Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

Chancellor Ray Rovillos, Members of the UP Baguio Faculty and Staff, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Graduating Class and their Proud Parents, Families, and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

GOOD AFTERNOON, and thank you all for having me here today as your commencement speaker.

Let me begin with a confession. If you were expecting someone more famous, more accomplished, and more handsome than me to be standing at this podium here today, well, so was I. No one is more surprised than I am to be your guest speaker.

I woke up at 5 am yesterday to attend the UP Manila graduation at the PICC, rushed back to Diliman to pick up my bags, then took the long, leisurely ride up to Baguio, recalling the days when, as a young boy, I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim “student power,” pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.

Those happy memories embraced me as I arrived in my hotel last night. Chancellor Ray had thoughtfully sent me a copy of the program, and after dinner, just before I went to bed, I opened the program, curious to see who the commencement speaker was going to be. And then I saw my name. Oh my god—it was me!

And it’s all my fault, because I’d told Chancellor Ray that President Danicon couldn’t make it—he sends you all his warmest congratulations, by the way. But I had volunteered to represent him, because it would give me the best excuse to enjoy Baguio all over again, to sit here and listen to some wise person talk. Apparently, Chancellor Ray reasonably took that to mean that I was also going to speak in the President’s stead. So here I am, the dutiful surrogate who can’t refuse.

But I shall speak for myself, so you cannot hold our President responsible for the outrageous things that I will be saying to this hapless audience.

Thankfully, I had the perfect speech in reserve. That happens when you’re a professional writer and you write many speeches for other people. In this case, it was a speech that I had written for myself and delivered 12 years ago—at the Baguio Convention Center, to the graduating class of UP Baguio of 2005.

Since none of our graduates today was presumably here then—unless you’re a very slow learner—I thought I would resurrect that speech and update it as Ver. 2.0 for our very interesting if troubled times.

Former President Dodong Nemenzo—my old boss—was frankly not too fond of the phrase iskolar ng bayan to describe the UP student. We are all, of course, scholars of the people in this university, in the technical sense that our studies are subsidized by the sweat of the masses, whose hopes we bear upon our shoulders.

But his point was that scholarship was a distinction to be earned not merely by scoring well in an entrance examination, but by adopting a lifelong attitude of critical inquiry and rational judgment.

This, sadly and ironically, is something that many of us lose upon our entry into the University and our immersion in its life. The curiosity ends, the magic fades, the writing dries up, and we retreat to a cocoon—to a dimly lit room marked “Me & Myself”—there to spend the rest of our career fretting over the next fellow’s salary grade and so-and-so’s appointment as dean or chancellor.

Many years ago, when I ran for the chairmanship of the Department of English and Comparative Literature—among the oldest, largest, and most pala-away of our departments—I gave the usual homily about achieving excellence in teaching, research, and extension work.

And then, I said in my vision paper: “I expect our members to be actively engaged in interests other than their immediate subjects—in social and political concerns, in creative projects, in new technologies—to save them from the kind of small-mindedness or tunnel vision that can result from locking yourself up at the Faculty Center. In other words, get a life.”

“Get a life” has actually been one of my lifelong mantras. I have always believed that while a formal education is a wonderful thing, what I call an active life—with all its serendipitous detours and little accidents—is even better. It’s a cliché by now to say that there are many things we can never learn in school—but for those of us who are in school, it’s even more important to remember this.

As a mentor to many young students, I have always advised those burning with the desire to teach or to go on to graduate studies—in other words, those who want to stay in the university—to spend a few years first outside of it: to sell insurance, work at a call center, make some money—so they can get a sense of what everyone else goes through, and give their poor parents some relief. And then they can return, enriched by their experience.

When people complain to me about the emptiness and confusion in their lives, I feel sad because I know that only they can ultimately help themselves. But there’s a principle in fiction writing—in plotting and characterization—that might offer a solution to the perplexed. When my writing students tell me that they no longer know what their characters should do to solve their overwhelming problems, I tell them to take their characters out—literally and figuratively. Get them off their butts, make them walk, make them ride the MRT, put them on a Ferris wheel, bring them to the Navotas fish market at four in the morning. Too many stories try to resolve themselves in small cafes and bedrooms, behind shut doors and windows.

