HAVE YOU ever been made to stand in class for the rest of the period because you were unable to answer a question or gave the wrong one?
“What is the matter?” Prof. X asked. Nobody wanted to answer. Our room, which only a few minutes ago was filled with laughter and stories about Anime, NBA and our classmate’s latest smartphone, turned silent, again, just like yesterday, or last week, or even last term. We were thrilled, in a bad way. We were too scared to make a mistake, or to even try.
She looked at me and said: “Mr. Zenarosa, do you know the answer?” Having a surname that starts with the last letter of the alphabet has some advantages. You are called last in a system where “Abel,” “Almeda,” and “Asuncion” are always at the front line. And yes, Abel stood longer than I did. Again. Everyone was standing, just like when Eraserheads or Bamboo or Adele is on stage, having the time of their lives in a concert. And we? We, too—35 young minds—were having the time of our lives, at the worst.
Have you ever wondered why this is? When one experiences a humiliating situation, will it make one question oneself, pretend that one is a superhero, and ultimately change in a blink with an imaginary cape? Isn’t the classroom supposed to be a venue for free thinking, for an exchange of ideas with a teacher, who, after having obtained a doctorate, should know more than anybody else that fear does not always result in learning or knowledge or the evolution of ideas?
Ken Robinson said in a TED talk: “I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. There’s something curious about professors … not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads. They live ‘up there,’ and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.”
When I heard this, the image of Prof. X popped into my head, and one other. They walk with so much civility. Their minds and their understanding seem way beyond normal, so that the public—in this case, we, their students—cannot even chat with them during break times or when we bump into them in the hallway. They should be respected, no doubt. But is this the best we can have?
Isn’t it true that there are some main actors in our education system who engage in practices that kill not just the creativity but also the drive and the spirit of some of their students? Our lives are altered, our outlook changed, and in the end, some of us give up, thinking that we are not good enough. Some of us are shouted at for not finding the “x” and “y” or slope in a math problem in front of everyone else, with a piece of chalk, or a white board marker, in our hands, trembling—the longest minutes of our lives. We feel inferior in an instant. We start to believe that we can go nowhere, even if, in some areas of our lives, we are succeeding.
And the other one?
I was bullied in high school. But it was not your conventional bullying, which is student to student; it was teacher to student. The topic was atoms. The teacher asked: “How many holes … does this sponge have?” She then looked at me from head to toe and told me to rise. “In your case, how many holes does your face have?” she said. Being born to a family that seems to have so much regard for the propagation and safekeeping of pimples from one generation to the next, I looked down.
Last row. Right wing. Seat 45. For a boy whose surname starts with the last letter of the alphabet, and who was made to stand, again—this time, the first one—to answer a question that had no relation in any sense to the topic, it was infuriating.
She laughed. Very hard.
Ten seconds. I was crying. I wanted to teleport from where I was sitting to my bedroom. To hug my favorite pillow. To hide. To forget.
Fifteen seconds. Everybody was laughing. I had an out-of-the-body experience for the nth time.
After an hour, everybody settled down for their lunch break.
I was still at Seat 45. And with all the courage that I could muster from my thin, young, ashamed self, I chose not to leave.
Looking back, did those episodes really make me stronger?
We grew up in a culture that views such episodes as normal. That a kid in every other block should somehow experience these things. That he or she is weak and that someday, he or she will be thankful for the “challenge” put to him or her. That bullying, in different levels, is a part of growth. But is it?
Some of us are good at painting, photography, or the other arts. Some of us are sent outside the four corners of our schools for writing, public speaking, or athletics competitions. We gain confidence for every success story. We are this country’s future.
But some of us are silently keeping our pain inside. We are becoming casualties, in certain ways, of the mentors our parents want us to meet in learning institutions.
We are a people with much regard for hard work. We know from childhood that we cannot reap what we did not plant. But I was wrong to apply this principle in those situations. I was not supposed to experience those terrible moments. Nobody is. I was discriminated against and was wronged. We were made to stand for more than an hour inside or outside the classroom, supposedly for us to work harder, to give us more time, so that next time, our mouths will be a fountain of beautiful answers. She wanted us to realize something.
And do you wonder why I still remember those details? It’s because I got hurt. And just like the other faces of hurt that this world can offer, those experiences will never be forgotten or deleted as old, ugly files in my personal awareness.
I chose to improve. The education system and the way things are done can flourish over time. But we have to rethink how students should be treated in any classroom, whether they have the answer or not. We can do better than shouting at them or bullying them.
And at any rate, your brain dictated “Matter is anything that has mass and weight” as the answer to Prof. X’s tricky question. Be ready to pack your things, confidently stand for an hour, inside or outside the classroom, with a heart.
(This piece has been published in Youngblood, Opinion, Philippine Daily Inquirer on the 4th of February, 2016.)