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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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Sunday, March 16, 2008

entry arrow11:56 AM | For the Class of 2008

Today I know only mixture: it’s graduation day for Silliman University—and I am both happy and somehow sad. I talk in the capacity of college teacher, and the duality of how to feel about this Sunday first came to mind when Lycar Flores, an old student who is now finally graduating into the real world, greeted me during a meeting earlier last week and noted how ambiguous I seemed to be when I talked of things “commencement.”

She finally said, “You really like our batch, ‘di ba, sir?” And when I considered that, I had to admit what she said was true.

I am happy that her batch will be graduating, to soon contribute to a society that needs good people; yet I am also sad in the way a father wallows at the prospect of an empty nest. What can I say, they’re my favorite class of college students so far.

I do like her batch—this precocious class of 2008—because so many of them (when they were studying in my literature, research, or film classes) gave me more than a glimmer of hope for the future, despite the occasional murkiness that threaten to overwhelm. Best of all, these students also taught me that to teach well you must go beyond the mustiness of a lecture hall, and bring a different kind of vibe to the whole business of education. They have proven one adage not often banded about in a society increasingly fed on academic low expectations, spoon-feeding, rote learning, and an inflated sense of grade consciousness without merit: good students actually make good teachers.

Of course, when you become a teacher, the first thing you need to tell yourself if you want to stay objective and true to your vocation is that there must be no playing favorites among your students. But the classroom is not a static place: there are unseen dynamics that come to play every single day that you teach, and often there are some classes that inspire, and some that simply don’t. The class of 2008 was mostly inspiration.

Teachers are not made of stone, and more often than not the best of students bring out the best mentor in all of us. Imagine coming into a classroom with students willing enough to take up your challenge to learn something more about the world beyond the pages of textbooks. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and I actually liked the feeling of being on my toes every time I embarked on another lesson, knowing that there will be questions, knowing that some actually eat Hegel and Hemingway for breakfast.

In the years to come when they’re much older and are no longer your students, they sometimes email or text you to express some form of thanks. These are the rare rewards in an often underappreciated profession—to know that somehow, as teacher, you’ve made an impact on a young life.

I speak now of teaching in the most romantic sense. I have to admit, however, that there are many days when many of us in the profession just want to throw in the towel, sometimes because of the sheer overwork and underappreciation, and sometimes because burnout comes in quick cycles. There are days when nothing seems to work in the classroom, and students are still bringing in unimproved work despite one’s best efforts. A fellow teacher from another university—a multi-awarded writer of enormous renown—confided to me once about having trouble with a student/beauty queen who peppers her essays with safe inanities, and expects tumbling great grades. When she tells the student to revise, the teacher is only met with disdain and a raised eyebrow. Ouch. And how do you teach, for example, the protest literature from the Marcos years when somebody asks you, “Who’s Martial? And why does he have a law?” There are also those days when you give an announced exam, and the marked test papers become a harvest of eggs, and those days when you point out somebody’s plagiarized work, only to be repaid by drama and a chair thrown at you.

There are also days when you are told you are a “terror” teacher—not because you shout and rant in the classroom, but only because you demand quality work, on deadline. February, for example, was a strange month for me: in the Weekly Sillimanian, I had to give my two cents’ worth to a feature article about being a “terror” teacher in research writing, and a few weeks later, the same features pages declared me a runner-up in the paper’s search for favorite teachers, voted on by students. It was pure existentialist dilemma, and I had to ask Anthony Odtohan, the editor-in-chief and a former student, what all that meant, and he said, “… Only to those who don’t appreciate the fact that college life should be taken to its fullest extent. Don’t worry, sir, you’re a terror to those who aren’t exactly cut out for a college education.”

It’s a sad irony: in our typical boast for the kind of education we have, we flaunt one’s university having “quality education,” but don’t take heed the fact that achieving that actually takes hard work and discipline.

What I cannot understand is that by demanding excellence, one is willfully labeled a terrorist.

Then again, consider the deterioration of education in most of the country. We are behind many things, and the educated class now lives largely abroad, leaving us with the likes of Tim Yap. In the Philippines, there are many colleges that have simply vanished into the black hole of diploma milling. We used to boast of being an English-speaking country, but now there are reports of call centers closing down simply because the workforce can’t speak English to save their lives.

