SO BELIEVE IT or not (believe it), I wasn’t always a self-deprecating dumb-ass who barely got through her acads. At one point in my origin story, I was actually pretty smart. Book-smart, math-smart — that brand of smart.
Unfortunately I peaked in grade school. Back then my marks were high enough to land me a spot in the Honor List even though all I ever did was show up. I never studied at home and I watched a lot of TV. The only time I truly cared was when we had to grow a plant for Science and I treasured my munggo seed like it was a mother’s most precious orchid. (I used to love botany, remember?)
One of my teachers then was Ma’am Tessie, a plump bespectacled guráng who put on smeared lipstick like an impish Bratz doll. Spoiler alert: Ma’am Tessie hated my guts.
Ma’am Tessie nagged at me in front of the class every time I failed to do an assignment. She singled me out for making mistakes and she even read my wrong answers aloud. “Tinamad na naman an dáyo” was her favorite line, because she also mocked the fact that I lived in a small barrio away from the main town.
At first I thought she was just doing her job. She could tell I was lazy coaster so maybe she was pushing me to work harder. But she also poked fun at my weight (and financial status) by saying things like, “Warâ kamó pagkáon sa baláy?” She made fun of my crooked teeth, my facial moles and my tattered pair of shoes, none of which had anything to do with subject-predicates or improper fractions.
One time when I was too sick to go to class, my mom asked our neighbor to hand Ma’am Tessie an excuse letter. When I showed up the following day, the first thing Ma’am Tessie talked about were “absences.” I was so ready to get another sermon for, I dunno, being sick — but Ma’am Tessie had another target that day. She called out a classmate — a boy named Hanzel, like Hanzel and Gretel — who also missed the class but did not give an excuse letter.
“Si Jolina ngánî na taga-bundok may súrat, tapos ikaw warâ?” Ma’am Tessie asked Hanzel, although the question sounded more like an exclamation.
“Tinulungan ko lang tabî si Papa magbenta kí báboy sa plása,” Hanzel explained.
“Pakiarám ko mán sa báboy sán amâ mo!”
We never spoke, Hanzel and I, but I never forgot how his shoulders slouched like a comma in shame upon hearing Ma’am Tessie’s remark. I didn’t know of the word “empathy” then, but I could tell that this teacher had none of it in her system.
If only Ma’am Tessie spared Hanzel and nagged at me instead. I could take the verbal beating anyway. I just reminded myself of Princess Sarah who was enslaved by Miss Minchin or of Trudis’ sister Oreng who was devoured by bulldogs — other kids definitely had it worse.
There was one time, however, when I finally caved; Ma’am Tessie finally made me cry.
It was about a take-home Sibika project for which we had to draw the maps of each rehiyon. Ma’am Tessie was furious when she saw my work. They were basic Crayola drawings but to Ma’am Tessie’s eyes they were the next iteration of Juan Luna’s oeuvre. So one morning she hushed the entire classroom, ordered me to stand up, and demanded that I admit in front of the class how I made somebody else draw the project for me. She was adamant that no child could’ve possibly drawn those maps. But since I drew those maps, I insisted they were my own.
“Ayáw pagbubúwâ!” she yelled in her signature croaky voice. “Dáyo ka lang didí, ‘wag kang sinungaling!”
That was my first brush with moral confusion. An adult just accused me of lying even though I knew I wasn’t — so what do I say? I could see the fat vein on Ma’am Tessie’s right temple throbbing and growing like a plastic balloon on the verge of pop. Should I lie just to calm her down? But if I lie, wouldn’t that be a graver sin to Jesus? And if Jesus truly loved me, why couldn’t he show up and tell Ma’am Tessie the truth?
I didn’t know what to do, man, so I cried, uhog be damned. The scene felt like a GomBurZa execution, only there was no Gomez or Burgos or Zamora with me — I was sobbing all alone. Ma’am Tessie eventually asked me to sit back. She started a homily on cheating and dishonesty while I rested my head on my desk, my inaugural bow to defeat.
I never told my parents about what happened. I was taught that important conversations were For Adults Only, so I was scared that maybe Mama and Papa would side with Ma’am Tessie. I wasn’t even sure if I did or did not do something wrong. Maybe lying wasn’t an absolute sin after all.
But my claim about being a smart kid wasn’t a lie. Upon graduation I had offers of full scholarship from two reputable high schools (I chose the one that sounded cooler). It was in high school when I became the fuck-up that I am now, but I will tell you more about this later.
For now it’s good enough that you meet Ma’am Tessie. I never understood why she hated me, or if she even hated me specifically. Maybe she was just inherently mean and I was an easy target, who knows? But if you’re a teacher — and even if you’re not — just don’t be a prick like Ma’am Tessie. You could ruin a person’s life or, y’know — you might end up in some girl’s blog.