

by Danton Remoto
Remote Control

I’ve been teaching for 22 years – the longest job I’ve had. This will be my last year of teaching. I will take sabbatical leave beginning April 2009 – a paid leave for one year that senior professors take every seven years, to sleep the sleep of the and come back to school fully energized. But in my case, I will not just sleep and read and gain weight. I will spend my sabbatical leave organizing Ang Ladlad’s campaign, and my own political campaign, for the May 2010 elections.

But because I stayed here longest, that means I love this job. I admire those who’ve spent 30, 40 years teaching without repeating themselves. They’ve taught for 30, 40 different years, not just one year repeated 30, 40 times. Teachers like the now-departed Dr. Doreen G. Fernandez and the retired, but still teaching, Professor Emmanuel “Eric” Torres come to mind. Both have taught with us at the English Department of the Ateneo de Manila University.

Doreen and Eric were poles apart in their teaching style and temperament, but both taught with intensity and depth. They taught with the books closed, without the help of a pair of crutches called Cliff Notes. It was because, as National Artist Rolando S. Tinio would put it, they have digested the images, the textures, the very smells of the poems, stories, essays and plays they taught. In short, the texts lived in their guts.

They evoked imagination and wonder from their students, feats that only a few teachers could now do, even with the aid of Power Point or worksheets. And even after they retired they read ravenously and continued writing, unlike some fossils in academe that have stopped reading ages ago. Or whose main source of lectures is your friendly Cliff Notes, or secondary texts they so assiduously preserve in their yellowing notebooks. Or who have fossilized further and turned into ancient administrators, who have slotted the academic space into their own fiefdoms, in a bizarre parody of the worst in our political life.

The past 22 years just flew. As the poet Andrew Marvell put it in his poem, “To His Coy Mistress” – “And at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

With the passage of years, two things have remained constant with me. First, as stationery I once saw said: “A teacher’s work is aardvark.” And second, from the great man Goethe: “We only learn from those we love.”

Students love teachers who listen to them – not only to their difficulties with the past perfect tense or the reading (because we read five novels in my freshman merit class), but more important, their difficulties in making that transition from childhood to adulthood. We were young once, many summers ago, and confused. Thus, we are all too familiar with the pains of growing up: of moving into the skin of a young adult, with its many, bewildering changes.

The following are stories I’ve heard from all over, since I also go around the country to give free talks on the teaching of Literature and Creative Writing, or to give speeches to campus editors, student council leaders, and students. Everywhere, these young people are the same, burdened by the same fears and dreams.

Larry was ten years old when he first heard his parents quarreling in their room. In his pajamas, he stepped out of his room and peeked into their room. He saw his father beating up his mother, whom he adores. It broke him. Until now, in college, his one wish is for his father to die – perhaps by a dread disease, or one fatal accident. Until now his father still beats up his mother, suspecting her of having a younger lover. Before he goes to sleep at night, he slips a knife under his pillow, listening to the angry voices in the night.

Rhoda is the only daughter of wealthy parents who have since separated. Her strict father drives her to school every day, and promptly fetches her after her afternoon classes. Once, he saw her talking to a boy near the driveway of the school. She turned pale when she saw her father. In the car he was quiet, unusually so, but when they reached home, he dragged her out of the car, dumped her in her room, and began slapping her, calling her a “whore,” like her mother. The mother had dumped her father earlier and emigrated to the U.S.

Lorena has nobody to talk to at home. Her mother is one of those matrons with maroon hair who cuts ribbons for this occasion, or raises funds for that charity. Her father is a very shrewd businessman, always sniffing around for deals to cut. Then one day, she met a gracious young man who simply listened to her and made her feel important. But he is married. Still they fell in love, and became pregnant. Her parents forced her to have an abortion. After the abortion, her frightened boyfriend abandoned her. She began to withdraw inside herself, curled up inside the hardest shell.