Watching the recent Bb. Pilipinas pageant, for example, I grappled with Bb. Pilipinas World Janina San Miguel’s reality as Mass Communication major in the University of the East, with her answer to a pageant question that went to the stratosphere of cluelessness, broadcast quickly via YouTube to the rest of the world: “Well, my family’s role for me is so important because there was the wa— their, they was the one whose… very … hahahaha … Oh, I’m so sorry, Ahhmm … My pamily … My family … Oh my God ... I’m … Okay, I’m so sorry… I … I told you that I’m so conpident … Eto, Ahhmm, Wait … Hahahaha! Ahmmm, Sorry guys because this was really my first pageant ever because I’m only 17 years old and … hahaha! … I … I did not expect that I came from, I came from one of the Top 10. Hmmm, so … but I said that my family is the most important persons in my life. Thank you.”

Thank God, I had mostly none of that from the class of 2008. And so—to Lycar Flores, Michelle Eve de Guzman, Robert Jed Malayang, Justine Yu, Rodrigo Bolivar, Christie Balansag, Aiken Quipot, Lyde Gerard Villanueva, Primy Joy Cane, Noel Valente, John Boaz Lee, Danielle Zamar, Anthony Odtohan, Romar Natividad, and the many others who made classroom life more interesting—thank you for making my teaching worthwhile.

Of course, formal occasions such as commencement ceremonies often tempts too many people—especially those given a space on the entablado—to offer placid and long-winded advise, bordering on bromides, on the metaphorical significance of graduation as “a portal” to our graduates’ soon-to-be-unspooling real lives.

In fact, the humorist Garry Trudeau jokes of that very nature of graduation exercises: “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.”

You may have heard it all. “Today is the first day of the rest of your lives.” “Commencement is a beginning, a starting point from which you can now finally claim a responsible stake for all of humanity.” “Each diploma is a lighted match, and each one of you is a fuse.” And from Tom Brokaw: “You are educated. Your certification is in your degree. You may think of it as the ticket to the good life. Let me ask you to think of an alternative. Think of it as your ticket to change the world.”

The familiar quotes about graduation go on and on—and while we know that the heart is, more or less, true for each one of them, we all still somehow seek a kind of unvarnished truth for why we choose to gather in a university lawn or an auditorium in the first place, to toast the graduates in a rite as old as Oxford University.

To attempt just that, I want to quote Joann C. Jones who once gave an insightful account about what it means to gain an education, and then taking it to use in the world: “During my second year of nursing school,” Ms. Jones wrote, “our professor gave us a quiz. I breezed through the questions until I read the last one: ‘What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?’ Surely this was a joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade. ‘Absolutely,’ the professor said. ‘In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.’ I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned the cleaning woman’s name was Dorothy.”

It is exactly this philosophy that we, as teachers, hope we have inculcated in all our students over the course of their studies here in Silliman University—or in any other school for that matter. It is something that we truly hope our students can take with them as the very core of “quality Christian education,” something that lays an inner foundation that holds students and keeps them resolute when they leave the portals of the school and its hallowed halls, “to roam the world o’er near and far,” as the Silliman Song goes.

I’d like to remind them not to forget that this foundation we talk of can only be the result of steadfast edification that comes from a barrage of learning that springs from classroom, from church, from community, from court, and from culture—the five C’s that make them unique as Sillimanians, and as citizens of the world. This is the very map of their Silliman education: theory and expressive debate within the four-walls of a lecture hall, spirituality and praise in the pews and under the spires, practice and a chance to give back in the backyards and winding roads of neighborhoods, sweat and brawn in the pool or the playing ground, and finally, music and the arts in the theaters of our imagination.

I am thinking of all these just as we hold Silliman’s graduation ceremonies in a new venue. We are in a place that is the perfect metaphor for the Silliman education I have just defined: we are in the middle of the amphitheater—the site of old Shakespeare plays from years past; surrounding us is the city that hum into our every day hearts, and also the classrooms tucked into these old nearby buildings which are testaments to Silliman’s evolution as a place of learning; and finally, before us is the Silliman Church, where, so the cornerstone proclaimed, “the foundation of God standeth sure.” The venue, indeed, as confluence.

The final analysis is that to graduate from Silliman University must and should be, for all togaed hopefuls for graduation, a towering achievement built on wholistic development, a total education that hones every student into individuals of supreme competence and impeccable character, both of which is bonded and made more pure and strong by a sheer consideration of faith in Jesus Christ.

Graduation day is a reckoning for them all, to remind these old students of how far they have come from that shy young freshman of four or five years ago. Graduation day is a day of change for them as well, but change they must learn embrace with heart, because it is the precursor for all growth.

And graduation day is the day they finally learn, before they are bidden success in each of their future endeavors, that the confluence of competence, character, and faith will become the measure of who they are in the world.

And like what Ms. Jones reminded us, all of that comes to play the moment they realize that their education will ultimately matter when they make significant the people from all walks of life they will meet in their journeys hereafter. Say hello, smile, know their names…

My name is Ian, by the way, and to all graduates, congratulations.

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