Thank you, Ms. Chavez

I was an honor student from kindergarten to high school. I mention that not to brag about what once was, but to make you understand where I am coming from as I share this little back story with you.

Mommy wanted us to be very studious, mainly because she says she was not. Lolo Julio passed on so early and Lola Carmen singlehandedly raised eight children by selling jewelry. As such she had her hands full, traveling all over but mostly to Manila where the bulk of her clients were. She had no time to be strict about her children’s schooling, allowing them to just cruise easily until they finished. What mattered to her more was that they knew how to really pray, all eight of them, and very well at that. But that is another story unto itself. I will tell you about it some other time because it is worth sharing.

For now, let me tell you about what they were not. Apparently that was a regret, as far as Mommy was concerned, and considering how tolerant she was of all of us when it came to most everything else — allowing us to always have pretty new dresses made, buying us the dolls and all the books we wanted, smiling along as we turned over tables and chairs so they could be “hills” à la the ones in The Sound of Music — two things were non-negotiable; prayer time and very good grades. My sister and I had to consistently have both. Merging what she was and what she could have been as a school girl, Mommy would really spend time with us daily, going through assignments and lessons. For our part, because we were oriented to it very early on, we thought being on the honor roll fell into the natural order of things. We worked very diligently at it. I graduated from elementary and high school with honors and special awards, while my sister was Valedictorian on both the primary and secondary levels. She, too, had plenty of those special awards.

When the reality of college dawned on us we asked, on a whim, our parents’ permission to just relax a bit in terms of academics. We would be good students still, we said, but maybe we did not necessarily have to be on any list highlighting academic excellence? They agreed, uncomplicated people that they are, and that was that. Looking back, why we even asked for that indulgence I do not know. Like my own mother, there is a part of me that regrets that, be it ever so fleetingly.

No different from any student, my biggest concerns then were to do well enough in the exams, submit projects on time, earn a degree and make my parents proud. Like some of us, I, too, suffered the dilemma of whether to shift courses or stay in the course I was already enrolled in. To begin with, and this is in no way meant to undermine the business management course I took and finished, my dream course was more leaning toward the arts. I wanted to take up interior design (which was unfortunately not offered on campus) and my second choice was fine arts (something my dad was not exactly very enthusiastic about because it did not seem like a “real” course). I disagreed then, I still disagree now, but I was an obedient child and business management did seem more than just good enough as a course. In fact, it seemed like the most logical choice. So that was that. I flung myself into a course that I loved at some points and feared at others. It is very easy for me to admit I was not very enthusiastic about numbers so my math subjects were classes I did not exactly look forward to, much less excel at.

But, oh, the freedom. College made me feel so grown up, even if in a very uncertain sort of way. It was really the age of discovery and fun and cutting classes was not even a crime because some of our professors at the University of the Philippines did not require impeccable attendance for as long as we passed exams and submitted assignments and papers on time. It was nice to exist, for a change, in a space that was not so structured, coming especially from a life in the province that was cosseted as most others go. It felt so cool and adult to be given that much free will at our disposal. Another thing: my sister and I lived with Lola Carmen then in Cebu, she of the original “a-reationship/friendship-with-God-is-more-important-than-high-grades” school. Plus we had a duo of very funny, very naughty cousins, J and J, who made life so fun. We did everything together and we did not necessarily have to go out because just the four of us, in the big house on a hill, together with the wonderful crazy bunch that my mom’s siblings are, it was happy in Martinez Compound day in and day out.

The good news (for me at least) was, I did hit them — good grades, I mean — in the subjects I enjoyed. I mention that because that was the first major insight I had about myself during those my tender college years. I remember how my thesis, in particular, intimidated me. I waited till the 11th hour to submit it to Ms. Gretchen Chavez, who was brilliant and exacting and had very high standards. It was a feasibility study and we could pick what it would be on. I was pressured, because all my other classmates chose very “legitimate” and sophisticated case studies — businesses that could very well bloom into empires if paper actually translated into reality. I tried to come up with something along those lines also, maybe there was a bit of peer pressure right there, but for the life of me I could not grab anything from the air that I thought would not only impress Ms. Chavez and merit good grades but one that I could also sustain with interest on my part. I knew the latter was imperative if I were to actually stand by it. So pressed for time and at a loss I decided to just stay true to myself. It was in bed, while waiting for sleep to find me, that I decided to choose something I really would do if I were asked to in real life then. I chose a wedding coordinating business as my feasibility study, and my first installment of what was to be a series was all of three, maybe at most five, very short pages, measly if compared to the thick volumes my classmates submitted. I did it all in haste, writing all points from the heart. I allowed myself to surrender and be guided by what interested me. It was an overview that practically just wrote itself.

Not expecting much, I was beside myself with excitement when my paper came back with a very high mark, one of the highest in class. I still remember how the handwritten mark looked on the white sheet of paper filled with typewritten words. It jumped out to me, hugged me, congratulating me warmly all the way to my toes. I could not believe my eyes. All of a sudden, a breakthrough, a chance to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself and was lounging in! That day, I walked in a cloud of hope. I went home that night empowered and inspired to do my best all throughout the next installments of the feasibility study. The best part was I actually had fun doing it. I looked forward to all the research it involved, the data interpretation, the marketing aspect of it. Oh, how I loved the latter. I did so well in that particular class, that particular paper, and I was back on track. Thank you, Ms. Chavez. Your affirmation mattered more to me than you will ever know. Even if I was okay with the idea of just cruising along until I finished, I could not just push aside the truth that with that validation from you, something had shifted. If inspired, I actually had the propensity to do really well. I have news for you. We all can. That trait is not exclusive to me. I now know for sure that if you like something well enough, you can be good at it.

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