Author's Note:  The following essay was my official entry to the 61st Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature in 2011.

I am of the opinion that people who write scripts for those soap operas involving kids or teenagers have a decidedly romantic idea with regard to growing up.  Instead of looking at the real issues of childhood and adolescence, they tend to focus on puppy love and true friendship. 

Based on my personal experience, the first is pretty much an illusion created by a hormone-fevered mind.  The second is, alas, something elusive that is granted only to an increasingly rare few. 

I have yet to see realistic depictions of the bullying, the scheming, the evil that lurks in the minds and hearts of the young.  Those who write for these mind-numbing tele-operettas have painted their saccharine fancies over a seriously dysfunctional world where conformity is demanded and those who do not conform are treated in the worst manner possible.  Mind you, I’m not being unnecessarily grim about it because I know what it’s like: I grew up right in the middle of it.

 

The Grim Beginning

In the early and mid-1980s, it was fashionable for growing families to move from the increasingly polluted metropolis to those subdivisions that were sprouting up in the southern suburbs.  Several families in the Pandacan area made the move: Las Piñas, Parañaque, and Muntinlupa beckoned with a promise of cleaner air, safer neighborhoods, and – most important of all – space in which to grow.

Ours was one of the first to make the move.  And that, alas, was where the bulk of my childhood issues began.

Unlike the suburbs of today where there are many schools from which parents may choose where to have their children educated, the only choices in 1985 were the public schools, several small parochial schools, De La Salle-Zobel in the middle of Ayala Alabang, and Benedictine Abbey in Alabang Hills.  With all due respect to any La Sallites who may end up reading this piece, my parents chose to send me and my brother to Benedictine Abbey in the hope that we would not grow up snooty little snobs who would turn their noses up at anything and everything.  After all, some of their colleagues sent their kids to Bene, as everyone called the school, and they seemed to be good kids.

Or so these poor unfortunate parents thought!

One major oversight on the part of my parents was the fact that my brother and I were literate even before they bundled us off to school.  I learned how to read through an odd combination of Sesame Street, the monthly Reader’s Digest, comic strips in the morning paper, and unlimited access to my maternal grandfather’s voluminous library.  My kid brother, on the other hand, learned through a strong yearning to read the Holy Bible and exposure to books and magazines featuring religious art and iconography.  Throw in the fact that I spent three years at JASMS in Manila, one of the most progressive-thinking and innovative schools in the country, and one can be sure that a serious shock was had by all almost as soon as we set foot in Bene.

At age nine, the average suburban child of the mid-1980s wasn’t expected to do much except play, watch television, and do one’s homework.  A child who chose to do something different from these things almost automatically became the target of bullying – and bybullying I don’t just mean the usual tossing off of epithets.  The child who chose books over games, keeping silent over making noise, going off on one’s own instead of hanging out with everyone else became the victim of hair-pulling, stone-throwing, Lord knows what horrendous practical jokes their peers could cook up, and – in the most extreme cases – being thrown down a flight of stairs.

Between 1985 and 1993, that child was me.

I believe that the fatal words in my case were “I like to read”.  Unlike today when practically every middle-class kid can boast of his or her personal library, the kid who liked to read was shunned like a leper.  For many children at the time, reading was something you did in school.  Reading was work; it was a chore, a drudge, something unpleasant.  Any kid who liked to read for fun was considered crazy or stupid.  In my case, it did not help that I ended up needing glasses by the end of my first year at Bene.  The glasses became something along the lines of the leper’s bell, the scarlet fleur-de-lis branded on a French thief’s arm: they marked me as an undesirable, an outcast.

Any friends I had were friends in name only.  My true friends were the people I encountered between the covers of the books I read so voraciously.  I sleuthed around with both sets of Bobbsey twins, traveled with the young Laura Ingalls, went werewolf-hunting with Daniel Pinkwater’s Snarkout Boys long before fictional lupines became fashionable.  The midnight feasts and lacrosse matches at Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s were more appealing to me than the mundane contents of my lunchbox and the brutal games of dodgeball we played in PE class.   Between them, Nick Joaquin and Gilda Cordero-Fernando taught me a lot more than any of the teachers at my school through the Almanac for Manileños and numerous tomes on Philippine cuisine and culture.  I lived in my own world: a world made of words, a world where I was welcomed with open arms, a world where I knew no one would tease, where no one would throw stuff at me.

I cried in class because no one wanted me around.  I was clumsy, not – never – agile enough for their rough-and-tumble games.  By the time I was eleven or twelve, I no longer played with dolls.  I wasn’t interested in collecting whimsical bits of stationery or scheming against others the way most girls my age were.  I got rocks, crumpled wads of paper, and even stale sandwiches thrown at me whenever I passed by.  It all came to a head in sixth grade when a classmate easily twice my size and as strong as an ox kicked me down a flight of stairs – and claimed that I fell on my own despite numerous witnesses. 

