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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, April 10, 2006

entry arrow8:30 PM | Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned in Grade School

Two weekends ago, my grade school alma mater -- West City Elementary School -- invited me to speak before their Recognition Day honorees. The first thing that came to mind was this horrified thought that I am already of a certain age where I am already being asked to do this kind of things. I already have one previous graduation day speakership in my basket. To have two eggs in that basket...what does that say about my perceived "seniority"?

Nevertheless, you don't get this kind of requests often, and in a sense ego won over vanity (not much of a moral fight between prideful things, is there). This weekend, we also happen to be celebrating Easter -- and for me, what could be more Easter-like than a note of resurrection, of triumph, via a recognition day speech? In a sense, I'll be killing two birds with one stone -- taking note of the tail-end of the graduation season, and the celebration of Holy Week. This is what I told the kids down in my old school...



I promise I am not going to be one of those regular bores of keynote speakers who use events like these as if they are running for President of the Republic, giving out bromides as if life was a matter of black and white. This is your day, after all, and so I will kept what I have to say short because I know you all of you just want to get on with the rest of the day in celebration of your triumphs in the classroom.

What I want to do for you this afternoon is to tell a little story.

Once there was a little boy who was very skinny, and was full of wonder. He had the same innocent concerns like most of you probably once had: the desire for ice cream, vanilla flavored, and the desire for more time to play.

This little boy went to a school just like yours. He remembers going to his first class in Grade One, trembling with both fear and excitement -- because being in Grade One meant he was now a big boy, and although he still played marbles and tayukok with other little boys and girls, he knew that being in Grade One meant something.

Do you remember your first day in Grade One? That day may seem like a thousand years ago now, but we all still remember the mad and fearful churning in our stomach as we nervously entered our first classroom, as we inhaled the smell of newly sharpened pencils and the earthy scents of our young classmates.

In Grade One, this little boy knew what it was to finally consider that he was a person of the world, and although his young mind did not yet make this connection, he somehow knew that this world demands that he make his mark on it.

In Grade One, the little boy finally knew how to read. Mrs. Valencia, his old teacher, taught him to read his first words from his first book: "Henny Penny. Henny Penny was a hen. Henny Penny was a red hen."

These were very simple words -- but words that nevertheless contained so much magic for that little boy, because it would soon lead him to stories he, too, would make, always with the hope that these stories would contain the same old magic.

By the end of Grade One, his old teacher Mrs. Valencia told the little boy that he was being given a ribbon for being the Most Diligent in Class. Not First Honors, not Second Honors, not Third Honors. Most Diligent. But the little boy did not care. He was very, very happy. He ran home to his mother, and told her in very excited voice: "Mom! I am being given a ribbon for Most Intelligent!" And his mother was very happy, although the little boy heard his teacher wrong.

In Grade Two, the little boy learned how to read better, and he learned how to write in a cursive style -- tinapot, in other words, and he learned stories about heroes, and he learned about numbers. For the longest time, the little boy was scared of numbers -- how they jumbled together in their own worlds of additions, subtractions, multiplications, and divisions. They did not make sense at all for the little boy, and he felt scared.

Do you remember when you first learned how to do your mathematics? Did you also feel scared?

Nevertheless, the little boy bravely went on, and he even tried to become "friends" with the puzzling numbers themselves, willing them to bend to his will and to his understanding. When Grade Two finally ended for the little boy though, there were no ribbons at all. No First Honors, no Second Honors, no Third Honors. Not even a ribbon for being Most Diligent.

But the little boy thought that was okay. It was certainly not going to be the end of the world for him.

In Grade Three, something magical happened. Somehow, either by mistake or by happy fortune, the little boy fell into the wrong line during enrolment. He ended up not with the regular classes, but with the Special Education Fast Learners class. We call this the SPED class. There, he met wonderful teachers -- Ms. Concepcion, Mrs. Ricardo, Mrs. Paltinca, Mr. Corsino -- who taught him to appreciate things beyond a child's simple imagination. They laid for the little boy the basics in life, perhaps without them even knowing it. They taught the little boy science that jumped and quivered in little children's hands, mathematics that challenged but did not belittle, dancing and singing that edified and made performers out of little children, and finally -- and most importantly for the little boy -- language skills that slowly transformed nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and prepositions into a living and breathing experience.

By the end of Grade Three, guess what happened. The little boy got a ribbon for Second Honors! Finally. Nothing much happened in Grade Four. There was no ribbon for the little boy at all, although by Grade Five, he got a ribbon for Third Honors.

When he was about to graduate from Grade Six, however, the boy -- no longer so little -- got the biggest surprise of his life so far. He was playing soccer with his classmates near the start of summer, and his teacher came up to him, and told him, "You are graduating Valedictorian."

