The year was 1994 in Naga City and the Darwinian instinct to excel had kicked in once more. I was tired of not being the best in anything: I had stopped playing chess and I was just so-so in table tennis and volleyball. And geeks were not supposed to be good in sports anyway because that would just be unfair to the rest of high school humanity.
In my academics, I was bored of having the highest test scores and grades in English. My periodical test papers in English would usually go around the room during the exams and would be returned to me just in time for the submission. I had wanted to excel in History but that subject was one friend’s territory. Again, I would rather stay friends with my classmates than be better than they were in anything other than English.
After all, the Science-Oriented Program in Camarines Sur National High School began in freshman year with 100 of us in two sections wearing the generic green cords for our IDs. By sophomore year, only around 40 or so students were left wearing the yellow cords. By junior year, I remember that there were only 28 of us with the corresponding pink cords [unless I forgot some classmate’s name through the years].
We had no choice but to stick together---even though all 28 of us were competing against each other--- because everyone else in our public high school was normal and we were very smart aliens who mostly could afford private school tuition. And as if that weren’t enough to make the rest of the population feel that they were really our poor relations, we spent the previous two years in the new building with new equipment which were exclusive to us--- even though we were wearing the same school uniform and color cords assigned for each year level for a whole public school that was lacking classrooms, chairs, and books.
And I was so bored that I even excelled in Biochemistry—an advance subject in our program. Our science teachers couldn’t figure out how I could possibly excel in that subject when I was barely making the required grade in Chemistry [because the latter bored me, too.] Their scientific conclusion: we therefore conclude that this is a fluke [the same when I was almost flunking Physics the next year but fluking in Applied Physics].
Anyway, one day, the teachers had drafted the geeks in another extra-curricular battle against the whole city. This time it was for the writing contest for high school students aka the Division Secondary Schools Press Conference.
The division that united
The teachers knew that I knew how to write essays but I was more known for winning Public Speaking in English contests. I was then assigned to the Feature Writing in English category because the coaches said that I had the above mentioned qualifications therefore perfect for it. Besides, the coaches had already assigned students to certain categories, like the editorial was for the valedictorian candidate and sports writing was for the boys because boys supposedly know more about sports.
I was more excited to participate because I was eager to encounter other students from other schools, especially the private schools.
I wanted new people to befriend who would not be intimated by my perceived academic, extra-curricular, and bi-polar social status and to meet boys who could look beyond the whole pretty/popular/upper-middle-class category that most private school teenage males fell for. After all, these boys were supposedly smarter than the rest. And writing again for a contest got my bored blood flowing once more.
However, I didn’t really know how to write a feature article. The talks given by the speakers helped but then during the contest, all I knew was:
1. Write about the topic
2.Only one hour to write
3.Write my entry number on the upper left-hand corner
4.Follow the margin
5.I only have to fill two pages
6.place “p 11111” or “p 22222” on the top and bottom right-hand corners of each page
7.put “30” i.e. end of copy on the bottom of the last page
8.don’t forget the title
I was more concerned about my handwriting because I was writing in print. I was worried that I might get deduction points in capitalization and such. I just wanted to do and get it done, and hoped that I would at least avoid being humiliated by placing 3rd or 2nd.
I remember how my right hand shook the whole time while I was writing. What I don’t remember until now was the topic. I remember winning 2nd place and being so giggly. I remember telling the teachers while sounding like a giggling airhead, “My horoscope said that I would be lucky and win something today!”
And through the conference and most of us winning, I and my friends were able to establish ties with the smart private school boys: Ateneans. It was very refreshing to be with boys who were not threatened by a girl’s intellect or wouldn’t consider being friends with public high school girls as social suicide.
I even had a crush on one popular Atenean who was a year older and we went out once after the competition. But there was no opportunity to continue to spend more time with him because he didn’t place in his category for the Regionals. And private and public didn’t really date, much more become a couple.
