Last Christmas was the first trip to Davao City, my hometown, in a very long while. In my married life so far, my wife and I have spent Decembers in places like Morocco, Hungary, or the United States. But this time, it’s different. I just moved to Sydney earlier in the year, and my wife’s ailment deteriorated that she had to spend some time in Davao. Thus, it made a lot of sense to fly to the Philippines even if a Qantas experience can be SO costly.
If not for the Missionary Families of Christ meetings, the Himig Sandiwa choir service and Tuesday practices, and the cheerful lunchtime interactions at PHD, it was tough to live alone. Besides, our office has a mandated shut down for a couple of weeks in December. So, all signs point to a Davao trip.
Another reason for an exciting homecoming was that I’d be able to attend a high school reunion. It’s been ages ago, and so much has changed since I left the doors of Holy Cross of Mintal. But wouldn’t it be nice to reminisce on it — not dwell on it — for once?
The reunion was a gathering not only for former classmates but also familiar faces of upper-level students and those after us and shared the campus. I used to plan a reunion just for our class, but it did not materialize so far.
My time at HCM was filled with memorable but straightforward experiences highlighted by school performances, intramurals, and grading period recognitions.
The Catholic Faith.
I finished grade school in a government institution. While we are also taught catechism in third grade to prepare us for the first communion, I was on pace to become a nominal Catholic. That meant just doing what I was told as a Catholic, but not because I understood and embraced doing it. On our first day at HCM, the transition from grade school to high school wasn’t just in the new environment, new teachers, and school structure. (Not wearing a prescribed uniform or turning up late meant humiliating experience you don’t want to be part of). There were hallmarks of Catholic education all over the place; the one non-believers might label as brainwashing.
Our motto was ‘To Christ, Through Mary’, meant to be sung every morning during the flag ceremony. We had Christian Living classes taught by nuns and read Gospel comics. During our first year, we were taught about the life of Anne-Marie Rivier, the founder of the Presentation of Mary congregation. We held programs during the foundation of PM sisters every 21st of November. Since our school was just a stone’s throw away from a Catholic church, we were actively participating in its activities such as dawn masses before Christmas or Lenten commemoration during school vacations. I was an altar server and a lector in the parish during my tenure at HCM.
The Military Training.
Moving on from Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts during the first few years highlighted by the yearly camping at the school grounds, the basic Filipino version of military service took its form in the summer of our third year (now ninth grade). Citizens Army Training was integrated into high school as a way to instill the love of the country and develop patriotism while preparing for time of war. Not to be fielded as armed combatants in the infantry or cavalry units but with necessary survival skills.
However, this objective wasn’t emphasized well during our time. Instead, being a senior officer in a distinctive military uniform, shiny boots and sword felt empowering, even if roles were usually relegated towards guarding the school gate or in a ceremonial saber arch to welcome high-profile school visitors.
The training was a bit intense, though, in retrospect, it was just like a bunch of untested, limp youngsters undergoing a sports tryout. Our seniors would shout instructions, and we’d act accordingly. “Roll like a log” would lead us to roll on the grass, dirt, or gravel. We would scamper for higher ground, like scaling the perimeter fence when an officer shouts “flooding in the area.” There were also marching drills for cadets, how-tos in handling our wooden rifle, and basic first aid.
I was the S2 intelligence officer and had an unenviable task of catching seniors (and handing over demerits) to those who fail to tuck in their shirts, fail to wear their school ID, or cutting classes.
The program has since changed name and coverage.
The School Canteen.
The school canteen at HCM was nothing more than an enlarged sari-sari store that sold ice candy, soda, sweetbread, pudding, and other staples of a hungry school kid during recess. When the bell rings, signifying it’s time to get out of the room and enjoy the 30-minute break, everyone rushes into that corner facing the outdoor basketball court. Depending on who came first, who shouts the loudest, or who gets the attention of a working student managing as a storekeeper, it was pandemonium for about five minutes.
As the crowd starts to dwindle, I find myself buying the usual two pieces of bread and once ice candy chocolate flavor. On other days they serve orange or avocado flavored ones. As other students gather under the talisay or Indian almond tree, shooting hoops, or sitting at the bench, I often retreat with old pals Rodel Garsuta, John Elmer Capricho, and Dante Plete to the bench outside of our classrooms which were closed during break time.
