BEFORE any whiff of New Society doublethink invaded our classrooms in the 1970s, we just gardened and sewed. The subject then was not known as Home Economics. We were not yet drilled to man our stoves and sewing machines so that, as dutiful wives and mothers, we could be the stalwart partners our men could lean on in war or in peace.
But if you spent your elementary years at St. Theresa’s College (STC) in Cebu, the subject known prosaically as Practical Arts was a discipline more exacting than science.
If my classmates and I thought we could take a break from serious striving during this non-academic subject, our teacher, Miss Tan, made sure we never repeated the mistake.
Brisk and tireless, Miss Tan was short as Napoleon. As consummate as that commander, she packed authority in every inch of that compact, bird-like frame. I talked to my peanut plants, driven to desperation by Miss Tan’s unannounced inspection of our garden plots. Advised by classmates who survived these lightning tests, I also wheedled my plant’s branches to look green and jolly, the leaves to dance as if they were on fiesta.
Woe to you if Miss Tan found your plants to be a bit jaundiced, a victim of criminal neglect. Or worse, if you forgot it was your turn to water the class plots. Once, I came to school almost late. Trying to beat the first bell, I dumped sprinklers of water on the plots.
Standing in line later, smug and smirking that Miss Tan’s pet peanuts had a drenching, I noticed my white socks were covered in brown spots, with a few clinging bits of soil and humus. As I had no spare, I took off the soiled socks, turned them inside out, and put them back on just as the final bell rang. Better to endure ickiness the entire day than fail Miss Tan.
All good teachers have the magic quality of being absolutely intolerable when you are under their tutelage, and virtually mythic and unforgettable when you remember their legacy. To teach us the variety of stitches, Miss Tan required us to practice on small squares of cloth. I enjoyed sewing, finding it more soothing than being hostaged by temperamental peanuts.
But when I showed off my finished samples to Miss Tan, she flipped the squares to show me the disorderly tangle of knots on the underside. “Rip” was her terse advice, punctuated as usual by the pugnacious jut of that rock-hard jaw.
And rip we did. No one skipped corners by using a fresh square and throwing away the first mistake. Nothing got thrown away in Miss Tan’s class. We used discarded dusters and retazos for our rug projects. We picked and dumped leaves, twigs and even expired worms in a hole at the bottom of the garden. This disgusting stew, I was to learn later as a countryside extension worker, was compost, integral for the scientific, earth-friendly farming of which Miss Tan was an early disciple.
Last Friday, during my alma mater’s 75th year homecoming, I met Miss Tan again. I was curious to explore the newly curated STC Folklife Museum. She was an unexpected grace.
A teacher changes her students in unseen but telling ways. When I stooped a little to take her hand, I saw but did not see those familiar tresses, once swept into severe, neat plots by a plain and unchanging headband; I was assaulted instead by bizarre garden smells that come and go with first dew.
In my mind, I turned a leaf to check for aphids and came upon a mushroom; learned tenacity from watching the labors of a millipede undertaking the circuit of a twig. To this day, I discard words and rewrite paragraphs because, as Miss Tan drummed into me all those years ago, simplicity is its own reward.
Her hand is small but still tough. Held for the first time, her hand reminded me of the white-dusted lemon yellow blossoms put out by our peanut plants before the sun was high in the sky. If I eat peanuts piece by piece, not tossing them by the handful, it is not only because these plants are volatile and high-strung garden divas. If they earned the devotion of Miss Tan, they’ll get no less from me.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 27, 2008 issue