Monday, September 25, 2006


CIVILIZATION owes a debt to buttons.

I read to my sons and I read myself to sleep because of a collection of bedtime stories I inherited as a child. In this tome, an old lady told a story for every button her grandchildren picked from her sewing basket.

I treasured that book. But whether I was impressed with the prodigious storyteller or with her collection of 365 buttons in a basket, I’m not sure now.

A few days ago, I found Andrea Barrett’s “The Voyage of the Narwhal” behind a stack of secondhand books. The Narwhal was a ship sent out to find an Arctic explorer missing in the 1800s.

When they come upon an Esquimaux community, the Narwhal crew plies the untalkative men with knives, needles and tobacco, trading for information.

The ship’s naturalist observes the women eyeing his buttons. He slices these off and makes a gift to the women. In return, the chief’s wife gives him a treasure of her own: a shred of skin.

It is their first proof that the explorer and his crew may not have all met their end in the ice. Some of the men, they find out later, were killed and then eaten by their companions.

More often, it is the absence, not the presence, of buttons that undoes us.

Who has not stopped in the middle of an enthusiastic sharing before a rapt audience because of a button left undone at a critical juncture?

Be they ever so small, buttons keep in place our composure, as well as puts out of sight everything else not of use at the moment.

The expression “button your lip” occurred to me when I read about the graduating senior heckling President Gloria Arroyo while the latter spoke at the recent commencement exercise of the Cavite State University (CSU).

Many have praised the Mass Communications graduate who led other students in unfurling red banners that read “No to Chacha.” Maria Theresa Pangilinan repeatedly refused to apologize for shouting “oust Gloria,” defending her right to free speech.

I admire the feistiness of her beliefs. I hope my namesake can sustain this passion after the euphoria of graduation settles and she looks for a job. Sloganeering rarely translates well in action, away from the limelight, in the day-to-day struggles that reveal how firm or malleable we truly are.

But “button your lip” isn’t an injunction that’s meant only for fiery, irrepressible youth. The students were not the only ones that afternoon who committed excesses in the name of self-expression:

Officials of the Philippine National Police and the Presidential Security Group denied there was a breach in security. This however did not prevent the police from filing a case of alarm and scandal against the students.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez pronounced a crime had been committed by the students. Only then did he instruct his people to investigate and find out what the protesters actually did to violate Articles 153 and 154 of the Revised Penal Code.

Responding to criticisms that judged the student protest as a reflection of the “way their school raised them,” CSU officials declared Maria Theresa as a “persona non grata.”

Except for a freezing of the presidential features during the protest, Arroyo finished her speech and handed out diplomas, even to Maria Theresa. Cavite Gov. Ireneo Maliksi praised this showing of “a true statesman.”

What about Arroyo’s unspoken message about the vote’s sanctity, the primacy of national interest over personal delusions?

On that particular day in Cavite, the nation witnessed not just the limits of education but also the indispensability of buttons.

( or 09173226131)

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