In one way, the Secondary Schools Press Conference became a soiree for all the schools. Usually, it was only Colegio de Sta. Isabel that had soirees with Ateneo de Naga, but the conference had ensured that the public high school students would be invited to the Student Visit Program hosted by Ateneo de Naga. One week to experience being a student in Ateneo: it was the opportunity to be in boy-heaven if you were boy-crazy or be asked by one boy to be his partner in the prom [which seemed to be a requirement for social coolness].
For me, it was a memory of really crushing on a chinito boy who had asked me to be his prom date [after I already agreed to be the prom date of one of the Conference boys and crushed the latter’s ego by my going instead with the chinito]; dancing cha-cha, L.A. Walk, Macarena, and sweet the prom night away; and finding out years later that the chinito turned all-muscled-gay.
The best in lying through the truth
During the Regional Secondary Schools Press Conference in Tabaco, Albay, I was a teenager finally allowed to be out-of-town without the family for more than a day--- sleeping on a folding bed in a classroom with all these strangers and lacking privacy for my toilet routine.
Also, I had become a closer to Karl, one of the Ateneans who was a year older than I was. Later on, I would find out that he was actually a second-cousin on my Dad’s side but we didn’t know him because he grew up in Manila. And that he wouldn’t read until he was in Grade 1 and his first read word was To-yo-ta.
One night in the Regionals, I had presented my palms to him just after I applied Chinese moisturizer to my face:
Me: Listen to this.
Karl: [places his ears on my palms]
Me: Huh? Tangek! Amuyin mo!
Karl: Eh sabi mo kasi listen!
I laughed and thankfully it was dark so he couldn’t see me turn red from feeling stupid over a slip in word choice.
And during the feature writing contest proper:
1.The rules previously listed but this time we were asked to write about our mothers.
2.A character/profile sketch with no specifics, no details like names, places, dates.
In addition to thinking “oh shit, how am I going to do this”, my problem was that I was being asked to write about my mother. My relationship with my mother was going through the typical teenager love-in-public/hate-in-private phase. I had thought--- in all of my all-knowing-teenager-arrogance--- that my Ma was a bad mother. But unlike other teenagers who would talk back, scream, rebel or run way from their mothers, I was the dutiful and studious daughter who exuded this palpable dislike for my mother in her presence.
I was afraid that if I would be really honest in writing about my mother, I would embarrass my Ma because I would be just writing bad things about her and I was not supposed to do that. That was going against the fourth of the Catholic Ten Commandments “honor thy father and thy mother” and against our Conservative Mafioso-like Family Commandment “don’t you dare make your family look bad otherwise you would be beaten for being an ungrateful traitor”.
I had still tried to be honest with lines like:
My mother is like a bank---
we would just keep on withdrawing money from her and she would complain because we are not depositing any money and we could never pay her back…
As the essay progressed, it became more of writing what I wished my mother would be because she wasn’t the perfect mother who had the time and personality for talks about teenager things like personal issues, friends, or boys. I wrote my version of a comparative analysis between my fantasy mother and my real mother: a mother should be like this but my mother is like that. That in the end my Ma wasn’t that bad and I might want a fantasy mother but I didn’t really wish for another mother.
I knew when I passed it that my essay could win.
I remember still going back to the proctor’s desk seconds after turning it in, imploring if it’s possible to write on the final copy the title because I forgot to. I was afraid that I would be refused but I was allowed to write one. I quickly scribbled without thinking “My Mother, My Hero”.
After I left, I had immediately said to myself:
Shit. It should’ve been “Heroine”. Too late.
During the awarding ceremony, my name wasn’t called for 3rd place.
When the 2nd place winner was called, I remember that Karl gave me sideway glances, the usual It’s-okay-better-luck-next-time looks with consoling half-smiles.
When my name was called for the 1st place, I didn’t feel surprised at all because I knew that my essay was good.
I had become officially the best in feature writing among my peers in the whole Bicol region-- a neophyte-- Karl had kept on clapping, and I remember one of the judges telling me that I really had the talent for writing.