Some of the best things happen when we step outside of our own lives and begin to be engaged in those of others. Often, the answers to our own problems lie in others, and in their larger predicaments. While involvement in a great cause can also create its own kind of blindness to everything else, I believe that, at least once in our lives, we should embrace a passion larger than ourselves; even the disillusionment that often follows can be very instructive, and will bring us one step closer to wisdom.

I would not have been the writer I became if I had chosen the safe path and stayed where I was supposed to be.

At 17, shortly after graduating from the PSHS and entering UP as an engineering major, I dropped out as a freshman—over the tears of my mother, whose fondest hope was for me to graduate from UP just like she did. I wanted to join the revolution, like many of my comrades; at the same time I was impatient to get a job. At 18, I was working as a newspaper reporter covering hospital fires, US embassy rallies, bloody murders, factory strikes, and disaster operations. I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison.

At 20, I was a husband and father. At 22, still a dropout, I studied Development Economics as a special student, and later worked as an economist with the UNDP. At 26, I took my first foreign trip. At 27, I learned how to drive—and went back to school. At 30, I got my AB, and decided that what I wanted to do was to write and teach for the rest of my life. I found a scholarship in the US. It took me two years to finish my MFA, and only three to finish my PhD, to make up for lost time, and came home, and here I am, about 30 years and 30 books later.

It’s been a messy, crazy, but blessedly glorious life. I have been shot at, imprisoned, and worst of all, rejected by more crushes than I care to remember. Aside from my abortive career in journalism, I once worked as a municipal employee, checking the attendance of street sweepers at seven in the morning. And then I studied printmaking and sold my etchings cheaply by the dozen in Ermita. in the US, I worked as a cook-waiter-cashier-busboy-janitor, cutting 40 pounds of pork and chicken everyday before turning them into someone’s dinner.

Some of these events have found their way to my writing; most of them have not and never will. I believe that creative writing should generate its own excitement, beyond whatever may have happened to the author in his or her own life. But neither can I deny that my outlook has been influenced by what I have seen out there, as bright, as indelible, and as disturbing as fresh blood.

If we are to abide by the Phi Kappa Phi motto to “let the love of learning rule humanity,” we should first ourselves be ruled by the love of learning—learning from books, and learning beyond them.

On the other side of the equation, let me observe that there is, today, a nascent but disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway.

It’s easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the edukado, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily bought out by the powers that be. Marcos and Estrada had probably the best Cabinets in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do nothing against their President and his excesses.

Sometimes we never learn. Today, once again, some of us are tempted by the notion that because we seem to have made a mess of our freedom, because EDSA didn’t seem to work, then maybe giving up our rights and freedoms and letting someone else do the thinking and choosing for us is a good thing. Think again.

That’s what we UP people are good at—thinking, and thinking again.

To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission—not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason—by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals.

You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UP because no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.

Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt—the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.

I thought that my hardest days as an activist were over at EDSA. Now I have to think again. I thought that I had done my bit for UP by serving as Vice President 12 years ago. When President Danicon asked me to take on the same job last January, I had to think again. I said yes, because you can’t refuse when UP calls—di rin magbabago ang damdamin. I actually wept when I told my undergraduate class that I was going to be a VP again, because nothing makes me more fulfilled than teaching a roomful of undergraduates, and working in Quezon Hall was going to pull me away from them. I’ll tell this to all of you now, 18 months short of retirement: teaching people like you has been my greatest privilege.

In the first edition of this speech that I gave 12 years ago, I told my young audience to do things like read a good book, play the guitar, learn how to swim, and have fun. I’m going to update that by sharing the sort of things I told my undergrads, things my wife and I have told our only daughter all her life.

