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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, November 29, 2004

entry arrow6:52 PM | The Undoing Run

The dark clouds came about the same time Iris Chang pulled over her car along a side road outside the small Northern California town of Los Gatos, took out a gun, and blasted the depression out of her head. "The cats," I remember saying wearily, to no one in particular, "she lost her life near a town named after cats." Glorious non sequitur, but it was all there was. There was no infinite sadness, only a jarring understanding of how easy it is to give up sometimes.

The Chinese-American writer, who had chronicled the rape and massacre of Chinese civilians at the hands of Japanese soldiers during the dark peaks of World War II, had been doing research about soldiers in Bataan for a new book, a follow-up to the pathbreaking The Rape of Nanking.

She was only 36 when she died, her life cut short, like an unfinished book. The police soon ruled suicide. Her depression, after all, had been quite well known. The rumors were that it could have also been murder, but rumors are just rumors: in the end, all that we have really left is the fact of life undone. All of that fire, gone. Triggered away.

I knew this because somebody texted me of Chang's death just after I had declared a small farewell for most of the world. This was last October, and the world as I have known it had ceased to be a hopeful place.

Granted, I have always understood life to be complex, to be a cycle of good and bad, with a lot of grays in between. The trick, we've been told, is maintaining one's balance in the wake of endless surges. "Go with the flow," so the mantra goes. The religious, on the other hand, make it a matter of divine will and surrender all instincts to question why things are happening the way they are. But for this one crossroad, in the twilight of my 20's, there was no choice but to deny most of everything, at least for a while, and return to a kind of solo communion.

You can say it was "introspection," even meditation. I thought of it as a much-needed getaway from all the cares of the world -- a purging of sorts. I wanted to rethink everything. I wanted to shake the complacency I called my life, and question the very things I found myself so far doing. I wanted to clear out my priorities, and straighten the growing mess of living life menudo-style, minus a workable plan. It took courage to admit I couldn't see myself past three years. The future was a blur, the present a glob. I was, in a sense, Iris Chang.

"Whatever you're going through, you're not alone," the text messenger had continued, her message clear and crisp in the tiny coffin of my cellphone glowing green. There was no sense in replying. I wanted to be the void.

The void. That much I wanted to give the world fraught with so much silliness, much of it deadly. Take this stupid year. I have never seen so many senseless deaths. In my boyfriend Mark's life, for instance, there were four deaths in all, including his father whose body had been crumpled in a road accident by a Pajero-riding church pastor, who has since arrogantly denied owning up to whatever responsibility he bore in taking the life of another. A church pastor! Then there was Christopher Misajon dying over a cellphone, and the recent case of balikbayan Jonathan Sibala dying just because some guys were perhaps too drunk to bear the slight scrutiny of a look. A few weekends before, some friends were gaybashed in EscaƱo Beach. One had to be rushed to Manila the next day, his face a bloody pulp. A week after Chris's death, my good friend, the Cagayan de Oro-based Sillimanian artist Ramon Yasunari Taguchi was stabbed three times, once in the back, once in the side, and once in the belly, over another cellphone -- this was not even his. He lived to tell the tale that several centimeters more, he would have died, too. And for those whose mortality I understood, there could only be the extreme weight of sadness, something reserved for a Nick Joaquin, for example. Or a crusading Christopher Reeve. They were like candlelight slowly extinguished at the approach of growing darkness.

And then, soon after, Bush won with a slight majority, by a nation unmoved by bloody carnage in Iraq, and yet gung-ho over ... "morality issues."

And then soon after a brilliant and hardworking teacher-friend I have in Silliman University received a complaint by four "Christ-centered" students over vague matters of incompetency they cannot prove, some of the complaints hinting of "moral outrage," whatever that may be. "I live the private life I want," she told me later, "and my being a teacher has nothing to do with it."

And then, I, too, got my share of the blues. So many things, but I'm only going to tell you of one. Because it bore so much humiliation.

On October 27, a Tuesday afternoon, I was busy checking the last essays for my Intensive Composition classes in time for final grading, when I received a text message from a former student in Research Writing. She wrote: "HOw com we only hav a grade of 1.2? We d0nt deserv such grade! We want to review ur rec0rds!" [sic] Since I was rather busy with work, I texted back that I would gladly show her the records the next morning in the office. But the tone of the message felt quite rude to me. It bothered me so much I could no longer concentrate on my work.

