Thursday, June 25, 2009

Father's Day

This was my column yesterday. 

Last Sunday was Father’s Day. It was difficult to ignore the supposed significance of the day because as can be expected, people who were poised to profit by turning the day into a commercial event went to town with all kinds of not-so-subtle reminders for everyone to spend money in order to make his father happy. There’s something seriously wrong with the premise, but what can we do? There is a price tag attached to everything nowadays.

Most of the popular restaurants and fast-food chains had various promotions designed to entice people to celebrate Father’s Day by spending money in their restaurants. Malls, bookstores, specialty shops all had the same idea. Even cable television networks adjusted their programming to show movies about fathers and their relationships with their children. Why do movies about father-son relationships (think Dad or Frequency) tend to be more melodramatic than movies about mother-daughters (think Terms of Endearment or Postcards from the Edge) ?

A friend who was persuaded by his kids to celebrate the day with dinner at a posh restaurant Sunday evening couldn’t help but remind everyone at the table— jokingly, of course—that even if his wife and kids were paying for the dinner with their allowances, it was still money coming out of his own pocket. When my own kids suggested that we have dinner out, I also told them pretty much the same thing. I was sure they would have found a way to charge the expense to me eventually in some form or another.

Which is not to say that I didn’t or do not appreciate the celebration of Father’s Day. I am still a little unsure about the wisdom of setting aside just one special day to honor certain people in our lives especially if it means forgetting about them for the rest of the year. But then again, at least we get one day out of 365. Now that I am older, I have learned to appreciate the little things.

It has been said that the families that we are born to are special because, well, they are family. But the families that we choose to belong to, the people we freely elect to become part of our lives through friendships and other bonds are probably just as special, perhaps even more so.

Thus, of the many greetings that I received last Sunday, the ones that held more profound meaning for me were the ones from people who have taken to calling me “dad” not out of obligation but out of genuine respect and affection. These were a number of former students who have remained close friends to this day; kids who listened more attentively in class than the rest and therefore were more appreciative not only of the lessons imparted inside the classroom but also of the effort that went into the preparation of lessons.

These were kids who saw their professors not just as teachers but as mentors, not just as facilitators of learning but as sources of wisdom as well. These were kids who saw their professors not just as elders inside a classroom but as some sort of a parental figure they could look up to.

I am proud to have known quite a number of these students. Many of them proudly referred to themselves as my groupies, but eventually settled into considering themselves “anak sa labas” (illegitimate children). They were students who made me an important part of their lives by trusting me with their confusions, their doubts, their plans and aspirations. Needless to say, many of these students would eventually invite me to stand as sponsors in their weddings or in the baptism of their children.

Being a teacher is most often a thankless job. Thus, one of the greatest satisfaction a teacher can get is when students become receptive and responsive not just to the learning process, but to professors as individuals as well. It always gives me a thrill as a professor when students’ eyes light up during a lecture signaling comprehension of a difficult concept. But it gives me more happiness when students begin to linger after class for counseling, to see advice on career options, or even just to talk or pursue a discussion started in class.

Maybe it is as much an indication of my own maturity process (I’ve probably become more paternal now both in outlook and in my physical appearance) but I have noticed the growing number of students who seem in search of parental figures in their lives. They perform better when they are given special attention in class. I’ve come across a number of students whose performance in class improved dramatically after being given counseling after class. In short, I have noted that many students respond better when professors assume the role of a “parent” inside a classroom.

Another professor in the school where I teach in the evenings validated my observations. We hypothesized that this was probably on account of the fact that many of our students have absentee parents. I did a quick check in my classes and realized that indeed, almost half of my students had one or two parents who were overseas Filipino workers. It is difficult to make generalizations, but it seems that we are really seeing a generation of kids who hunger for some kind of parenting and they are searching for it somewhere else—perhaps in classrooms, perhaps in the company of friends and peers.

If we come to think about it, that’s probably another explanation for the sudden popularity of family occasions such as Father’s Day. It seems there really is a need to allot a special day to remind everyone of the special role fathers play in the lives of their children even if they are not physically present.

As I prepared to go to sleep Sunday evening, I thought about the real significance of occasions like Father’s Day. I guess in the end it’s really about being grateful.

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