Nothing ever prepared him for that. How could he? From Grade One to Grade Five, he had always just somehow hung on -- no First Honors recognition at all, just spurts of brilliance aptly rewarded, but never consistently maintained.

That boy, of course, if you can guess by now, was me. And why am I telling you my story? Because I find it ultimately strange that I am being asked to speak before you today as Recognition Day speaker when I had never really been that familiar with such rites when I was growing up. But there are some lessons to be gained from the story of this little boy.

First, that winning the battles may be important, but it is eventually winning the war that is of great consequence. I was never a First Honor student, but I did graduate Valedictorian -- which ultimately matters more, right? In the long run, it is what you have done all in all that will define who you are. So for those who are not here today as honorees, do not take this non-recognition as a measure of what you can do finally in life. Life, like the old folks usually say, is all about ups and downs. Someday, after all the hard work, you will really get your due.

Second, never ever underestimate yourself. When you are as young as you are now, you are the very vessels of potentials -- in other words, you are all potentially great inventors, great singers and actors, great writers, great public servants, great professionals -- but most of these potentials you will never really know when you are still in elementary school. Why? Because that is the very fact of human nature: that when we are young, we are blind to our gifts.

It will take a good teacher to recognize the potentials in you, and sometimes the best thing to do is to just accommodate your teacher's dreams for your life, and follow the course of wherever the fates may take you. In Grade School, for example, my teachers told me I could write and draw. I never even knew I was capable of these, but my teachers pushed me to join many competitions, to write essays, to read books from the SPED library, and to edit The Western Star, which I hope is still around. If I had refused their counsel or their dreams of what I could do, I would not be enjoying the distinction of being an internationally-published writer today. Pero, katong bata pa ko, gisakyan ra nako sila -- and I am now winning many awards for what they first instilled in me: a belief that I can do exceptionally what I promised I could do.

Third, luck does play a small part in all of your lives, but the rest is all about hard work, and learning -- like instinct -- the basics of everything. For example, language. When I was a little boy, I used to think of my English classes in SPED as something extremely demanding for a public school student like me. We were told to speak English from sun-up to sun-down. And from Grade Three to Grade Six, my teacher Ms. Bennie Vic V. Concepcion kept on repeating all the basics of language, and I mean everything.

I did not realize then that these repetitions, and Ms. Concepcion's unwavering consistency, will eventually make the grasp of the English language instinctive for me. When I entered Silliman High School, my SPED classmates and I far outstripped even Silliman Elementary School graduates in our language skills. Our English was impeccable, and I have always believed that this command of language has carried me through every success that I have had.

Fourth, never be docile, and never be a conformist. Never wait for life to happen to you, and always think independently, even when you are young. My teachers in grade school taught me this as an important fundamental for living the life. And I now know that they are right. The writer Sidney J. Harris once wrote: "Parents want two opposite things at once: they want their children to excel, and they want their children to be docile. But the two don't go together, and never have." He goes on to say that every study made of achievers in a truly creative sense -- "that is, people who are truly innovative, whose existence made some positive difference for the human race" -- has shown that as children these people were anything but docile and conformist. Almost all were independent, in mind, in spirit, if not in body...."

When I was in Grade School, we were taught by our teachers all the fundamentals of contemporary thought and living -- but at the same time, our teachers encouraged us to question even all of these. Because to question is to sharpen our minds and to know our place in the world.

In a sense then, all I needed to learn about life I learned in West City Elementary School.

Thus, every time I am asked to determine what forces have shaped my life, I always return to my days in elementary school as the very years that formed my personality and my talents. I will always thank my elementary school teachers for teaching me the basics, and for endeavoring with me to go beyond the basics.

Mrs. Paltinca, who taught the mentally-challenged in SPED, taught me the basics of appreciating differences in people, and learning tolerance above all. I will forever thank her for that.

Mrs. Ricardo, who taught us Filipino and manned our library, taught me to love books. And in a sense she taught me to seek and fulfill my wonder of how this world works. I traveled all over the world when I was in college, because Mrs. Ricardo taught me the basics that there is so much more of the world out there beyond Dumaguete. I will forever thank her for that.

Mr. Corsino, who taught us science and mathematics, also taught us dancing. He made seasoned performers of us all. Life, being a theater stage, is all about performance, and because of Mr. Corsino I was properly rehearsed to face any audience. I will forever thank him for that.

And finally, Ms. Concepcion, who taught us English, and who taught us to love words. I owe my life as a writer to her above all.

These people taught me the basics. And life is all about basics, above all. I just hope you have good teachers like I once had. Someday, when it would be your turn to speak as Recognition Day speaker, you would realize that everything you would be in the future, was first shaped when you were a young boy or a young girl in West City Elementary School.

The basic of everything is right now. Breathe in all of it, and explore every bit of your potentials with the help of your mentors. Thank you, and good day.

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