Monday, June 25, 2012

The reader

I DIDN’T expect BJ to be back in the faculty room. (All students’ real names are withheld.)

She didn’t just look different; she was older, changed. She had gained weight, perhaps post-partum. She left her baby with her mother in her hometown.

She was back to finish her studies, she said.

When I first knew her as an undergraduate, that would have been a statement I never expected BJ to make.

BJ was a free spirit. Handling a 7:30 a.m. class and teaching a writing course that required submission of articles by 8 a.m., I was bound to clash with BJ. Though she lived in the campus dorm, she almost always stumbled in late—more often with a pretext, not a paper.

It didn’t help that I gave back her drafts “dripping in red (-inked corrections and comments) “. If someone asked us, BJ and I might even have to argue about who stressed whom more.

Then one day, she gave this paper. I read it. I didn’t read to review and comment. I read the paper because I wanted to. Despite the fact that the essay was different from all her earlier articles, I believe she wrote it. It had BJ’s voice, her spunk, the BJness I glimpsed sometimes in the bored, aborted attempts of past submissions.

I asked BJ about her essay. I asked her where she had been hiding all this time.

Sheepish, she said she had been loitering in the dorm one time. She had nowhere to go, no one to spend time with. The teacher managing the dorm saw her on the verge of driving herself crazy. He went back to his room and came out with a book. He told her to read it. She did. She wrote that essay.

I believe things happen for a reason. If he hadn’t noticed her that time, if she hadn’t opened the book, if she hadn’t written that essay—I might not have seen BJ back in the faculty room, seeking clearance to resume studies, picking up where she left off.

Yeah, I believe books are magic. Where well-meaning criticism shrivels interest before it has a chance to surge into full passion, reading a good story can inspire one to not just pick up another book but also write stories and own them.

What can stories do? To paraphrase a Fine Arts student’s motto: “Imagine the impossible”.

Books, though, are inanimate. They need to be passed from one reader to another convert.

The man who put a book in BJ’s hands passed away last Sunday. Professor Mike Mende was a figure hard to miss in our campus. His silence could cut quicker and deeper than another person’s harangue. He put his faith in actions, a quirk in someone who loved throughout his life words, ideas and the abstractions that make some of us jittery.

Eloquence and politics, though, pass. What lingers is the sense of a person who lives on in others.

When he was an undergraduate, you could talk to Mike for hours while standing in a hallway, both of you on your way to somewhere but somehow waylaid by films, photography, pining for a used book he returned to a store pile and never found again.

When he was a teacher, Mike always made time, in between family, teaching, research and advocacies, for students. He didn’t make the mistake of giving up on anyone.

Though he was much younger than me, Mike subscribed to a tradition that opens two choices for those who teach: every young person passing through school you either hold back or give something to take for the journey.

I remember Jane and Jay enrolling in Mike’s class. A system glitch let them through despite the lack of prerequisites. By the book, the two seniors should have been dropped from class, postponing graduation.

No academic heavyweights, Jane and Jay yet pleaded to do extra work. I pleaded how overstaying in college could do these kids more harm than good. Mike’s prerogative: he assigned them extra readings and tested them separately from the rest of the class.

When I say that Mike is a figure hard not to miss in campus, I meant that I see in him each and every student he met and made time for. Salamat kaayo for making a difference, Mike. Padayon!

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 24, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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