The bully was the nephew of the Central Bank governor at the time: a brat who threw insults around at anyone who did not seem normal to him.  Despite weekly religious instruction and even retreats and recollections held on a regular basis, he and his friends swore like sailors, dropping f-bombs willy-nilly.  He did not terrorize smaller kids for their lunch money, as I recall, but he would destroy the toys brought by some of our classmates and laugh in their faces as they tearfully tried to put things back together.  He pushed girls around if they were in his way.  Strangely enough, neither I nor any of my peers recall if he was ever punished.  In fact, we victims were the ones who were sent to the Guidance Office.  Our parents were the ones whose attention was called, never his.  My parents were, in fact, told that I was just clumsy and that I ought to have behaved more like all the other kids – something that caused both me and my parents no end of grief and a hell of a lot of resentment the whole time I was at that school. 

I don’t know if it’s an unwritten law in suburban schools that you do not call the attention of a bully’s parents if:

  1. They were members of the school’s Board of Trustees;
  2. They gave sizeable donations to the school; or
  3. Said parents were politicians / celebrities / media figures.

So much for the Christian values and ethics the school tried to teach us!

Despite the bullying, my parents never considered transferring me to another school.  My brother, however, was a completely different matter. 

A restless little boy who could only be calmed by the Word of God and the promise of going to one of those religious exhibits that were quite popular at the time, he also lived in a world of his own.  Like me, he preferred to read – and read alone someplace quiet.  Not for him the colorful storybooks enjoyed by other kids in kindergarten: he preferred the lives of saints and books featuring the art of the Renaissance masters. 

Unfortunately, some of the kids in his class took that as a sign of oddness, of weakness.  They tried to bully the poor kid – emphasis on the word tried because my brother fought back with tooth and claw, giving as good as he got.  By some twist of fate (or the skewed minds of those pedagogues), my brother – not the brats who picked on him – was made to transfer to another school.  His class advisor took up the cudgels for him along with most of the Benedictine monks who ran the school whose hearts he’d touched with his early yet obvious vocation for the priesthood.  Unfortunately, the guidance counselors put their feet down and that was that.

Speaking of guidance counselors, I believe that most of those I had to deal with while growing up were more than a little annoying.  They did more harm than good, come to think of it.  Stranger still, I’ve met a number of people who grew up in similar – if not the same – environments who have nothing good to say about guidance counselors.  And really: how can you listen to someone who tells you “Be yourself – just be sure to act like everyone else”?!  Plus, they had a habit of meddling in the way people were bringing up their kids – they even went as far as to call my parents monsters because they believed in physical punishment.  Well, if they were monsters, could someone please tell me how – or better yetwhy – I managed to finish school while some of my classmates who came from modelfamilies got kicked out of school for being complete and utter hooligans?       

 

Trying to Fit In – and Failing Miserably at It

I thought things would be better in high school.  Of course, as with most things at the time, I was wrong.  For a whole year, I could not seem to fit in anywhere.  In grade school, I had the Library Club as a refuge.  However, in my first year in high school, I found myself adrift.  Not wanting to join the high school library club, I tried the theater group.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t really participate because rehearsals were held on campus on Saturdays – something my father wouldn’t let me do.  I tried the glee club, but both the adviser and I thought better of it because I sounded like a screech owl.  The yearning to fit in was so strong that I could not focus and I had trouble in class.  Throw in the fact that my math teacher wouldn’t let me use the shortcut formulae my mother taught me at home despite the fact that it resulted in the same answers, and my freshman year was pretty damned miserable.

It was during that same year that I first began to think of killing myself.  After all, I assumed that no one wanted me around.  I felt that my parents considered me a burden, seeing how my grades were seriously low.  Most of the kids picked on me for dressing differently: my skirt was ankle-length when theirs were knee-length; my hair was always up in a ponytail or a bun when everyone else was letting their hair down, and – the cardinal sin of my generation – I wore glasses.  Things were so bad that I stood at the balcony of our third-floor classroom, leaned over, and got ready to jump.

A couple of classmates came and pulled me away from the railing, told me it wasn’t worth it.  They said that life was worth living; that things wouldn’t always be so bad, and that things would be better as the years passed.  I didn’t want to believe them then; my mind and heart were in a dark place.  I don’t know how I got home that day; all I remember is that I woke up the next day, feeling better.  I went back to school much calmer than I’d been the day before.  I was not fine, not yet anyway, but if there was something to look forward to, I would face it as bravely as I could.  I did not know at the time – none of us knew at the time – that one of the guys who pulled me away from the balcony would be dead by his own hand less than four years later. 

I joined the school paper the following year and found an outlet for the rage seething through my veins.  I still cried from time to time when the meaner girls made cutting remarks about my wardrobe and my bookishness, but I was able to express my grief at being different now.  I could not hit anyone with my fists and pulling hair wasn’t exactly my style, but I could lash out with my words.  I learned that I could wound others without saying things aloud, that I could let more people know about my enemies’ shenanigans, I could put them to shame through my writing. 