Of course I had played it cool, smiling and saying “Thanks!” to everyone as if I won big-deal-awards like that all the time. I felt like a fraud because I didn’t think of my Ma as my hero(ine) at all. But just at that moment, it felt good to be judged the best in writing--- even if I thought that I wrote mostly lies about my mother to make her look good and that in the end I really made her look bad because it appeared that I was judging and making fun of her.
Still, I won a slot in the National Secondary Schools Press Conference in Koronadal, South Cotabato.
Many years later, I realized that the “lies” I wrote about my mother to make her look good were all true.
Traveling to the end
Most of the teachers and parents were hesitant about sending us to Mindanao for the conference because they were terrified that this new terrorist group--- which the radio, TV, and newspapers were obsessing about--- might blow us up.
We could all die, I had thought, and leave ugly corpses that didn’t go to the prom, didn’t graduate, didn’t go to college, didn’t have a job, didn’t get married to Mr. or Ms. Perfect, and didn’t have perfect kids in a perfect house.
I didn’t like this Abu Sayyaf that people were talking about because they were ruining my opportunity to travel and bring glory to my family, my school, my city, my region, and most especially to my Darwinian instincts.
Anyway, they decided that we just had to go for the glory of the Darwinian instincts for excellence of our schools, our city, and our region. In my public high school’s case, we really had to go because that was the first time that we had many winners off to compete with winners from all over the country--- even if the school didn’t have the money for it.
And because it was more affordable---
It took three days to travel from Bicol to Mindanao via bus and ferries:
The bus for the Bicol delegation traveled from Naga to Port Matnog in Sorosogon. Then the bus took the ferry from Sorsogon to Samar. The bus once more traveled by land to Leyte. Another ferry ride for the bus to Surigao, and then by land once more until we reached Koronadal.
It took three days without puking:
I would always get dizzy then when traveling for more than an hour. I was worried that I would vomit while on the bus which would be embarrassing for a teenage girl in a bus with teenage boys. And I couldn’t really allow myself to travel with always a plastic bag on hand because it reminded me of how people got killed in the movie “Killing Fields” which I and my siblings watched via Betamax in grade school.
During the ferry rides, I prayed that I wouldn’t disgrace myself by heaving over the rail for the whole delegation and passenger manifest to see. I was also afraid that I would fall overboard. Staying on deck helped in concentrating to keep the nausea down my esophagus and that distracted me from thoughts of the boat sinking, of our drowning, and of Jaws coming to bite off our torsos and legs. I was too engrossed that I didn’t even marvel at the dolphins to which everyone was pointing and going “oooh” and “aaaah” because I was going “ugh”.
It took three days without taking a bath:
We would wash what we can and brush our teeth in carinderia or public toilets. We used a lot of isopropyl alcohol on our skin and armpits. And I remember seeing gigantic dandruff on the scalp of the boy seated in front of us on the second day: turn-off.
It took three days without doing number 2:
Which was the bowels of hell for me since I had a sensitive stomach and going once in the morning and once in the evening was like breathing. A “crappy” and “constipated” demeanor would have been appropriate descriptions for me.
It took three days without having a filling meal:
Which was the anti-dizziness and number-2-problem solution. Also, I was worrying all the time about not having enough money which really made me feel hungrier.
It took three days without sleep:
I would nap on the bus during the forever drive and wake up to cramping back, posterior and legs. After a day, the bus started smelling funky so some of us opted to rent folding beds and sleep exposed to the night and rabid mosquitoes while waiting for the ferry. Some of us slept sitting down somewhere in the pier. Sometimes, it just got too cold outside and I could not really sleep while busily slapping my own skin [because there was no such thing as Off lotion at that time] so I had no choice but to go back in the bus.
I would feel the blessed warmth and smell this unholy stink as soon as I would enter the bus. It smelled like sweat, feet, and durian and it immediately drove me off the bus and back to the waiting cold and mosquitoes at times. Sometimes after a couple of minutes, I would be immune to the smell: what a relief from a smell that scratched and haunted the nostrils.
