What is wrong with me?

Have you ever felt rejected because the thing you were good at was not valued, or worse – stigmatized?

“You’re related to Mrs. J, the Mathematics Division Coordinator, right?” my high school teacher asked. “Why can’t you answer the quadratic equation on the board? You are just good at public speaking.”

I stood for 1 minute. No, 2 minutes and 30 seconds. There was chaos inside me. I blamed myself. I felt small. Helpless. Someone raised his hand. Our math wizard. Her favorite. The superior being in a class of forty young and hopeful souls. I got everyone’s attention. And then I asked myself: “What is wrong with me?”

I knew it was coming. It also occurred to my classmate who had represented our district for creative story telling contest. A few weeks before, one of my classmates, who’s known as the best school paper writer, has been humiliated for getting the lowest score in our Algebra quiz. And the day before, another one, who has an inclination for the arts, overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, and inner turmoil cried in front of everyone else after being shouted at for failing to provide the solution to a word problem in Physics. Do these resonate with you?

We celebrate the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) geniuses in schools like gods in the heavens. We regard their achievements as more valuable than that of chess players, the athletes, the dancers, and the theater actors in our midst. We see excellence in creativity, sports, and arts to be inferior flashes of intelligence because they do not have comparable economic worth as dictated by capitalism and industrialism. But, is it sustainable?

Isn’t it true that most of the existing public education systems in the world have a hierarchy of subjects?

Creativity expert, educator, and author Ken Robinson said in his 2006 TED Talk: “But something strikes you when you move to America and travel around the world: Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. You’d think it would be otherwise, but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on Earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics.”

We have been introduced to an education system that embraces linearity, conformity, and batching. We have been told that whenever there’s a problem, there are choices to choose from; be it A, B, C, D, or sometimes E. We learned that there’s only one correct answer for every question. And so, just like machines, some of us became stiff, immovable, and unable to go beyond the grasp of their imagination.

It has been said that kids are born scientists and artists. We were curious, weren’t we? We were explorers of our world and in return, we discovered how to use our senses to have a better understanding of what’s going on around us. We learn. We commit mistakes. But as we grew older, we became more and more afraid to try something new and be deemed wrong. Some of our peers’ dreams have been crashed by some adults and educators in their lives – intentionally or unknowingly. They lost their creative capacity in the process. Some of our teachers, relatives and friends told to us to blend in because that’s what everyone has been doing. As a result, they suppress their real identity to the point that they can no longer recognize who they are.

We have seen some people around us go through their lives without having a real sense of what they are organically capable of doing. We see them endure their jobs rather than enjoy them. We became witnesses of some people from different generations posting sarcastic “Happy weekend!” with emojis and smileys as if they have become slaves during the workweek. If you’re passionate about your work, shouldn’t you feel misery instead of cheerfully declaring that you’re at last free to spend your well-deserved weekend? Isn’t that a bold sign that you’re not doing the work that you genuinely love?

If the current education systems are concrete, sure ways for literacy and success, how come some of the biggest names today never graduated from college? Steve Jobs left school and founded Apple with Steve Wozniak. Mark Zuckerburg, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Facebook did the same thing. Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest and widely recognized philanthropists, quit school and is the man behind the software I am using right now and the million others around the globe to pound their ideas into their computers.

About a year ago, Leonardo DiCaprio spoke about how real climate change is and the need to urgently work collectively together and stop procrastinating to solve “the most urgent threat facing our entire species” in his speech after finally winning an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But, shouldn’t we also take a deeper look at the human ecology? Today, degrees do not matter that much anymore. Millions of fresh graduates are forced to spend their time not on harnessing their talents and abilities but on leveling up their characters in computer games. This simply tells us that there’s a great disconnect between what the job market needs and what the available supply has.

We have to revolutionize education to arm the coming generations for the future that they have to face and rethink existing principles that may be applicable for positive impact. We have no idea how challenging the world will look like in the years to come, but we can prepare them. We should stop treating ourselves the same way we treat machines in factories – for single purpose. We are too complex to be contained in a box.

And on the things they are good at? Let’s encourage them and be there to support them. Because it is only when they understand who they really are can they feel the comfort and security of being in their own skin and the essence of being alive. If we’ll do these, they’ll never doubt themselves and be more appreciative of the diversity and differences of human capacities. More importantly, they’ll never ask, “What is wrong with me?” but rather be more focused on the special and unique things that deeply lay in their core as key elements for human ecology to flourish.

Our talents and gifts have been stigmatized in one way or another. We should not let it happen again. For our children’s children and the generations to come.

Concert in a Classroom

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.)

Other half of rule number 1

I had set 2 rules for myself to survive the onslaught of college: rule number 1 – finish your bachelor’s degree in 4 years; do not hold any position in any student organization; rule number 2 – go back to rule number 1. That was the master plan. But, just like other stories on TV and books, mine have twists too.

