Sunday, June 07, 2015

Ties that bind


My June 7, 2015 column.
I was asked to come home to our hometown in Leyte last month as keynote speaker of the annual alumni homecoming of my high school. My classmates and I did gather to celebrate our 20th anniversary some years back, but I have never attended the grand homecoming event of the whole school so I thought it was a good time as any to come home and experience what many have sworn as an occasion worth coming back to annually. 
I think many will agree with me that high school was when the happiest times of our lives happened. I spent mine at a school called the Abuyog Academy, which was some kind of a family tradition. My mother and her siblings, and my siblings and my cousins all went there and so did the siblings and cousins of one’s classmates. The school didn’t have state-of-the-art facilities but what it lacked in physical resources, it more than made up for with good old-fashioned character building. We cleaned classrooms for homeroom sessions, attended carpentry and gardening for practical arts, and made Christmas lanterns from scratch for the annual lantern parade. We did drills under the scorching heat of the sun and pulled grass around the town’s public areas as community service.  There were distinct advantages of attending a small town high school – we walked to school and went home for lunch, school activities such as the JS Prom and the CAT Tactical Inspection were town events, and everyone looked out for each other. The downside was that the school’s scouts and CAT cadets got commissioned to do most civic tasks – from guard duties at town fairs, to parade marshal, to carrying religious images during religious processions. And as can be expected, everyone gossiped about everyone else.
I naturally had some expectations of the grand reunion, shaped by photos of previous years’ reunions. I came prepared for the feasting and the drinking and the dancing, which basically meant loading up on anti-cholesterol and maintenance medicines. What I wasn’t prepared for were the intermittent shrieks (“Is that you?” “That cannot be you!”), the non-stop hugging, and the endless retelling of decades-old capers. Back in high school, I was the class nerd so it was my mission to make uncooperative and difficult teachers squirm by peppering them with questions that were almost impossible to answer; my class held the record of having made the most number of teachers cry. We were kids then. During my speech last month, I took extra pains to apologize publicly to the concerned teachers, albeit belatedly, and they got back at me by pinching me in the ears and thighs the way authority figures disciplined erring kids in the seventies and eighties, and I guess all was forgiven. 
It had been almost 40 years since we graduated from high school and the toll that the decades have made on our appearances, if not our memories, was difficult to hide, notwithstanding Vicky Belo and the supposed advances in aesthetic medicine. What I did learn though was that as soon as we got to put faces and names together, all identification features became easily recognizable. No amount of time could erase the distinct way in which someone brayed, or squinted his eyes, or covered her mouth as she laughed. By midnight, we were all seeing each other as we were almost forty years ago; and even tried to behave as we did - gout, hypertension, beer bellies, and vertigo be damned. 
And because we had such a lot of fun and probably because we were thinking like irresponsible high school kids, we all decided to extend the reunion the following day at the town’s riverside resort. It turns out everyone else had the same idea so the whole setup looked exactly like a repeat of the previous day’s affair, less the stuffy speeches and the coordinated getups. It was just a matter of time before people started clowning around and dunking fully clothed classmates into the pools. 
Of course we also had serious conversations about where life has taken each one of us and made plans to do more meaningful ways of giving back to the school and the community.  We all swore to come back next year, and yes, in keeping with the Filipino tradition of one-upmanship, made a vow to have better t-shirts and more gimmicks than the other batches. 

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