And the whole time, I was worried that the bus would suddenly explode the moment we touched and traveled through Mindanao land.
Three days of taking these later:
By the time we arrived in Koronadal, I was just really tired and in no condition to participate in a contest. I felt the distance separating me from my family: I was homesick and I just wanted to go home. I didn’t even have enough money to pay for personal long-distance calls and there were times that I found myself crying when I was taking a bath.
So I couldn’t really care less if an Abu Sayyaf suicide bomber suddenly materialized in front of me—I would have probably chanted louder than the bomber about how I hated life and the world.
There were also too many of these young writers, all supposedly the best--- all who seemed to know more than I did about writing and campus journalism. I didn’t feel that I could best any of them and I felt like a provincial mouse. And I was not only going to compete with them but also against my Bicolano allies.
And I didn’t know what one was supposed to do in events like that. I definitely wanted to mingle with the participants outside the Naga delegation but I didn’t know how. Those in the feature category weren’t friendly and were more intent in their own schedules and not fraternizing with competitors.
I had tagged along with the Ateneans from Naga---- Karl Llorin, Ali Santiago, and Leo Malapo who gave me a tape of Color It Red’s “Hand Painted Sky” album--- because they made friends with three participants from Zamboanga. There were three of them: two Atenistas and the sister of one and finding out that the sister was also studying in Ateneo made most of us go “Wow, you have GIRLS in your Ateneo?” They said that it was normal for them to have bombs exploding all over the place. They said not to worry so much about the Abu Sayyaf because they wouldn’t really bomb the conference and kill high school students.
I only remember the name of the other boy, Charlie Saceda, because I had a crush on him: a cute, intelligent chinito. He and Ali pretended to take pictures for their respective school papers when the Conference held the beauty contest. Their cameras had no films and they just wanted to be in the front row to ogle through their camera flashes all the beautiful girls--- one of the perks of being in the photo-journalism category.
And as far as Charlie was concerned:
I was invisible.
It was perfect to be invisible
and able to take pictures of him
for me to ogle on a later date
and even paste on one of my journals
years later to fondly remember how
to ogle some more.
We would all speak in Tagalog or English but when one of them would switch to Chabacano, I would just switch to Rinkonada [the dialect in Iriga City] and we would understand each other. That was when I found out that in Chabacano my first name meant “urine” and “coño” meant “clitoris”.
Of course being with them meant staying out late sometimes and some of the coaches in our delegation gave me looks when I would get back to the classroom where we were lodged on folding beds once more. The looks made me feel like I was evil and a slut just for talking to and playing bowling with the boys.
On the day of the feature writing contest, I just went through the motions of it--- like taking a test and knowing that you would only have a score of 75. The topic was about our journey to Koronadal for the National Secondary Schools Press Conference.
I didn’t know how to begin it. After 20 minutes, I decided on:
What? No Abu Sayyaf?
What a crappy lead and what followed was crappier. I was rushing and I didn’t even have enough time to re-write everything so my piece looked like a chicken had gone wild on my paper with a pen and in print. I knew that I had no chance of winning even tenth place.
I felt worse when I heard one of the contestants say to his coach after “I began my piece with a line from the Eat Bulaga theme song” which subscribed to what we were taught in the conference regarding the use of quotes or anything that would immediately capture the attention of the reader.
I couldn’t even go to my school’s coaches because I was afraid that they would just tell me, “That’s what you get for running around with those boys like an evil slut.” Besides, no one was really coaching me. And Charles Darwin was screaming at me that I was a failure.
After that conference and with the bus retracing our three-day route, I decided that:
I hate one-hour-writing.
Next time I would go away without my family, I have to travel in luxury.
Next time, don’t go to the National Secondary Schools Press Conference.
This wasn’t fun at all.
Someday I will write while having fun and win something.
And this essay should have been what I wrote in Koronodal.
Bu it took me fourteen years and almost a week to write this.
You just got to love Charles Darwin.
(a birthday gift for 23)