The canteen’s offerings were limited, but often sufficient for a school population of less than 400.
The Gardening and Cooking Lessons.
Practical Arts is a subject that reminded me of Home Economics in grade school and allows us to get out of the classroom and experience hands-on learning, hence the subject name.
Among the more notable subjects were cooking with Mrs. Cabiguin, where we sampled dishes cooked on open-air kitchen made up of crude stone stoves and required us to bring our pots and pans, ingredients, and cooking utensils. We were then assigned in groups of four or five, each with a distinctive contribution and, hopefully, an equal share of masterpiece dishes that’s worth every effort we put in. We didn’t have the luxury of making fancy dishes or even mainstream Filipino dishes. The outcome of that squash cake was right to some, but terrible to others. Thankfully, I didn’t hear anyone with stomach problems the following day.
Gardening has been a subject since third grade. We’ve been assigned a small plot of the area next to our classroom, where we cultivate eggplants and other veggies. At Mrs. Corazon Cabiguin’s class, we tend to such a plot of land with our sickle and water them regularly. I didn’t remember ever harvesting the fruits of our labor since many of them were stolen even before reaching maturity.
We might complain of the hot, sweaty outdoor environment tending to our crops, being outside was a welcome break other than “recess.” While tending to our vegetables, we sit under the sun and chat about TV shows, plans for upcoming convocation, or any random school gossip on our plots. Mrs. Cabiguin would then bark at us for the noise or neglect of plants, that sort of kolkhozy or “collective farming” scenario in the Soviet era.
The Drug War
President Rodrigo Duterte’s long tenure as Davao City mayor just started when we were in high school. Looking back at his relentless drive to eradicate drugs were a few incidents in school. On our first day in third grade, I noticed two new classmates. One of them who was seated at the corner looked tad older than everyone. I later found out that he was sent to school by the Rehabilitation Center for Drug Dependents, a government correction facility aimed at bringing victims of drug abuse back into society.
He was quiet yet friendly, and possess a different demeanor, perhaps because he was a newcomer and not used to our typical classroom dynamics.
But one day, after our routine flag ceremony at the basketball court, all girls were told to proceed to the classroom, and the boys from all levels remained. We were asked to separate by a two-arms length from each other, and school officials began frisking us. They checked our pockets, wallets, and told us to empty our bags in front of them. Nothing suspicious came about during that random inspection. But I found out later that cannabis hidden in a lunchbox of someone from another class was discovered. That classmate of mine was tagged as one of the suspects, and I didn’t remember seeing him again.
The School Activities
Fundraisers: As a Catholic institution, HCM was often on the receiving end of solicitations for fundraising activities. May it be for Mission Week, support for the education of seminarians, or other causes, we were encouraged to donate. One vivid memory was a “contest” organized by the school and pitted the 13 sections from year 1 to year four on who was the most generous one. Every week, a board that featured each of the classes will be updated with the amount collected. As freshmen at St Agnes class of Mrs. Josephine Alminaza, we ruled at being the top donor week after week and sustained the top-ranking towards the end of Mission Sunday. Did we win because we were genuinely generous, or that upper-level students have seen it before and saw little incentive besides bragging rights as the most charitable class in school?
Christmas events: HCM does its month-long string of activities marked with the foundation day of the PM congregation in late November, then Christmas parties, bazaar, festivals, and alumni homecoming. It was the most awaited part of the year and made extra special because it’s around that time I was hoping to receive both Christmas and birthday presents.
In my senior year, the school organized a concert of a certain Rotciv Aron, apparently a folk singer we never heard of. There was a drive to sell tickets to friends and family, and watch him perform in the covered hall made possible by removing the partitions of adjoining classrooms. On the day of the concert, Mr. Aron, in shades and dressed in a denim jacket, played somewhat an original song. During his performance, the audience made a fuss about why the man showed up alone, and the advertised band was nowhere in sight.
He did not finish his song. Perhaps sensing the lack of attentiveness to his original number, Mr. Aron broke the news that on his way to the venue, he was robbed or something terrible happened. As a result, his motley crew of band members decided not to show up. At the time, we believed in him, but later on, were unanimous in concluding that he made up the story.