All of these stories are tinged with melodrama. They’d make your friendly teleserye proud. But these things happened, and as I write are still happening. The cast of characters and the settings are the only things that change.

As a result, the students’ grades take a plunge. They sit at the back of the classroom, wearing big sunglasses to hide their eyes lined with red – from drugs, from insomnia, perhaps from grief. Their young lives have become a sinkhole.

But some survive. Larry said he has already dug a graveyard for his father – but only in his mind. There, he has poured all the bitterness of the years. His mother has separated from his father, and he lives with her.

Rhoda has a boring social life – with no boys to have gimmicks with every weekend. She’s plodding along, but one day, she knows she will meet somebody who will lover her despite her past. But maybe she won’t? She has steeled herself to the possibility that she might not, since life is not the dream factory that is Hollywood. Her grades now are good enough for her to make it to the Dean’s List. She plans to go to graduate school in the U.K., and then perhaps live abroad.

And this is what I tell these young people. One suffers – everybody suffers – but one must learn from it. It steels you; hones and sharpens you. It gives your life inner dimension and depth. Yes, it makes you sadder, but infinitely tougher, and wiser. I ask my students to read the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, where he said that sadness and suffering should be treated like guests that come to your house, and depart again.

I remind them of the words of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz, who said: “Time passes.”

Our naïve Catechism teacher was wrong after all when she blithely told us in Grade Two that life is one direct path to the blazing glory of God. No, you tell the young and the restless, life is one zigzag road, and you steer yourself along those dangerous curves with all the skill you could muster. Perhaps faith and friendship would help, but in the end, it is you alone who would have to do it.

Tell them of the story of the tides, the water that rises and falls, only to rise again. Tell them to be brave, nourish friendships, and love themselves. If all else fails, tell them to go the Guidance Counselors in school, so they can do something more intelligent than run seminars called “Dressing for Success.” Or go to a non-judgmental priest or nun or therapist. You can find them in Center for Family Ministries, Cefam, at Ateneo, tel: 426-6001, and they will talk to you for free. There’s a whole battalion of them, people willing to help and to heal, whose words will not fail you.

A teacher – overworked, underpaid, even if he thinks he’s brilliant – can only do so much.

But then, you meet your students again. I bump into them at the malls, at the airports, in my million meetings. They now look more settled, calmer, more put together. They no longer fear the past perfect tense, have begun to heal the scars of the past, or are drawing arcs touching the future. They tell me about the black silk shirt with green dots I wore to class many years ago, the erotic poems I made them write, my wicked one-liners about their freshmen compositions that, frankly, I no longer remember.

It does my graying hair proud that I taught them in the last 22 years. Goethe was right: we only learn from that which we love.



  1. liling magtolis briones said,

    June 11, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    So far, this is the most beautiful essay you have written. One time let us swap teachers’ tales. I started teaching formally forty years ago. Before that, I taught in Church Sunday School and teach-ins of progressive orgaizations. I have taught seven year olds as well as 70 year olds. I should have retired formally at 65 years but my home college and students refuse to let go of me. Maybe I refuse to let go. One does not take a leave from teaching. One teaches wherever one is–in classrooms, farms, hospitals, even prisons. You will continue teaching even as you go on leave. That is the way of it.


  2. wehavenoname said,

    June 13, 2008 at 4:43 am

    thank you po, ma’am. yes, my school did not accept my retirement proposal. they said i should teach even part-time.

    what made me say yes, also, is that if i retire before the age of 50, the government will get 35% of my retirement pay in terms of taxes. what? this #@%&*:\”; government getting a third of my hard-earned money?

    Kaya nga po hindi na muna, I will just take a leave, then come back again to teaching even as a part-time teacher. thank you po for your comment.


  3. liling magtolis briones said,

    June 13, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    oopps! may typo pala me! Mali d spelling of organizations. Am glad am not your student. Huli na sana me.

    It does not matter where you are. In or out of the formal classroom you will always teach.

    Ah, to be under 50 even if taxable by 35%!

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