Eight years ago, the senior students in my course spearheaded the founding of a new student organization in the campus named BSEE Guild (or BSEEG, Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering Guild). Its mission was to promote academic excellence and camaraderie among electrical engineering and electrical technology students in the campus. It was said that a question popped up from nowhere and they asked, “ECE has IECEP, why can’t we have our own?” With the strength of more than 200 members, the organization was founded. Naturally, our seniors, the experienced ones, held the top posts in the organization. There were more than 10 Accredited Student Organizations (ACSO) at the time in the campus, academic and non-academic, and BSEE Guild was one of them.

After a year, the officers were able to organize activities that helped furnish the loop holes and the challenges of taking care of the newbie in the campus. It was the start of the first semester for academic year 2008-2009. I was a sophomore. It was announced that the election for the next set of officers will be held a week after.

The election came. The outgoing BSEE Guild president started with, “The nomination for president is open, any nomination?” I was holding my notebook at the time in preparation for the exam the next day. I really didn’t care about the meeting. I just wanted to attend as told by our class president. And then, for some reason, while I am reviewing Newton’s Laws of Motion, falling in love once again in the concept of gravity, and smiling all by myself for the realization that my answer to the question, “What is Matter?” is wrong all along as explained earlier that day by Dr. A (our professor in Physics and Chemistry), my classmate who was sitting beside me on the floor) suddenly looked at me and said, “Ben, na-nominate ka!” (Ben, you were nominated!). I was irritated at first and asked, “Ano ba? ‘Wag mo kong guluhin! (What? Don’t distract me!). I came back to reality. Everyone was looking at me. I looked at the white board and saw my name next to the words – Nominees for President. I observed that no one’s listed other than me. I heard the crowd saying, “Unanimous na yan, siya na president natin! (It’s unanimous, he’s the new president!). I can’t believe it at first. I lifted my black bag and stood in front of them. I told them my rule number 1 – I do not want to hold any position in any organization in my stay in the campus. But still, they insisted. I saw them smiling back at me. The mood was positive. They told me that I can do it. They shouted my name as if I won a boxing match. They learned that I was an officer in high school and represented the university in an inter-campus speech competition; they thought I was the right fit. Finally, I accepted it. That afternoon, I received the congratulatory remarks of everyone. Just like what might happen to any rule, half of rule number 1 was thrown out of the window.

Things changed in a blink of an eye. My day no longer ended in my affair with Calculus but by saying goodbyes to other student leaders in the campus after attending a meeting. Sometimes, they would call me Mr. BSEEG instead of my first name. My bag no longer contained just notebooks, pens and books, inside, it also had a clear book where almost all of the important documents of the organization were kept. While my classmates were solving word problems in Strength of Materials at home, I was still in the campus, preparing a document to be submitted to the Office of Student Affairs as a permit the next day. Or while one of them is inside his room, thinking about the type of flower to give and the lines to utter when he finally ask one of my classmates for a date, I was there, staring at the heavens and chatting with the guard, waiting to talk to a professor from other university in the metro with a master’s or doctorate degree in social sciences or engineering, convincing him or her to be the next speaker for a seminar or training – for free. Most of them declined after hearing the last 2 words of the invitation. Suddenly, my opinions mattered. I found myself attending symposiums with the officials in the main campus in Manila and other universities. I also gained more friends.

Like the colors in a rainbow, there were days when l felt blue. There were days when I was frustrated and angry as yellow because things didn’t go my way. Most days, like red, I was oozing with confidence and passion that our projects would be realized.

One day, the other half of rule number 1 was in danger. My grades were not impressive. I can no longer give time to the people close to me. There were pressures all over. It was as if I was in a tank full of water and there was no way I can breathe. I wanted to resign.

I searched for advice from different people. But inspiration came from inside. I told myself that if I give up now, I will give up the future. And almost everything went well.

After a year, we successfully organized more than 20 major and minor activities, had more than 20 organizational meetings and were awarded the “2nd Most Active ACSO” in the campus. I attended more than 20 internal meetings (meaning inside the campus) mostly sponsored by the Supreme Student Council and more than 10 activities organized by local and national organizations like the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines – Alumini Community (TOSP-AC) and the Institute of Integrated Electrical Engineers – Council of Student Chapters (IIEE-CSC). I have met some personalities like the president of the university system, student leaders from other campuses and Sonia Malasarte-Roco, the wife of former Senator Raul Roco.

Looking into everything, I realized 3 important things. First, you are just a passerby. You will leave your position someday, be it chairmanship, or presidency or any other posts. You will soon graduate and a lot of people might forget about you. Make the most out of it, live in the moment and leave a positive mark. This is also true with your job. Second, relationships matter. You may be the president or an officer of an organization, but keep your eyes wide open to the micro level. Give time and appreciation to those who value you more than anyone else. I failed to keep one person in my life and realized that she’s more important than any awards and recognition I received. Lastly, not everything that you learned is right. Just like what your mind dictated you as the answer to the question by Dr. A., “Matter is anything that has mass and weight.”

Yes, I have violated half of rule number 1 but I have never imagined how good life would get.

No regrets.