“Bats, tinawagan ako ng Student Affairs. Mag-submit lang daw ako ng requirements.”
“Ha? Bakit ako hindi tinawagan? Paano nangyari ‘yun?”
I was talking to A, my classmate in the INTARMED program. It was the first month of our first semester and we were on our way home. From UP Manila, we took the same bus, his stop 30 minutes before mine (or 60 minutes during Friday night rush hour). Also a class valedictorian and Oblation scholar, he would become my roommate and best friend in medical school.
Some days he would bring his car to school. During these times I would hitch a ride and he would drop me off where our routes home diverged. Sayang din ang sampung pisong tipid sa pamasahe.
When he told me that Student Affairs was offering him another scholarship on top of Oblation, both of us were puzzled why I did not receive a similar call. His annual family income was higher than mine, he had a car, and his two siblings were both studying in the same posh high school where he graduated. I needed financial assistance much more than he.
“‘Tsaka mas maganda ‘to sa Oblation kasi puwede hanggang clerkship libre ang tuition. Tapos 2.5 lang ang maintaining grade. Hehe.”
The Oblation scholarship is awarded to the top 50 UPCAT examinees each year. In my time, the scholarship provided free tuition and miscellaneous fees, a monthly stipend of 2,500 pesos, and a semestral book allowance of 2,250 pesos. However, it only covered the first four years of the seven-year INTARMED curriculum, and the recipient would have to get a general weighted average of 2.0 or better each semester to maintain the scholarship.
“Tumawag ka kaya sa Student Affairs?” he suggested.
“Sige, sino ba hahanapin ko?”
He gave me the contact details of the person in charge of the scholarship, before we resumed what would eventually become a ritual exchange of life stories interspersed with challenging each other’s answer to exam questions, in an effort to pass time while we both stood in the bus aisle, holding on to the rails, silently cursing Manila traffic.
I called Student Affairs the next day and was told that they might have overlooked my name and would consider my application.
A week later, I received a return call: my second scholarship was approved, I just needed to submit my father’s most recent income tax return form. This scholarship would subsidize my tuition till I finished medicine in UP, and from it, I received an additional stipend of 1,200 pesos monthly.
IT WAS ENROLLMENT PERIOD for my second year in INTARMED. Late enrollment period, to be more precise. That way, I avoided the long queues for a minimal 50-peso penalty.
A beaming Miss L greeted me when I went to her office at Student Records to get my transcript.
“Uy Ronnie! Congrats! Ang galing-galing mo talaga!”
She handed me my transcript and delivered the good news: I obtained the highest general weighted average among all first year students. I would receive a certificate during the UP College of Medicine opening ceremonies, and with it, a check amounting to 10,000 pesos.
“Naku Ma’am, thank you po!”
She would congratulate me again for achieving the same feat in the succeeding year, and would be the first person to find out, ecstatically, that I made it to the cum laude cut off for the degree in Doctor of Medicine.
Miss L is no longer a clerk at Student Records, only because she is now the college’s administrative officer. Last time I went to get something at UP College of Medicine, I made it a point to drop by her office for some casual conversation, to update her on what has happened since I graduated, and also to remind her how she had always been kind to me from the start.
WHEN I WAS A FIRST YEAR MEDICAL STUDENT, I stayed in an apartment owned by Mrs. J, a loud woman who shouted at her maids too often, too early in the morning that I almost never needed an alarm clock to wake me up daily. I would rent bed space in her compound for only a year, before finding a cheaper and quieter place to live in with three of my classmates.
I would always be grateful to Mrs. J for one thing, however.
“‘Di ba magaling ka sa math?” she said in a text message one night.
During her sales talk when I was looking for a place to stay in, she kept asking probing questions. I think I might have mentioned winning regional math competitions in high school. I also told her, intentionally this time, that my family had been having financial difficulties of late because all five children were in school; she was kind enough to lower the rent from 3,000 to 2,750 pesos per month.
“Opo,” I replied to her message.
“Are you interested in tutoring the swimming mate of my son? Will give his mother your number.”
That was how I met Mr. and Mrs. S, and their children B1, B2, B3, and B4.
From then on, once or twice weekly, after a day’s worth of lectures and laboratory work, I would walk four blocks and cross Taft Avenue to knock on the steel doors of the Chinese family’s home. I would wear the simplest pambahay and bring nothing but my keys and Nokia 3310 so as not to attract hold-uppers on my way to their place and back.
At a starting rate of 200 pesos per hour, I gave B1 extra lessons in high school math. We would spend at least an hour, at most two, on his study table either to review topics he failed to understand in class, or to discuss future topics which he’d have to review on his own for the periodic exam because my schedule could not accommodate his tutorial.
“Kumain ka na ba? Sabihin mo ang totoo!” his father would always ask in the most intimidating of voices when I arrive for B1’s lessons.
Of course I never dared say no. Teaching B1 always meant having dinner with Mr. and Mrs. S and their children. So even if I spent only an hour teaching, if you compute the money I would have spent for dinner in a fastfood restaurant, sulit na sulit na. And I would have to say that they served the best home-cooked Chinese noodles with the most abundant, luscious toppings. During Mid-Autumn festival, I always brought home moon cakes, and during Chinese New Year, well, what else but tikoy.
I would teach B1 math until he finished high school, and it was but natural progression that I reviewed him for his college entrance exams. Even after 30-plus hours of going on duty in the hospital as a clerk or an intern, I would find time for his lessons. I occasionally taught B2 and B3, too (B4 being too young to even care about x and y). During summer and Christmas breaks, Mrs. S offered to pay for my bus fare to Manila and back. Eventually, she raised my fee to 250 pesos per hour.
It was a good thing that when I decided to move out of Mrs. J’s compound, the apartment my classmates and I rented until we finished medical school was just across where the S family lived.
I WAS 15 MINUTES LATE for my lunch appointment. This was unprecedented. In the last eight years, I had always been first to arrive at our designated meeting place.
Mrs. A was at the reception area when I walked into the Japanese restaurant. She put her left cheek next to mine in welcome, and I returned the gesture with a hug.
“How are you?” she said, dangling earrings on both ears and a chunky yet elegant bracelet on her wrist. Her smile exuded graceful aging.
“Mabuti naman po.”
She led me to a walled off section of the restaurant where we found Mr. A already seated, helping himself to a slice of the tuna sashimi. He stood up and extended his right hand, which I shook firmly, and then I gave a polite nod. I took the seat on his right side—as always, owing to his impaired hearing on the left ear—and Mrs. A sat across us.
“Pasensya na po, na-late ako.”
“It’s OK. We understand,” Mr. A said, “Patients first, of course.”
His calm and collected tone contrasted well with the jubilance of his wife’s. Wearing his polo barong, he would still go to his office after our lunch. At 72, he had told me many times before that he would feel weaker if he were to stop working.
“O sige na, order your food,” Mrs. A handed to me the menu, “Their gindara here is good. You should taste it.”
And like the many times before this, I scanned the menu for the most sumptuous items that I would not have otherwise ordered because of their prohibitive prices.
The elderly couple were my benefactors when I was in medical school. This was how we met:
The duration of the 2,500-peso monthly stipend from my Oblation scholarship was only till fourth year INTARMED (second year med proper), so I had to find another source of allowance from fifth year till internship. When I wrote about this financial dilemma in my old website, www.ronibats.com, an anonymous reader posted a comment:
Try to contact MC of (UP Med Class 20xx)
if you are interested in a scholarship.
I could not let the opportunity pass, so I did. MC’s mother, Mrs. C, introduced me to Mrs. A, and one afternoon in a Mediterranean diner in Makati, I met Mrs. A for the first time.
If you did not know her, she would easily fit the stereotype kontrabida mother-in-law in telenovelas. In the beginning, I was fidgety as I shared my family’s plight and my simple aspiration to become a doctor, for fear that she was scrutinizing every word for its veracity.
“So how much do you spend in a month?” she asked.
I gave her the tabulation of expenses that Mrs. C asked me to prepare beforehand. Mrs. A scanned the piece of paper before folding it and putting it in her handbag.
“Sige, our secretary will just text you, and then we’ll schedule lunch or dinner with my husband.”
She smiled. Just like that, the kontrabida mother-in-law evolved into the most tender lola.
Since then, once or twice a year, Mr. and Mrs. A and I would meet somewhere fancy, and I could eat anything I wanted as they listened to my stories about what I did, before as a medical student, and now, as a physician. That was all they asked in exchange for the 5,000-peso allowance that their secretary deposited to my account every month. They neither asked for receipts nor demanded an accounting of the money. Food, books, clothing, transportation, movies—I had absolute freedom so spend the allowance wherever I wanted.
When I took an elective course in neurosurgery in New York during clerkship, they gave me 300 US dollars for pocket money. And when I finished cum laude and third in class, my graduation gift was a check with a generous amount in it.
As hard as it may seem to believe during the most difficult of times, there is never a shortness of kindness in this world.