Friday, January 31, 2003

When Mona Lisa Smiled [Archive]

This article was originally published in the Feb 2003 edition of The LaSallian, the official publication of De La Salle University as my monthly column as editor.

When does a teacher end and a pupil begin? Some say the boundary is merely the four walls of our classrooms, where teachers enter as tutors, and exit just as well; where students come and go unchanged, with new textbooks and filled notebooks, and yet, ever adamant. Others say the perimeter is drawn on that one fateful day (at the end of every term) when seemingly, teachers play god, as jury, or judge and students await conviction. After which, both part ways with each only a fragment of a memory in the other’s mind. Still others say that one doesn’t simply end and the other begin. Both must always co-exist.

When Julia Roberts portrayed a penniless prostitute winning the heart of the wealthiest and most eligible bachelor in Beverly Hills, it was not only sales that boosted up but hopes as well. Every other girl was saying, “I could be pretty woman”. And if it were not for the fact that we don’t have a Beverly Hills or a Rodeo drive, and much more, wealthy, ignorant and driverless men in coats calling out for help in the roadside, we would have pretty women lining up and waiting along Taft. When she played Julianne in My Bestfriend’s Wedding, the girls were suddenly eyeing and weighing up their male bestfriends. But when she played Miss Katherine Watson, the middle-aged, unmarried, unorthodox professor in Mona Lisa Smile, I wanted to be a teacher.

This is not the first time that I have been inspired by a movie. But this is the first time that I have considered the academe as a probable profession. Whether it was the setting of the movie, the exceedingly impressive college women, or the fact that Julia Roberts is one brilliant actress, the movie, in more ways than one, stirred me.

Watching the film, I am reminded of a teacher I had back in first year high school. She had the same uniqueness, the same passion, devotion, and commitment to her students not only for the present but for their future. Our first encounter was unforgettable since it had been a shock or a quite a blow on my part. Seeing her with a mass of papers in her hands, I had offered help. She gave me the strangest look, laughed and told me that I looked too skeletal to even carry five pounds of paper load. “Fine! I hope you roll down the driveway.” I didn’t say that of course. What I did though was tell everyone I knew about the incident. By the second week of school, she was as notorious as can be. Devious. So, who’s laughing now? I had felt smug about it.

She was a religion teacher, young, beautiful and full of spirit. I tried to deny the fact that I was enjoying her class, even anticipating the lively discussions. She always found ways to amuse the class even at the cost of her humiliation. She constantly asked me to recite, to read aloud and by the end of the quarter, I had the highest grade in class. Did she know I started the rumors and was this a part of her plan of vengeance? I never found the answer.

From late afternoon talks to birthday parties, I finally realized I found a friend. Our 12-year gap seemed unnoticeable, concealed by her eagerness to help me achieve my dreams and my willingness to let her. She believed in me and yet I never did.

Now, I ask, where is that magic? Where is the connection between students and teachers? Is it lost because we are older now, that we are finally adults and that sometimes we feel that we know more than they do? Or maybe it is because we call them “professors” and the name adds a certain weight, a seeming barrier that we are unable to penetrate. The older we get at the University, the more “professional” our relationships with teachers become. I am not saying that we should all go out, party, and start calling each other ‘pre or tsong. I am only hopeful that somehow we can remake the magic, that when we enter our classrooms, we do not only see a face, sometimes even nameless, but instead a mentor, a likely friend, someone ready to help us reach even the unreachable. I could only hope that when our teachers see us, we are not only a blurry of class records and a tally of student absences but ready minds and hopeful souls.

So, when does a teacher, as mentor truly end, and we, as students come into being? When we say “end”, we mean the exit from our lives, the conclusion of the syllabus, the granted independence. When do they hand out our grades and exit gracefully leaving us in euphoric bliss or in hopeless tears? And when do we start closing that door and forgetting their existence? It’s simple. They don’t. We don’t. Both must always co-exist. If not for one’s self, for each other, for the dreams, for our dreams and the fervent hope for a future.

(To Miss Lourdes Tarrosa, the best teacher I ever had, my mentor and my friend, I still thank God for a precious blessing. I am grateful and forever will be.)

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