  1. Do something different, do something stupid, do something risky. Just don’t die, or land in jail—although landing in jail gave me a prizewinning novel about martial-law prison 20 years later. Nobody who didn’t take risks ever made a difference.
  2. My teacher in German taught me a saying: “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake. Or as my billiards buddy used to say, “We’re all entitled to one big failure.” Nothing will teach you better than that one big mistake you’ll make—so go ahead and make it, but make it worth it.
  3. And finally, I’ll repeat what I said at the end of that first speech—get a life, and get a good one!

Mabuhay kayong lahat, mabuhay ang UP, at marami pong salamat!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 207: The Best Student Speech Ever

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Penman for Monday, July 11, 2016

 

 

I THOUGHT that the commencement speech I recently gave before the University of the Philippines’ College of Science graduates (excerpted here last week) was pretty good, but it was the student response given by Isaiah Paolo Lee (BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, summa cum laude)—known to his friends and teachers as “Pao”—that blew my socks off. I later emailed Pao to say that it was the best student speech I’d ever heard, and asked him for a copy to share with my readers, so here it is, and I hope this goes viral. (Pao acknowledges that his sister Jillian helped him along with the speech—hurray for sisters!)

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee, and I am not your valedictorian. I am not the best, I am not the brightest, and I am here speaking to you right now because all the other summas backed out. I’m somehow supposed to talk to you about honor and excellence, so let me start with my story.

When I was in first year, I almost got kicked out because of Chem 16. I wasn’t even bad at the class. I just had a habit of scribbling on my forearm during exams, which was—in hindsight, understandably—interpreted as cheating. After an unchecked exam and a lot of stress, I ended up with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. On the whole, it was a less than ideal way to get psychological support and an 1.00 in Chem 16, but I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t get dismissed from UP, and I didn’t jump off a bridge. I could have, but I didn’t. That might not sound a lot like honor and excellence to you, but that’s the point.

The College of Science is made up of brilliant people. We can’t deny that. The College of Science is also made up of people who pretend to be engineering majors when questioned about their student numbers and people who tasted their Chem 16 unknown analysis samples out of desperation. We can’t deny that either. And we all answered our exams on bluebooks that might have varied in paper quality and might have shown different scores, but they all had the same message printed on the front: University of the Philippines, 1908, Bird, Honor, Excellence.

Our valedictorian is Mao Leung. He has a weighted average of 1.0375 and a girlfriend. I do not have a weighted average of 1.0375, and most of you won’t either. I’m not going to talk about who doesn’t have a girlfriend, because this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Mao Leung is a great guy, but we can’t all be like him, and that’s okay.

Prodigies are a curse for those who need a curve on the exam to pass and a blessing for the general public; as a whole, people tend to look at the people with the best averages and pin all the country’s hopes on them, leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’re supposed to do. The truth people have difficulty wrangling with is that not only do we not need a messiah, messiahs cannot solve our problems. This country just needs honor and excellence from every single one of us, every single day. Whatever it is you do, do it well, and do it for the people.

Are you going into a career in science? There might be days when you have to run PCRs from 7 to 12. That’s 7 in the morning to 12 midnight, by the way. Do it. There might be times that your graphs would be publication-worthy if only you could get rid of one annoying data point. Don’t do it. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going into medicine despite your teachers’ laments? You might end up spending most of your nights running on adrenaline and Dunkin’ Donuts because you have to stay in the hospital. Stay. There might be an occasional addict suffering from a shabu overdose that you have to tie down to a stretcher because he won’t stop kicking you. Treat him, and treat him again when he comes back. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to get a girlfriend because studies first no longer applies? She might be angry at you for no easily identifiable reason. Stay calm, listen, and talk things out rationally. After an argument about taking relationship advice from some guy who was supposed to give a valedictory address, you might see a book she would like. Buy it for her. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to be a full-time parent because you had a successful relationship? You might proudly send your child to UP only to learn that your precious iskolar ng bayan has turned into a class-cutting, DRP collecting, tuition-burning machine despite your warnings. Wake them up in the morning, give them their allowance, and support them without nagging. See to it that they march and that you get to be with them. That is honor and excellence.

