Ghosts of the past | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

I felt for the young girl, Meg Adonis, who wrote about my old school, St. Theresa’s College (STC) Quezon City, as a place where she was taught to “behave” but never to fight. Toward the end of her piece, she said that in further hindsight she would realize that at St. Theresa’s she had been in a “miniature version of the real world,” but too young to know how to deal with it. That could explain her wounds.

Indeed, some of the things she said happened in my own time there. What surprised me was that they had carried over to her time, and never corrected.

She suffered some form of suppression and oppression in her 11 years—she finished grade school in 2009 and, calculating from that, I suppose she finished high school in 2013. Not aware of her circumstances, I’m still surprised, again, that she stayed on.

Now 23, she is a reporter for this paper, at the most difficult time to be one. No doubt her old scars will serve her well.

Perhaps I was just luckier—my memories, especially now at 80, seem more wholesome. The years do have a way of blurring bad ones. I was there for high school, in 1951, when I was 11, and major changes were happening in my own young life.

Changing schools

I was changing schools, a decision my parents left to me, and also changing homes, from my grandparents’ back to my parents’, in their newly built bungalow, a walking distance to St. Theresa’s, itself quite new. My small class—only two sections—would be only the third batch to graduate in 1955.

It was a small community where everybody knew everybody, and many of us were neighbors and although not of the same year or grade, we walked home together. Soon some of my classmates would walk home with me to enjoy my mom’s cooking.

Perhaps the difference between me and Meg, aside from the generation gap, was that I didn’t stay in any one school for so long, certainly not 11 straight years, to suffer wounds that could run deep.

I myself went to different, although all Catholic schools. I was at Maryknoll for grade school and St. Theresa’s Quezon City for high school. After that, I spent two years at St. Padre Poveda in Madrid, Spain, where we were privately tutored in preparation for a short course, Cultura Hispanica, at the University of Madrid.

All the time I was away, I kept a correspondence with some of my former high school classmates. My high school memories must have been fond ones, because when I came home, older and more sophisticated, I chose to be a Theresian again. I enrolled at STC Manila for journalism. Many of my high school classmates were juniors there, and I added them to my newfound, younger ones.

Culture shock

Looking back, I remember the culture shock that hit me when I transferred from a school run by more Democratic American nuns to one run by Belgian sisters, descendants of Leopold, one of history’s cruelest colonizers.

The Theresian nuns were addressed as “Mother,” with a curtsy. The Maryknollers were called “Sister” and didn’t expect to be treated as superiors, much less royalty; perhaps because of them I could not be intimidated by any nun.

The Americans spoke English all the time, the Belgians, being not native to it, spoke to one another in Flemish, sometimes in front of us, which was, and remains, impolite in any culture. We students spoke English in school in both cases; otherwise, we were called out. But I let that petty repression pass; I myself sometimes slipped into Spanish with my other Spanish-speaking friends, as naturally as others in their own dialects.

I was an average student, but a complete dodo at sewing, a skill we were not taught at Maryknoll but expected of everyone in high school at St. Theresa’s to have learned in grade school. I thought it a complete waste of time and learned as much as allowed me to pass—an old-maid aunt did my projects.

Maryknoll taught me how to read musical notes and symbols. I escaped the singing part by crying each time my turn came—it always worked, for a nonacademic subject, anyway. I focused on learning words and their functions in a sentence. That has served me quite well as a columnist in my senior years.

Still my minimum knowledge of sewing proved a life saver: When my young family moved to Houston, Texas, I became so grateful I learned some sewing, because when I enrolled the children in the neighborhood Episcopalian school, I was handed the cloth and sewing patterns to sew their school uniforms. Soon, I got the hang of it—I was making mother-daughter outfits for me and my only daughter and, when I got pregnant again, my own maternity clothes.

Maliciously archaic

If St. Theresa’s nuns kept things from us, it was because they believed it was none of our business. It was only much later in life that I found out I had classmates of a different faith and one turned out to be the daughter of the school gardener. Sometimes the Belgian nuns acted wisely, in fact kindly, but they could also be maliciously archaic.

The moment my best friend and I discovered that by holding hands while walking in the corridors or skipping together in the playground we were bound to scandalize the nuns, we got our kicks baiting them. In a flash a nun would appear on a mission to save us from ourselves as she ripped two innocently entwined hands apart—to nip lesbianism in the bud. I was surprised that in Meg’s time the nuns were still at it, if not as ridiculously rabid.

Alas, there are no perfect institutions, not the Church, and not in the least schools—they’re all, after all, run by imperfect humans. Perhaps we can be taught the “wrong” things but no matter how late in life, we learn what we choose to learn.

I found relevant Fr. Tito Caluag’s words, from his Mass today: “Our mission in life comes from our deepest woundedness.” It’s from there, through God’s grace, that we put together the broken pieces of our lives to make ourselves whole again.

All that said, I have yet to meet a Theresian who didn’t fight back.

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