I just got off the phone with my mother. She was asking if I had already enrolled for the second semester, and what amount she should write on the check.
She was calling from her home office, where she was catching up with our bills and writing checks so she wouldn’t have to rush them when we returned from vacation. I wondered if she noticed my lack of enthusiasm, but I guess she was paying more attention so as not to pay a centavo more to my school.
Here I was in our home in the province, trying to keep my mind off school, even as the new semester loomed near. It’s not that I don’t like school. I’m just not one of those airheaded girls who just go to school to show off their latest artsy manicures, or some style they ripped off from “Gossip Girl.”
My school is already full of those girls, Blair Waldorf or Serena van der Woodsen wannabes. I wonder, when did our society cease to celebrate originality and elevate these goddesses of modern consumption? These girls strive to emulate the same person, so they end up looking like bad replicas of the celebrity they emulate.
It’s not that I have anything against these girls, but I have trouble seeing the point. It’s not like we have a local version of The Met, where Blair seats herself as the queen bee of the Upper East Side. Why do we actually need to get the same shade of lipstick? I entered college, not a beauty contest.
College is supposed to be a place of learning. To me, that means getting to your class on time and passing, if not with flying colors, even the subjects that wouldn’t be much use outside school.
One of those things
My attitude was triggered when I overheard my mother complain about my tuition. (I didn’t take it against her. It’s just one of those things mothers do, I suppose, to show how much they love their children. She complains, but she pays my tuition promptly anyway.)
It’s not that we are poor and we’re social-climbing by way of my parents sending us to arguably the best school in Metro Manila, but my parents weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. We are of modest means, and every peso we have is hard-earned, so I was determined to maximize any opportunity those pesos—thousands of them—open for me.
I thought college was as simple as that, but after a semester at the university, I discovered it was about so much more than getting decent grades you can show your parents at the end of the semester.
On my first day of school, I wore my favorite dress. It was a local brand, and I had it for quite some time now. I thought it gave me a boost of confidence, as I was about to chart a landscape that, while similar to high school, was at the same time entirely different. I took a seat in front. There was a bunch of other girls giggling one row from me.
(I could actually smell them more than see them—they could give pine-scent air freshener some serious competition.)
I overheard some snippets of their conversation, mostly about me. As I said, I’m a practical girl so I wore rubber shoes that day, since based on my classroom assignments, I had some serious walking to do. I was going for comfort, in jeans and shirt, rather than chicness.
They were talking about why I did not even bother to wear stilettos. I even heard a pre-packaged remark, about how the ’90s called and wanted my blouse back. That particular girl must have been parroting some trashy Hollywood television series. They were basically bonding over deconstructing my entire being right there, and within earshot!
What annoyed me was, how could these girls think they were better than me, enough to look down on me? I knew they, and their fans, were wearing the latest scent from Victoria’s Secret, which I know only because their collective scent seemed to merit a biohazard warning.
I knew their bags were from Nine West or whatever, and mine was just a Hawk bag, though strong enough to carry my books and notebooks. Yes, I wore Skechers sneakers instead of those painful-looking high heels. But did that make me less of a girl, or worse, less of a person?
Even as I told myself that it did not, I was struggling to suppress my tears as they went on rambling about a new shade of blush they read about in one of those lifestyle magazines. Fortunately, our professor arrived, and I kept myself busy taking notes.
After the class, the girls behind me brought out their iPhones and snapped photos of what our professor had scribbled on the blackboard. I think, more than anything, they were more interested in showing off their gadgets in front of the class just before anyone left.
Comfortable in our skin
I wasn’t always the subject of their “clucking.” There’s always a girl out there who dresses worse than I do, or who wears the wrong cut of dress or jeans. I was able to make friends with a couple of girls who weren’t catty, and who, like me, were comfortable without makeup. We earnestly thought we looked okay just being comfortable in our skin, and if other girls took out their own insecurity on us, then so be it!
Who cares if boys don’t notice us? This is college, after all, and it should be all about improving our chances in life, as my mother put it. But of course, occasionally some boys would wonder our way, and it was a welcome experience.
I thought I had averted anymore self-esteem issues, but I was wrong. My parents didn’t exactly raise us to live luxuriously. My siblings and I don’t drive our own cars, so I commute to and from school to our house, which is just one ride away.
I don’t mind taking the jeepney. To me, it is the most economical way of transportation, and I quickly became accustomed to the ride.
But one night, I found myself running late inside the campus as I was finishing up a paper. It was already late, and there was not a single jeep in sight. I was standing there for a while, when a car pulled up beside me.
It was one of my classmates. She asked me where I lived, and if she could give me a ride. I told her, which turned out to be out of her way. She asked me, “Why don’t you hail a taxi?” A few cabs had already passed us. I told her I would just wait for a jeepney.
To my shock, she actually told me, “Look, I’ll give you money for the fare if you admit you can’t afford a taxi ride.” It took all of my strength and dignity not to break down in front of her. I calmly told her I could afford a taxi, although at that time I barely had enough cash with me to cover the cab fare. I immediately hailed one, and fortunately, almost like magic, one stopped. I immediately went in, and rode home.
I was in tears as I handed the driver my money, which I supplemented by running to the kitchen, where we keep some cash. It was a pretty low point in my life, though I know now that it should not have been.
You know, just because a person dresses in T-shirt and jeans does not mean she doesn’t have the sophistication to be admitted in some elite circle. It doesn’t make her—and me—less of a person. Riding a jeep every day does not mean you don’t have money, nor should it actually be a measure of anybody’s worth. Hey, I’m just being practical. Besides, I don’t go to school in a prom dress every day.
But experiencing these things made me even more focused on the things that really matter in college: making friends and excelling academically.
My lack of enthusiasm on the phone with my mother does not really tell the whole story. It was just one of those days when you take in everything before diving in. Here we go again! I opened my drawer and retrieved a printout of my grades. I couldn’t help but smile knowing I made it through my first semester in just my T-shirt and jeans.