Are you just thinking of going to UPTown Center for a celebratory dinner after this is done? You might have a hard time parking because, wow, that is a lot of people. Don’t hog the disabled parking spaces. You might be hungry because the ceremony was too long and parking was nigh impossible because you left the wheelchair spots alone. Be nice to your waiters. They have names. Address them by name, follow up your orders without snapping at them, and say thank you the way you would like to be thanked for doing a good job. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to do anything at all in your life? Whatever it is, do it well, and do it for the people. Do it well if doing it well is clocking in 70 hours a week at a world-class research institution. Do it well even if doing it well is just staying awake for five more minutes to finish a chapter or a boring lecture. Do it well when it matters, and do it well even when it doesn’t. And do it for the people. Do it for the people even if you don’t like the people. Do it for the marginalized even when they don’t appreciate it. Do it for the privileged even when they cause Katipunan traffic. Do it for the people whether the person in question is a drug addict in the emergency room or your waiter at UPTown Center or a stranger on the internet or even just yourself, because it’s not about the gratitude, or the credit, or the reward, but about the people, and the work. That is honor and excellence.

The unphotogenic, non-headline-grabbing, narratively-unsupported fact is that large-scale change happens in fits and bursts and stops, and often on a scale you can’t see with an electron microscope. We hold ourselves up to unreasonable standards and are subsequently disappointed most of the time, when what matters is the work we do in increments, the lab hours that we log, and the people we encounter.

You might not make your own transgenic crops, but you can disabuse your family of any erroneous notions they may have about Bt talong. You might not eradicate crime in 3 to 6 months, but you can avoid catcalling. You might not make it to the newspaper’s front page, but you can make it to your mom’s proud parent Facebook post.

We often look to larger-than-life figures to celebrate honor and excellence, from Miss Universe to near-perfect-GWA graduates. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so, but I believe the first place to seek it is within ourselves.

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee. I am not the best, but I am good enough, I am not the brightest, but I am a UP graduate, and I am not your valedictorian, but I am going to tell you all to go out there and show the world what we’ve got.

[Photo from the UP Diliman Information Office]

 

Penman No. 203: Another Filipino Winner at the IPSC

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

EVERY MAY, at Dartmouth House in London, about 60 young men and women from all over the world gather to represent their respective countries at the International Public Speaking Competition (IPSC). Sponsored by the English Speaking Union (ESU), the IPSC is the world’s premier public speaking event for young people, bringing together the best minds of their generation to share their ideas about the planet’s most pressing concerns.

The Philippines has been sending representatives to the IPSC since 2002, and was granted International Charter Membership in October 2005. As a country we have performed superlatively, producing two world champions and at least four semifinalists. This 2016, I’m very happy to report that we notched another spectacular achievement, with Marco del Valle being named global first runner-up, after the representative from Mexico.

Just 20 and a Business Administration junior at UP Diliman, Marco is no stranger to competition, having already won six titles in business and marketing competitions, including the Henkel Innovation Challenge in Vienna, where he and his partner represented the Philippines and also placed second. Marco’s success comes as the latest in a long string of stellar finishes for young Filipino public speakers at the IPSC.

In 2004, 17-year-old Patricia Evangelista stunned everyone when she was named IPSC champion, presaging a successful career in print and broadcast journalism. In 2008, Gian Karlo Dapul became our second world champion at the IPSC, besting 57 other participants from 35 countries—an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only a Philippine Science High School senior then, competing against mostly college students. (The third-place winner that year, Rajab Ali Sayed of Pakistan, turned out to be half-Filipino.) In 2012, Bryan Chua made it to the semifinals, as did Germaine Chuabio in 2011, and Ervim Charles Orbase in 2010. (In 2012, Hong Kong’s representative in the finals, Ramon Joseph Valentin Romano, was actually a Filipino born of migrant parents.)