So I texted back later that afternoon, and informed her that I was willing to see her and her thesis partner at 8 pm in Scooby's Silliman, since the office was already closed by then. I felt I needed to meet up with them to settle everything so I could sooner go back to my pressing work. At the meeting, both arrived with an older man and woman, who did not introduce themselves, but sat three tables away from us.

We were all there in the glass corner of Scooby's. I began to explain, in detail, their records, and exactly why I gave them a grade of 1.2. They had garnered a grade of F in the first half of the course, due to some requirements or exercises they were not able to pass, and some long tests where they had very low scores. And then I showed them their final paper and the rest of their submitted final requirements, and told them that they were not able to follow some vital instructions. Some of the listed sources in their bibliography were not at all used in the body of the paper, and some of the Internet sites they gave me were actually non-existent.

And then I scanned with them their paper, page by page, and paragraph by paragraph. It soon came to light that large portions were taken verbatim from Internet sources, constituting plagiarism. I said, "I should have given you guys an F, but I liked your paper, except for the plagiarized parts. My deal is this: are you content with the 1.2? Or would you rather have an F for plagiarism?"

But right before I ended my explanation, the older couple joined us. They turned out to be the parents of one of the students. Soon, the mother's voice became more impassioned as she related to me how "unfair" it was that I was giving her "bright" daughter a "bad grade." In public, they told me that it was "unfair" since they were paying high tuition fees. I kept silent, keeping my cool, but I meant to retort back that grades were not for sale that way. They also showed me her other grades, and said, "They're all 3.0 up! And you're the only one who gave her that kind of grade." I told the mother calmly that I do not base my grades on other teachers' grades.

They also asked if I could show them the grades of the other students just in case "there is any favoritism." I told them that these grades are confidential, and that I don't do favoritism -- to which she replied, "So, see?" implying that I was indeed hiding something. The mother kept on murmuring, "Ma'y ma'g bugo nang akong anak kay imo siyang tagaan ug gradong ing-ana!" She also said, "I know my daughter! She is a fast-learner! She is very bright. Her grade is unfair!"

Later, the father would tell me, "There are only two causes why a student gets a low grade. It's either the student is lousy, or the teacher is lousy." He then gave me a lecture on "how to be a good teacher," and he said, "Teachers should impart knowledge on their students. When a student's grade is low, the teacher is not effective in imparting knowledge." To which I replied, "Are you implying, sir, that I am a bad teacher?" His reply was, "Well, there are only two causes...."

The father also said that his wife was a "cum laude" graduate from Silliman. I did not tell him so was I.

The mother later asked me to explain to her why I thought their daughter's paper was plagiarized, and I showed them the original website articles and their term paper. They kept saying that "we know research, kay ni-graduate man pud mi sa Silliman," and thumbed through my class notes with such disdain.

I was growing uncomfortable with their increasingly loud voices, especially in such a public space. I was feeling embarrassed because people were looking at us. This was perhaps the most humiliating experience I have ever gone through as a teacher in a conference with parents.

In the middle of my explanation about plagiarism, their daughter suddenly stood up, violently kicked her chair to the glass wall, causing great commotion. I could not do anything more because things were happening too fast. She stomped off and went outside, leaving us. On the sidewalk in front of us, she fell as if in a faint, and we saw her being rushed by male friends to a car. For a moment, everyone in the restaurant looked at me as if I was a villain because I made a girl faint. (Later on, I learned she was rushed to the hospital, but was not admitted.)

Later at home, I called my older brother for talk and small comfort, and cried until my eyes felt like overripe grapes.

In my career as a teacher, I have had parental conferences involving student grades, but never have I been humiliated in this manner. This incident, without question, made me doubt my vocation, and also my self-esteem. To this day, I sometimes still wake up in the middle of the night shaking. And it has made me question the things I do. I have no dreams left, nothing to seriously worked for: they have all gone away, rebuked by a silent voice inside me that says, "What for?"

And then all there was, from me, was silence. I stopped emailing anyone, I stopped blogging, I changed my cellphone number. I cocooned myself in the comforts of my pad, going out only for the classroom and the office, and to eat, and to exercise. Someone soon told me that all I was doing was a senseless running away from life. "You can never really run away, you know," that friend said.

I wanted to tell her I knew that. I also knew that there was that eventual return to everything, even gladly because wiser. But it's a process. And unlike Iris Chang, a gun is not a solution for me.

But sometimes, I think what we really need to do is run away. Run away, geographically, perhaps metaphorically. Because I think that's the only chance for any one of us to finally say, "I'm back."

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich