As a student, I was the stereotypical academic achiever. “Consistent honor pupil” was how family members would invariably introduce me to acquaintances then, and how most of my former teachers would remember me now. At the end of each academic year, it was no surprise to my parents receiving a letter from my school, inviting them to bestow medals upon the eldest of their five children.
In retrospect, I realize that my motivation to excel changed over time, dictated by inevitable circumstances and molded by experiences that reminded me of the things that matter.
I was in kindergarten when I received my first gold medal. I was five years old. On the school yearbook you would see my black and white photo with the accompanying text FIRST HONOR, and interestingly, my average grade. It was a number that did not mean anything to me then, a time when I could not pinpoint a specific reason to learn animal names, living things, and multiplication tables other than a wish to go home every day with a star at the back of my hand, the stamp of approval from my preschool teacher.
In the following year, I would deliver my first graduation speech. Though I cannot remember its content, the triumphant feeling of committing it to memory and speaking before a hundred or so guests lingers. As I do remember my parents being proud of my achievement, making sure that all the ribbons I received for being “Best in (Subject)” were laminated in a wooden plaque.
Most people assume, rather incorrectly, that aspiring to be an honor student at such a young age, I must have been raised by rigid parents who imposed strict study and play times. It was in fact the contrary. My parents never put pressure on me to study, but they were always there to nurture my curious desire to learn, to explore, and to achieve. My civil engineer father would teach me how to calculate using my fingers, and I would spend countless hours learning my ABaKaDa in the dry goods store that my mother used to tend in the market.
Even as a child, I had always been acutely aware of the hard work my parents did, just to be able to send me and my other siblings to school. My father would often bring me to his construction sites, where I would build my own structures with scrap pieces of wood and plastic while he did manual work. On the other hand, my mother would take me to Divisoria where she bought items that could be retailed in her store. It was always a delight exploring a maze lined by towering piles of notebooks, with the scent of wooden pencils and brand new crayons hanging in the air. Suffice to say, it was witnessing my parents’ diligence at work and dedication to our family that started my own pursuit for excellence.
The deliberate effort to stay on top of my class began in grade school. I became competitive, to the point of being grade-conscious. I would not settle for anything less than a gold medal. I must admit that a big part of it was the self-serving desire to be number one, simply because it felt good to be highest and the best.
But more than personal recognition was the realization that a medal at the end of the year was the best way to show gratitude to my father and my mother. Flanked by my parents beaming with pride, my mother holding my left hand and my father’s hand on my right shoulder as we come up the stage, year after year—I have vivid memories of graduation and recognition ceremonies, in the same way others fondly remember birthday celebrations or past Christmases.
It was not all successes though. I was bound to fail at some point, and I did. When I did not pass the second screening exam of Philippine Science High School, I was disheartened. It was my mother who showed me the rejection letter, having kept it for days so that the news would not ruin my graduation from elementary school. She told me not to worry, we would try to find a good school for me. My failures never did disappoint my parents. “Hayaan mo na ‘yun anak,” they would say, and that was how I learned to be resilient.
I strived even harder in high school: from a class of 40 students in elementary, I now belonged to a class of over 400. On top of that, I needed to maintain my class rank so that my parents would not have to pay tuition. I met teachers who believed in my potential when I doubted myself, who recognized my desire to learn, and who devoted personal time to train me for interschool competitions in mathematics, science, public speaking, and journalism.
Eventually, all hard work paid off when I was accepted into medical school, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It was also the turning point in my education. Medical school was the time when I reexamined why I studied the way I did. No sooner did I realize that in the face of patients wavering between life and death, awards and medals hardly mattered. I still pushed myself beyond limits, but I was no longer trying to excel just so I could get the highest score or add to my achievements. I was working hard to be someone better, so that as a doctor, I would be able to give the best possible care to my future patients.
After 26 years spent studying in school and training in a hospital, I am now a neurosurgeon and a teacher. It was certainly not effortless, entailing substantial discipline and sacrifice. Was it worth it? I would say yes. As a doctor, I am given the opportunity to cure diseases, heal patients, and comfort families. As a teacher, I am able to share my knowledge and experiences, and perhaps even inspire others. It has not been an easy path, but I am grateful this is where it leads: with what I know and what I continue to learn, I am able to serve others.
On several occasions, I have been asked to speak to young students to give advice on achieving one’s goals. Always, I would only say these: do your best and stay honest. The first one ensures that you will not regret the choices that you make, and the second one, that you deserve all the success that comes your way.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I was requested to write this essay for the 15 November 2015 edition of Manila Bulletin’s Panorama magazine. To my disappointment, the editor heavily revised the submission and had sent the edited article to the printers before I was able to review the changes. This version is my preferred text and retains much more of the original’s style and content.