Tuesday, 31 March 2015

hardboiled wonderland and the end of the world*

There’s nothing better than losing oneself in good books for getting over some bad memories. I just pick a book from the countless inhabitants on my shelf, blow off the dust on the edges and the cover, open the book and start to escape. I pretend I’m really there, maybe the librarian who’s a divorcee and liked to eat a lot? Good call. Or the girl with the pink everything? Pink blouse, pink skirt, pink stockings. She’s closer to my age, too. Too bad I don’t like pink.

I just read and read and forget and fill my mind with these new memories which aren’t really mine. Well, they’re a lot better than my own. No issues with that.

But suddenly, I come to a point when there’s a typo in the middle of the paragraph. I disregard it, of course, and get on, but I turn the page and find out that a full fifteen pages have been misplaced. From page 299, I get to page 315.

What’s it mean?

No one really gets on as one planned. Even escape routes aren’t much. Crawl around the tunnel into the underground hoping your pursuers don’t find you—until you come to a point where there’s a huge gaping hole right above you, where you see reality peering at you, laughing. Pathetic fool.

And so you turn the succeeding pages furiously, hoping to outrace the memories that reality is beginning to hurl back at you. You race to fill your head with images so as to leave no space for the intruder that is your real life.

What could you do?

These books are reminding me of their materiality. They are man-made, imperfect. Constructed. Of course they do not correspond to any mental images I may have of them. Pretty much like friends. Lovers. Brothers. Reality holds them in its hands, and I cannot see them in their entirety. I can only see 
the sides that peek through Reality’s vise-like grip.

Maybe I should just sleep. I’m not in the mood to confront reality right now. Better just turn inward and converse with myself. Even if I never remember what I dream about.  

*by Haruki Murakami

Saturday, 28 March 2015

a defense

I walked with a friend on the way back to my dorm, and we were laughing and regaling each other with tales about engineering subjects. It was about 8 o’clock. We weren’t drunk, though with the recent developments in both our academic pursuits, it would have been understandable if we were.

“’Yung kasunod ko sa pila, magshishift din sa Film.”

“Heh. Gagraduate din naman tayo eventually.”

I believed that. But it didn’t make me any less sad. It was UPCAT results season again, and some tens of thousands of hopefuls have made it past the hurdle. They will soon be joining our numbers in the University. With such a huge pool of new students, the chances of having cases like ours among them are statistically assured. Like us they will enter the university with big dreams and the belief that their ambitions are unassailable. But the system will be too much for them, too—they will see things they never dreamed they would. They will falter. They might even fall.

I liked to think it was all because the system is wrong. People like me chose to take up engineering because it’s a very “marketable” degree. A good investment for my parents. I was told: these kinds of jobs could pay a lot even when I’d just be sitting at a desk signing papers. As a kid, all the adults were painting this paradise for me.

But you wake up one day and you realize it was all fake. I was sitting in my Calculus class when realized it. I stared at the integrals on the blackboard and thought, my God, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that shit. I realized I had something else that I wanted to do, some other dreams I wanted to chase.

I wanted a life I could call mine. I wanted to be happy, and useful, and I don’t know… I wanted to know I existed, in a sense—that by the end of my life I could say I wasn’t just one of them who were swayed by the whims and the wills of the majority. That I had a will of my own. And that it was strong enough that I could brandish it like a weapon in defense of what I believed in.

But what could I do? What defense could I have made of my actions then? On that night when we were walking, there were only shadows and blinking streetlights listening to us as we outlined the new paths our dreams will follow. Who will understand us?

Friday, 20 March 2015


Tonight I am in the office again, alone with my music and my thoughts. I am at just the right place to observe silently and without anyone noticing, all these lives that other people live, the lives I'm not living right now. The tabletop in front of me is bare; I had expected to see at least my office mates' ashtray on it. But they have gone home several hours ago, not even a whiff of cigarette smoke remains to tell me they were here.

On my browser, I see pictures of this newspaper's former writers and editors, taken from when they were vacationing in Japan. I feel something strange welling up within me--jealousy? insecurity? In any case, there those people were, smiling among torii gates and sakura trees. I've always dreamed to go to Japan. The pictures are always so beautiful.

