Sunday, February 18, 2007

An interior life

“DON'T forget desert flowers in winter.”

Al-Hasa, deep into the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, is full of oases.

Crossing this region to Qatar years ago, Tonette Pañares came upon for the first time mushrooms buried in the sand dunes.

The accidental meeting with beauty reminded the historian of her teacher in college, Sr. Ma. Delia Coronel, ICM.

Although work and marriage had taken Tonette away from her alma mater, St. Theresa's College (STC), in Cebu City, Sr. Delia kept in touch with her, as she did with many of her students dating back to the '60s.

One day, while in Saudi Arabia, Tonette received a postcard with only one line written in the familiar Quink turquoise ink: “Don't forget desert flowers in winter.”

The line was quintessentially Sr. Delia because, Tonette reveals, she had a natural aptitude for the different.

While most of the nuns teaching Tonette favored her intelligent and accomplished classmates, Sr. Delia favored the talented but the original.

Her Al-Hasa discovery made Tonette realize how this contrary nun regarded her girls as mushrooms in a featureless landscape.

I came upon Sr. Delia while researching for an article on the Folklife Museum of STC.

Except for a sepia photo that showed me receiving my grade 1 diploma from the mini-skirted nun, I had no recollection of Sr. Delia when I began my search among the collection of artifacts she started with her Philippine history students.

Her papers though made me want to go to Manila and visit her at the ICM retirement home.

Elegant and provocative, her body of works embraced magazine articles, short stories and poetry.

The stories of her fellow sisters and long-time colleagues evoked a character, a “maverick.”

But it was an email from a former student that lifted one more veil in a question that I've always found tantalizing: what makes a teacher?

Dr. Amor Hernando emailed me six pages of her recollections, notes and anecdotes to give a “fair perspective” of the “educator-artist-nun.”

It wasn't just Ms. A's use of the hyphenated, triple-noun modifier that made me read and reread her “rambling thoughts.” The person who gifted Sr. Delia with Quink ink deserved, I believe, more than a reading.

“She had a way with her students,” Ms. A emailed. “In the 1960s, she ate out and saw great movies with them. Her favorite orders were pancit (noodles) and siopao at the old White Gold House located in Magallanes St. Later, she opted to eat at Majestic Garden beside the Belvic Theater.”

The “plain, yet very witty and funny” nun also had many students disliking her.

“We were trapped in her kasaba (scoldings) and her kasabaan (being noisy and persistent with her sugo or orders),” Ms. A. writes of her mentor. “(But) we found ourselves willing victims of her 'oppressive' ways.”

The nun who earned her bachelor's degree in literature and journalism (summa cum laude), masters in English (meritissimus) and doctorate in philosophy (benemeritus) at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) was disliked “mainly because 99 percent of us got failing grades during the midterms.”

Born in Luzon but nurturing a deep love for the south till her retirement, Sr. Delia upheld art and all things that reflected the Filipino.

“Despite the criticism, we adored her because… deep inside, she cared for each one of us in a different way.”

Finding it mind-boggling that her teacher stayed in the convent, Ms. A made it a point to observe her praying in the STC chapel.

“When I saw her on her knees, praying like she never prayed before, this set me to thinking: holiness is found in the interior life.”

Or as the turquoise ink would have traced it: “Don't forget desert flowers in winter.” 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's Feb. 11, 2007 issue

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