This year’s Philippine participation at the IPSC was made possible by the generous support of longtime partners Pilipinas Shell and Far Eastern University, led respectively by Ed Chua and Lourdes Montinola, who both sit on the board of ESU-Philippines. ESU-Philippines Chairperson Gigi Virata and President Marlu Vilches ably led this year’s selection process, along with ESU-Philippines regulars Linda Panlilio, Krip Yuson, and myself. As elated as we were by Marco’s performance, our joy was overshadowed by the recent and unexpected passing of two ESU-Philippine stalwarts—Ambassador Cesar Bautista, our chairman emeritus, and Loline Reed, who had very patiently and kindly guided our representatives in London, along with her husband Ken.

This year’s theme for the IPSC finals was “Integrity has no need of rules,” and Marco drew deeply on his personal experience to address the topic, declaring at one point that “Too often, we demonize people… who don’t live by our religious or social rules. But moral integrity isn’t about obeying rules. It’s about recognizing the fact that while we all make mistakes, we’re all capable of rising above them.”

He explains further: “Overall, my speech was about my relationship with my family, particularly my mother. In the speech (which is the same speech I gave for the national finals), I talked about the sacrifices my mother made in the face of different social norms, the same sacrifices that millions of people make every day. I talk about how our culture stigmatizes families who don’t fit the norm, and how that makes it harder for these families to function. I conclude, however, that the sacrifices we make for those we love will always outweigh any rules or social norms we might break.

“I’d have to say that my favorite part of the whole experience was getting to know the other contestants and hearing their stories. It’s one thing to place countries on a map, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually be roommates with someone from Serbia, to learn about Moroccan weddings and Estonian startup culture, and to hear stories of African democracy as told by someone from Ghana.

“As we went through the competition, I think the feeling we all got as contestants was that we weren’t competing against each other as much as we were sharing our own experiences. I was really happy to be able to show a bit of my culture to the world and share what makes Filipino culture special. Yet when you hear speech after speech from so many brilliant young minds around the world, you start to realize that there’s really not that much which separates us from other countries: we share the same dreams, the same fears, and the same ambitions. Above all, this is what I think the ESU IPSC really helped showcase: that it’s possible to celebrate our differences as individuals and as nations, while also respecting and recognizing the things we have in common. And in a world where fear and intolerance are rapidly becoming the political weapons of choice, I think it’s a lesson more people should learn.

“When I entered this competition, all I really hoped for was the chance to share my story and talk the causes I believe in. Thankfully, I’ve been given the chance to do so much more. Winning 1st runner-up is, for me, more than just a personal accomplishment. It’s a chance to show the world that the Filipino spirit is capable of anything.”

Marco’s IPSC experience mirrors that of his predecessors, most of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in public service, media, education, and business. Dr. Renzo Guinto of UP Manila, our IPSC representative in 2008, recalls that “I learned to understand, appreciate, and respect cultures and perspectives that are different from my own, which in turn bolstered my sense of empathy. I could say that the ESU contest played a crucial part in preparing me to become the global health advocate that I am today.”

Ryan Kaliph Buenafe, who as an FEU student was our first IPSC contestant in 2002 and who now serves as Global E-Learning Manager for the TelePerformance Group, attests that “The ESU content was about practice, revisions, then more practice and more revisions. Preparing for it meant that I had to tell a compelling story and message in a limited amount of time and engage the audience so they would be inspired by my story. This is not easy when you’re young. There’s no Wikipedia or Google shortcut. I had to work hard, then practice and revise. This is, as I have found out as an adult, a great preparation for life. We practice what we do so we can do it better and allow others to share their greatness (such as Dr. Jimmy Abad and Krip Yuson who helped me improve and revise my speech). It is our small but significant opportunity to share with the world, on a global stage, the story of our people and our selves…. If we are to learn from history and combat terrorism and hate, we need to connect as one people. ESU is a forum where such a connection is made possible and it has been the greatest experience of my youth.”

We can only hope that more young Filipinos like Marco will emerge to speak for the Philippines on the global stage and be heard for what they have to share. Mabuhay!

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(Photos by Giulia Rampinelli)