Maybe they went drinking, my colleagues. We all live a hard life after all. Sometimes I wonder until when I could hold out my promise of not drinking.

Or my promise of working well enough to go to law school. I want to believe in a lot of things--that I can indeed pull this off, because so many others have done so before me, and they were writers for the same newspaper, students studying the same course. But who am I compared to these people? I am nothing.

It's really very hard to believe something you couldn't see. It's very hard to love something that doesn't respond to you. You'll get to the point when you wonder if you're only dreaming the grand object of your great love. Para kanino ba ako nagsusulat? Para kanino ba ako nangangarap?

Or do I just do all these for self-confirmation? Am I only attempting to measure what worth I can measure in myself by means of quantifying my level of involvement with the things around me?

Am I only aspiring for power? It hurts to think that. I don't want that. I don't want that. I don't want that.

You aren't here. I wonder where you are. I wonder how you're going to find me. I need help doing that.

Will you embrace me, and this untameable ambition? 

Come to me, soon. I need you. Whoever you are. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Epilogue: Kristel and the STFAP six months after

This article was published on September 20, 2013 in Philippine Collegian. 

The Tejadas warmly welcomed me to their home, smiling kindly as I scrambled for pen and paper to jot down the details of Kristel’s life. Both of her parents were wearing a shirt with her picture on it, beside the words “Education is not a privilege. It’s a right.”

Sitting down, I was seized with a sudden compunction: need I make them relive the whole episode again? As if reading my mind, Nanay Blessie assured me, “Masaya ako kapag nagkukwento ako tungkol kay Kristel. Sa tuwing ginagawa ko ‘yun, para bang nandito ulit ang anak ko.” And so, they let me in on their memories: from the better, early days to the days of grieving, coping with loss, and seeking justice.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this story is, in a way, mine too. The path that drove her to desperation, is not so different from the road that stretches before today's struggling Iskolar ng Bayan.

A glimmer of hope

Kristel was just like any other UP student, it seems. She loved to sing and draw, liked to share little nothings with the people she was close to. Her parents even laughingly recounted her obsession with the movie Pitch Perfect. She would watch it again and again, they said.

But it seems she has been through more challenges than most of us have at the age of sixteen.

While she was in high school, Kristel had expressed her desire to be a doctor and a soldier, and Nanay Blessie shares, “Ang dahilan [ay ang] kagustuhan niyang makatulong sa iba. Lalo ‘dun sa mga nasa malalayong lugar.” She must have felt deeply for the poor and unfortunate, because she knew where they are coming from. “Kaya talagang ang sipag niyang mag-aral. That was her coping mechanism. Umaasa siyang makakaahon kami sa kahirapan,” she adds.

That was why they rejoiced when she passed the UPCAT. “Pakiramdam namin, nanalo kami sa lotto.” Nanay Blessie related. At the time, it seemed like the ticket out of their piteous plight.

The bitter taste of truth

To pursue her dream of studying in UP, Kristel had to appeal for STFAP. Tatay Chris recalls, “Napakahaba ng pila, at napakaraming hinihingi. ‘Yung oras na sana ginagamit para matugunan ang pangangailangan ng pamilya, nakokonsumo pa ng paghahagilap ng requirements.”

In the end, Kristel was assigned to Bracket D, where she had to pay 300 pesos per unit. Her mother bitterly asked, “Taxi driver na nga ang asawa ko, pero bakit Bracket D pa rin kami?” Their appeals to be reassigned to Bracket E2 were refused, because they were unable to submit supporting documents.

Left with no choice, the Tejadas availed of a loan to cover Kristel’s tuition.

After her death, her parents shared stories of how she struggled, of how she would sometimes go to school without having eaten. There were even times when she could not go to school at all, because she had not enough money for her jeepney fare. But she was determined to prove that financial problems are not a hindrance to education. Prof. Andrea Martinez, her mentor, would often ask her if she was alright. And she would always reply with a chipper “Kakayanin ko ