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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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Thursday, March 11, 2010

entry arrow11:01 AM | What Inspires Us

I was watching Star Movies a few nights ago, and it was showing an old favorite—Peter Weir’s majestic Dead Poets Society from 1989. This was a film I saw as an impressionable high school student, and I remember that it moved me. It was to become a defining film for my life, something to store in my personal cinematic treasury box—which would include Cameron Crowe’s Singles and Jerry Maguire, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, Audrey Well’s Under the Tuscan Sun, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds—all of them films from which I would constantly derive a sense of drive despite setbacks and ounces of inspiration to give my own life make a little more sense.

The film—which was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture—is a sweet but tragic melodrama that tells of a bunch of boys in an American prep school and the budding of their dreams and adult reckoning in inspiration of their literature teacher John Keating (played by a non-manic Robin Williams). The professor’s unconventionality flies against the school’s stultifying rigidity of tradition and its (almost mandatory) uninspired classroom atmosphere of droning. He urges his class, for example, to one day tear away—with the full force of disgust—the introductory essay on poetry from their textbook because it approximated an appreciation of verse in a turgid mathematical method.

But in the end, even after a tragedy, he is able to inspire his students to find their own voice in the sea of conformity, to become the captains of their fate, and to live each day with unique zeal and seize the marrow of every living moment. Carpe diem! Oh, Captain, my Captain!

Above all, he taught them to stand up and fight for their dreams despite everything, including unreasonable parental disapproval. I cite this specifically because how many of us have killed our vast potentials and our talents simply because our parents, with all their good intentions, have unknowingly killed our dreams in the service of what they think is practical? (And so it is best to quote Aldous Huxley now: “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.”) I know of one Fine Arts student in Silliman University, for example, whose astounding works in a recent group exhibition easily showed an uncanny talent for the visual arts. But he is planning to stop his painting study because his parents are pressuring him to graduate “on time.”

That fight for the dream that dramatically ended Dead Poets Society moved me, because it is the perfect antidote to what Ally Sheedy’s character in John Hughes’ high school drama The Breakfast Club feared the most: “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Or learns to die, in the gradual accommodation in all our lives of everything that runs counter to our dreams.

I had no idea that years later, I would be following in the footsteps of John Keating—much to my surprise. He had always defined for me what makes a good teacher, and when I try to analyze my own methods as an educator, it does not surprise me that what I do is a combination of that film’s protagonist’s efforts—I make my students in Intensive Composition stand on their chairs to prove a point about looking at old things in new ways, for example, a rip-off of one classroom scene in the film—and the efforts of all the best teachers that I’ve had, including Bennie Vic Concepcion in grade school, and Luz Erum and Alice Mamhot in high school, and Timothy Montes, Ceres Pioquinto, Gina Fontejon-Bonior, Peter Sy, Vicente Maxino, Reynaldo Rivera, and Earl Jude Cleope in college. They’ve helped shaped me, I realize that. The best teachers are shapers of our lives.

That realization about teaching sometimes scares me. Because teachers are also frail human beings much in need of inspiration as well, something that is always in short supply given the paltry salaries, the low professional regard, the endless duties of marking grades (always a thankless task), and the accepted role of being parent, guidance counselor, social worker, policeman, and psychic all rolled into one. Then there are the department politics that distract and dishearten. The vexations are eternal. We are undeniably the face of the arching stress that is at the heart of a student’s college existence—much to our consternation, of course, but what can we do about that? When we demand excellence, we are labeled “terror teachers.” When we slack off a little bit to counter that impression, we are taken to task for not providing enough of an atmosphere of competitive excellence. There can be a balance, of course, but there’s no formula to it. I have written before of one fellow teacher who received death threats from students—a case that has remained unresolved. It’s enough to make anyone teaching a schizophrenic. Thus, teachers are almost always wounded souls. We are easily bruised. And sometimes there are days when I think that being a teacher is all about dealing with utter precariousness, like walking a tightrope without a safety net—and there are many days wherein the very act of fulfilling the obligations of that profession requires inspiration that must at the very least be divinely inspired, because anything else less than that would not be enough.

Sometimes, the solution for some is to create an invisible barricade between two worlds—that of teachers’ and that of students’—that only interface during classroom rituals. There is impregnable distance between the worlds. Distance is all good when the thing to be is to become like Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, high up in Olympus, deciding what fate must befall mortals. This whole archetype is typical of our imagination of teachers, who remain as remote figures in a student’s life and who do not seem to have a life outside of the scribbles on the blackboard. When I was a student in Japan, I observed close hand how this Zeus-like archetype defines teachers: the deference Japanese students make towards their sensei almost borders on servile, and in the classroom, there is an invisible but palpable layout of the classroom where the sensei always occupy a throne front-center, surrounded by acolytes who shrink in the shadows on the sides.

I have never taken to that arrangement well, at least not lately. Because I have quickly realized as well that a source of inspiration for teachers can be his students. When I began teaching many years ago, I thought that the distance I was talking about was standard and de rigeur for the classroom setting. But I have since found out that reaching out to students beyond curricular considerations and situations not only humanizes you to them, but you also learn many things about what makes them tick—which are things you can use to teach better. In the past three years, starting with a group of campus writers I called the LitCritters (a loose group of students I’ve gathered to talk about and do creative writing), I have become friends with many of my students—and while the professional demarcations remain, the blurring of the boundaries has afforded me an adventure into a different brand of mentorship. I am able to reach to them, finally, because they have found out—sometimes to their surprise—that I could be reached. I am no Zeus in Olympus, after all.

And they inspire me. They teach me things I would never probably learn if I only kept the company of fellow teachers. Marvin Flores, for example, has taught me that there can be no excuses in one’s pursuit of excellence—not poverty, not bureaucratic nightmare, not anything. Anna Katrina Espino has taught me that talent is always a diamond in the rough—and the only way for it to shine is to strive, sometimes slowly, until you just surprise everybody with your unexpected brilliance. Irish Reambonanza has taught me a grounded sense of loyalty. Likko Tiongson has taught me the value of singularly pursuing dreams until you wear your dreams down for it to be yours. Mariekhan Edding has taught me how to remain strong despite the conspiracies of small things. Jai Dollente has taught me the comforts of staying true to good friends. Robert Jed Malayang has taught me to consider that not all exceeding brilliance can be officially celebrated—and to promptly never mind that fact. They all keep me young, at least in spirit and sensibility. Which is important, because once any teacher has calcified and hardened to old ways, I don’t think he will be capable of inspiration or fresh insight.

The past three years, come graduation time, have become increasingly hard for me. I’ve grown very close to a number of students I could very well call my good friends. After this year, there will only be a few left. Those who already have—RJ, Marvin and the rest of The Physics Boys, Miko Tingne, Yves Villareal, Rodrigo Bolivar, Michelle Eve de Guzman, Lyde Villanueva, Celeste June Rivera, Marianne Catherine Tapales, Fredjordan Carnice, Micah Dagaerag, Matilde Hescock, Zara Dy, Dok Timbancaya, Bryan King, Justine Yu, Alvin Clyde Gregorio, Lycar Flores, Ray Donn Lim, Aiken Quipot, Ernest Hope Tinambacan, Mayah and Yassi Dulnuan, Magenta Villegas, and so many others—or will soon be passing through the portals of Silliman to exit towards their own post-collegiate lives will become part of an irretrievable past no amount of reunions can ever make happen again. And it’s sad. But also happy, the fact that I have somehow become part of some young people’s lives.

Sometimes you wish they could remain in Dumaguete, and Silliman, forever—but of course life and graduation demand that there must be Moving On. That’s why we call this ritual every March as a Commencement Ceremony, because they are all about beginnings, although it starts with a resounding end to one chapter of our lives.

So to those student/friends who are graduating this year—Ramuel Reambonanza, Anthony Gerard Odtohan, Eliora Eunice Bernedo, Karen Grace Yasi, Emarrah Sarreal, Marc Cabreros, Ian Lizares, Bogy Lim, and all the rest—you know I mean this with the deepest love and affection: maayo unta’g mangahagbong mong tanan. Wahahaha! (Wink.)

Thanks for the friendship and the company. And the inspiration.

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