Guidance counselors, teachers, and our tyrannical principal tried to bend, tried to break me into the same mold as everyone else.  I was told that, if I did not conform, I would amount to nothing.  I was told that I was talentless, average – things that I began to realize werenot true.  Thanks to teachers who were kind enough to mentor me during these years, I realized that being different could be an asset, that it could be an advantage for me.  I didn’t have to be another cookie-cutter cutout; I could be myself.

 

In Which an Unexpected Death Teaches a Lesson…

Up until the first two months of our senior year, my schoolmates pretty much went their usual way: picking on people who didn’t conform, devoting themselves to mundane interests, and lording it over the rest of the studentry.  Until one of the guys who pulled me from the ledge in our freshman year chose to put a bullet through his skull even as we laid another batch mate – one who recently passed away from renal failure – to rest. 

Suicide is a sordid story no matter where it happens, but more so in southern suburbia where people are supposed to be decent, church-going, well-to-do folk who would think twice before doing such a thing.  Even more so when the victim was an honor student, a multi-awarded student actor, and the guy everyone looked up to with the utmost respect.  His family was well-off and close-knit; we knew that because we were often at his house where we’d rehearse class plays and choral recitations.  He was the much-loved only son, the devoted brother.  Nothing we knew about him could answer the ubiquitous question: Why?  It would only be much, much later that we would learn that he killed himself for the very same reason I nearly jumped: no one would let him be himself.  He was such a good actor that none of us were aware of the turmoil that brewed within that tortured soul. 

The only good thing that came out of that death was the fact that people suddenly stopped being so critical of those who were different.  Personalities began popping out of nowhere.  Some people began to question the Catholic faith we’d been raised in.  Others began to realize that we would be out of high school in a few months – and that they were sorely unprepared to face life outside the suburbs, out of their comfort zones, out of everything familiar.  And there were those who tried to act as if nothing happened, as if the class didn’t lose two members in one fell swoop.  They were as mean and snarky as they always were.  But now, their insults sounded hollow and their pranks were executed in a half-hearted fashion.

By the time I finished high school in the summer of 1993, other schools had opened to meet the growing demand for quality education in Manila’s southern suburbs.  Many of these were the progressive sort where students were allowed to study at their own pace, to excel in the areas that they chose as opposed to being pressured to be perfect in every way.  Of course, by the time these schools opened, it was much too late for me as I was off to college, scarred emotionally if not physically. 

 

The Aftermath

I did not go to any of the Big Three Universities after high school.  I went to PWU to study public relations instead of the medical courses the guidance counselor suggested I take.  I became an orator, a competitive speaker who brought honor both to herself and to her school.  I wrote and edited for the school paper.  I was invited to interscholastic workshops.  I became the honor student I couldn’t be when I was younger because I was in an environment that encouraged individuality.  I could stand out and people would respect me for it. 

Around the same time, after moving to JASMS and sometime afterwards a local parochial school, my brother headed for the seminary – and, amazingly, he settled in beautifully.  My brother was ordained to the priesthood in 2006.  His kindergarten advisor was there and she was prouder than Lucifer because she was finally able to prove those guidance counselors wrong.  My brother was never a bad seed; he was a good kid who needed the right place in which to bloom.  We both prospered: the two kids whom the teachers and guidance counselors at Bene said would never succeed did very well outside its stifling confines.

But I have actually prospered because I’m different: I write and do research professionally.  I write a food blog and teach chocolate appreciation workshops at a time when most women are trying not to eat for fear of getting fat.  Why?  Because I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to write – and no scrawny anorexic is going to stop me from doing so.  I still have little love for clothes and romance novels, though the glasses have long given way to contact lenses and I do dress more stylishly than I did as a teenager.

Of course, it has not really been easy.  Years of trauma forced me to consider professional help as I grew older.  I still have bouts of near-crippling depression from time to time, those days when I feel the world is with me too much and too soon.  I still have days when I feel that people are laughing at me for being different and days when I cry from the pain that still lingers in the depths of my soul.  Alas, I discovered the hard way that many Filipino psychiatrists are no better than the guidance counselors of my childhood.  The only difference is that they charge you an arm and a leg for an hour’s one-sided conversation (you do the talking and they just sit there, nodding, like the bobble-head dolls sported by taxicab dashboards) and dope you up with drugs that will make you feel even worse than you originally felt.  I am, at least, fortunate that I have real friends who help shore me up on my bad days and a family that loves me despite the fact that they have long given up on trying to understand me.

While I do enjoy an evening out with friends, either idle chatter over mugs of chai and a few saucers of cake or a raucous evening screaming into karaoke mikes, I sometimes revert to the way I was as a kid.  I would go to my room, find a comfortable spot, curl up with a book, and let my imagination carry me away.  Carlos Zafón and Joanne Harris have replaced Laura-Lee Hope and Enid Blyton as my authors of choice, but I still like to lose myself in a world of words: running to hide a book in Barcelona or managing a chocolaterie in the alleys of Montmartre.  It’s just the way I am.  It’s just the way I’ve always been and always will be.

And I know now that no one can talk me into being otherwise.