When I was a Grade 6 pupil, I cried over my first periodic exam in English. Periodic, my English teacher then would always stress — not periodical, as we were wont to say before he came to our small private school. Sir E’s instructions on the exam were clear: we were supposed to read the given passage and answer the subsequent questions in complete sentences, based on what we read. I did not follow the instructions.
Instead of getting answers verbatim from the three paragraphs on the importance of reading, I pulled out answers from eight years’ worth of browsing encyclopedias and watching Batibot.
Sir E called my attention after checking our test papers. He told me the bad news: I got a zero on that part of the test.
“What happened to you? That’s where most of your classmates got all the questions correct.”
“Hindi ko po alam sir.”
I couldn’t look up. I knew he was staring down at me, with eyes that had perpetual dark circles around them, always making him look tired and angry and inebriated.
Any other exam and any other quarter, my getting a zero on a sub-test would not have mattered. Except that year, our school principal changed the rules for receiving honors. To be awarded a gold medal for being an Outstanding Student, one should not have a grade lower than 89 in any subject, in any quarter. When Sir E computed my grade, it was 88.25.
That afternoon, my class adviser found me staring outside our classroom window, tears streaming down my cheek, wondering about the gold medal I wouldn’t get to wear around my neck, the valedictory speech I would never get to write, and mostly about the disappointment I would give my parents. I was inconsolable.
Being privy to my academic record, Sir E approached me a second time with a plan. He would give me additional points so that I could make the 89 cutoff, but he would have to talk to S, my long-term rival for being Rank 1, and she would have to agree to “giving me a chance” because I was too careless that I failed to comprehend simple instructions, on a test that was supposed to test our skills in reading comprehension! Thank goodness, S readily agreed, without too much haggling on my part. The agreement was sealed on a half-sheet paper that Sir E later put on my adviser’s desk; I couldn’t have affixed my signature any faster, relieved that I was still on the race for number one.
Looking back, I realized two things: First, I was a melodramatic, grade-conscious nerd even then. Second, that was the day when I felt, more than ever, I was not good enough for Sir E. I would become the Most Outstanding student of my graduating elementary class, but I would always feel indebted to Sir Eric and his special consideration.
When Sir E first introduced himself as our would-be English teacher in Grade 5, he promised to change the way we learned the language. He thought that our grammar was sloppy and that our knowledge in literature was limited to the happy-ending stories in our textbook. He said he would teach us second year high school English, an ambitious goal given our class of 30 pupils, with intelligence spanning the entire bell curve.
Although the unkempt hair and the disheveled polo did not fit the profile (My mother once referred to him as “Yung teacher na mukhang drug addict.”), he was the first person I considered a genius. He recited poems and sonnets from memory. He could play the piano and the guitar. He trained the school choir. He came to class emptyhanded — no textbook, no lesson plan — because he did not follow the prescribed curriculum anyway. And the days when he did not feel like teaching, he declared as lull day, allowing us to do anything we wanted. I looked up to Sir E and I wanted to be as intelligent as he.
But I never met his expectations. He would criticize my essays for my run-on sentences and overuse of the word “already.” While my classmates easily got 95s and 98s, I struggled to receive my lone 90% from him. I would have high hopes each time I submitted my written work, only to end up disappointed for failing to meet his standards. When he attempted to come up with a school play, he wouldn’t give me the role of Mark Antony, assigning to me Julius Caesar instead. I spent long hours memorizing and reciting Annabel Lee, Charge of the Light Brigade, and O Captain, My Captain, but somebody always delivered them better, more forcefully or with more emotion than I did.
At a young age, this constant feeling of inadequacy motivated me to read more, study my lessons harder, and push myself to the limits. Such that even after transferring to another school, I would strive to achieve bigger, greater things because to I wanted to prove him wrong.
After graduation, I lost touch with Sir E. My classmates said he moved to another school and eventually stopped teaching. In high school, I tried to get his contact details to no avail. I wanted to tell him how my present teachers were greatly impressed by my adept use of the language he taught — I wrote with ease and spoke with confidence, I could even diagram a sentence! But mostly, I wanted to brag about how I won contests inside and outside school, earning medals and trophies in essay writing, news writing, and extemporaneous speaking in regional and national levels.
When a classmate gave me Sir E’s telephone number six years later, that’s exactly what I did. It was during the heydays of my semi-monthly Peyups.com column, and I told him about that, too.
“Kailan ka ba libre, Sir? Magkita naman tayo.”
“Sure. Give me your phone number and I’d call you.”
He never did. I entered Med school and rearranged my priorities, relegating writing to the side, forgetting about the promise made by a teacher who didn’t think I could write well.
The next news I would hear about him was that of his wife finding him dead, lying face down in their provincial residence. He died alone. He had been dead for more than 48 hours before he was discovered. There was no foul play and he did not commit suicide. He just died. During his wake, I would later find out that he had been suffering from cancer since we were in grade school. That explained his absences and the days he declared ‘lull day.’
Some days, I wonder what he would say if he found out that the Grade 6 pupil who cried over his periodic exam is now four years short of becoming a neurosurgeon. When he did not believe in me, I learned to overcome doubt and assert what I could do, often surprising myself and others with the outcome. To him, I owe that.
Unlike Mitch Albom who had his Tuesdays, I never got the chance to express my gratitude to Sir E.
Lest I forget, thank you, Sir.