JS Prom: There was no more embarrassing story in high school than the Junior-Senior Prom. It was meant to help students socialize a bit more to prepare for university life or developing better interaction with other students on the campus. Most students are shy and well-behaved; with less than five, you can classify as loud and outgoing. Thus, the event, which we eagerly looked forward to attending, would be a change from the usual campus routine.
At the same time, the JS Prom was a tightly controlled event. The girls have to ensure the length of their dresses are below the knee, no drinks other than Coca-cola (yes we’re just 15 and too young to be served with alcohol), the event should start in the middle of the afternoon and by 6:30 pm we’re all at home. In general, rules set forth eventually put a damper on an otherwise exciting prospect of socialization. Yes, we had a JS prom, but it was a forgettable one, to say the least.
The Math Classes: Geometry and Trigonometry
I didn’t know I had something going when the late Mr. Ronald Picar came into the room to introduce himself as our Geometry teacher nor sir Trix Olandria teaching us Trigonometry. Before that, Math wasn’t my favorite subject. I had none. The previous year’s offering was Algebra under Mr. Felix Reconalla, Jr., which brought my nervousness into another level that I suffered diarrhea in one of his exams and had to leave the examination room sooner.
But soon as Sir Picar, who also doubles as our CAT commandant, introduced the concept of points, segments, and postulates, I was in the zone. Never had I imagined mathematics (at least this branch of mathematics) was so simple until I tackled that “honor problem” featured in the textbook, nailed it, and believed I impressed him in the process. His stern approach intimidated many of my classmates, but when I see him eye to eye, it was as though I was asking for more challenging exercises. His clear handwriting also made it easier for me to emulate his pattern of teaching.
Trigonometry was a different beast to tame. Sir Olandria’s approach was more systematic, but at a faster pace than many of us in the classroom could follow. I was also challenged by how he utilized the blackboard and remembered moving from my seat to the back row to follow his formula and examples while avoiding the sun’s glare. But his class genuinely put to life the high level of regard and impression I had with the subject with a name that sounds frightening to those unfamiliar to it. Too bad, he left HCM middle of the school year to teach a newly-established state university in Davao Oriental.
Six years later, I found myself teaching Differential Calculus to Computer Science students at the University of the Immaculate Conception. Sir Picar and Sir Olandria’s ownership of everyone’s attention in the class has inspired me to emulate such an approach.
My First Taste of Journalism
I have often wanted to read newspapers while I tended to my father’s store at Mintal public market. I did not have formal training (as you can see, I am a blogger, not a journalist), but the passion for writing was, I guess, already in the DNA. Wouldn’t it be cool if I read a newspaper with my by-line on it? I asked myself. But it was Mrs Nora Roque who made it possible, with the backing of the PM sisters to bankroll the initiative.
At first, I was frustrated because HCM did not join that year’s secondary school press conference, which featured young writers within the city. But there was no use crying over spilled milk, so I moved on and got to work to gather the team and start writing articles that included the failed kidnapping of a sophomore from Tagakpan, the program for Mother Rivier, and Nutrition Month celebrations. In the end, it was published just before Christmas. In hindsight, I wish we published more of evergreen content than news articles to make the paper more relevant. But smelling the freshly released copy of the only The Crossroads issue we published that year was so fulfilling.
That experience at HCM as Editor-in-Chief of The Crossroads was the genesis of my interest in writing and led to greater responsibilities.
The Resilience to Learn
In the second month of my freshman year, my grandma died, and it prompted us to move to a new, unfinished home. It didn’t have running water that we had to go to a neighbor to shower before school. It didn’t have electricity, so I had to spend time at my best friend’s house to do homework. When I am back at home, my siblings and I used a borrowed gas lamp to illuminate our notes, inhaling soot, and toxic gas in the process. The smoke and toxic gas did not discourage me from forgoing my homework and copying notes from classmates the next morning; they were the metaphorical fuel that motivated me.
Thankfully, in my senior year, our house had electricity, and making homework and projects was a lot easier. But I still missed writing notes besides just a gas lamp, while listening to an evening commentary at DXMF on a battery-powered transistor radio.
As I grow older, the once vivid memories of high school begin to fade. So by revisiting these events in this blog, it won’t be hard for me, or my contemporaries, to make that short trip to memory lane and remember the simple life we had in high school when we are in our 60s or beyond if God wills it.