A few months ago, as I sat at breakfast, a cover announcement in Sunday Inquirer Magazine aroused my curiosity and prompted me to turn inside for a story titled “Teachers beyond boundaries: The best lessons are about life.” The issue was celebrating Teachers Day.
Reading it transported me 70 years back to high school.
Mine was not one of those private or exclusive, and therefore expensive, schools; it was not even a big-town school—it was, in fact, known as a “rural school,” in an inland farm community in San Carlos, Pangasinan.
There, for my own life’s lessons, four teachers stand out in memory: Mr. Pagsolingan taught gardening and horticulture; Mr. Bayog, farming and agriculture; Mr. Zaratan, animal husbandry and poultry raising; and Miss Acacio, English language and literature.
They are easiest recalled by their last names, preceded by the honorific “Miss, Mr. or Mrs,” because that’s how they were addressed, which made for the first lesson in respect.
Miss Acacio I have not forgotten as Teodora, possibly because her subject most interested me, although it was Mr. Pagsolingan who recited the first memorable words, on the very first day of class:
In the heart of a seed, buried deep so deep,
A dear little plant lay fast asleep…
With those words, he began distributing seeds for us to plant in the nursery, then, once grown to seedlings, to transplant in the gardens (for tomatoes, carrots, radish, cabbage and other vegetables), orchards (for fruits). Flowers were also grown. The lesson was a basic one: planting life.
Mr. Bayog (who later became the principal) took the lesson to a larger scale. We were assigned farm lots for rice, corn, sugarcane and peanuts. We plowed and harrowed, preparing the quarter hectare, working with hand implements and an old reliable partner—the carabao.
Mr. Zaratan introduced us to Holstein and Indian-bred cattle, Berkshire and Duroc hogs, Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks of poultry; he went on to familiarize us with each breed, the better to understand each one’s requirements for each stage of raising. The lesson: procreation of the species.
But it was from Miss Acacio that I learned the more subtle lessons of life.
Miss Teodora Acacio looked fragile and stood just above five feet. She had her jet-black hair pulled back and tied with a ribbon, black, too. Her glasses made her look quite stern, which she was.
From the very start, she made it clear to us that no one passed unable to read and write in English grammatically and proficiently enough. I can still hear her: “Read, read, read everything—newspaper, magazine, novel, short story, poetry—and read aloud so you can listen to your pronunciation and phrasing, so you know you’re pausing where there’s a comma.”
Oral reading was a regular class exercise, with us taking turns to read one or two pages from Silas Marner or Huckleberry Finn or from Shakespeare and Longfellow. Each reading got a critique from Miss Acacio.
Work was brought home almost daily, to improve penmanship and perfect spelling and grammar. English language was a drill, and Miss Acacio was the sergeant, who, for all her strictness, was not stingy with a deserved smile and praise.
A couple of months before the end of the school year, Miss Acacio was unusually overworking us, running us rugged all the time. A supervisor was coming. My own assignment for the audit was “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow delivered from memory.
It was in the midst of this challenging season that a classmate, looking rebelliously serious, asked Miss Acacio, “Would all this help me earn a living?”
Her reply, “Surely, if you will follow me in the teaching profession, it will help you earn a living. But should it happen that it did not help you earn a living, I assure you that it will help you enjoy and appreciate living.”
Words I have not forgotten.
Then, journeying from the city, came Miss Carolyn Fosdick, supervisor for English, blue-eyed, red-haired, tall, white, American. She looked intimidating, until she opened her mouth and out flowed this soft, sweet voice, introducing herself and stating the purpose of her visit, but “don’t mind me,” she said obviously to soften the idea of an audit.
One by one Miss Acacio called her students to come up and deliver, and, judging by Miss Fosdick’s reaction—the nod, the smile, some commendation—they did not do badly at all. If it was Miss Acacio’s finest hour, it was mine, too.
As the last number, I must have sounded as if I owned Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” for Miss Fosdick applauded and, her hands still together, walked forward to take my hand and congratulate me. She also congratulated the class, and to Miss Acacio she said, crisply, “Well done.”
Then she turned to me again, struck up a conversation, at some point of which I said in response, “No, not really. ‘The Psalm’ is not my favorite poem. My favorite is [Thomas Gray’s] ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’”; and, on a cue from Miss Acacio, I proceeded to recite the most memorable stanza from it:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Miss Fosdick placed her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Amazing,” while Miss Acacio looked at me with the sweetest of her smiles.
From the San Carlos Rural High School, I moved to the big city for college, only to be stopped by a World War. But nothing could stop me from planting and growing life, imbued with the lessons from San Carlos Rural High School, now Speaker Eugenio Perez National Agricultural School, a college.
I went on to become a lawyer and run a transportation company, as well as rereading and, where memory serves, reciting my poems.
I went to see Miss Acacio years later, and she struggled trying to remember me. But all I needed to do was give an encore of the “Elegy” stanza to brighten her up in vivid recollection.
Yet later, I wrote her a letter:
Thank you very much for your patience in teaching me to speak and write English, and to appreciate English literature. Although I chose a career different from yours, I’d like you to know that what you taught me has helped me in both earning a living, and enjoying and appreciating living.
Thank you again.
The addressee gone, the letter remains unsent, but I’ve kept it for my own sake.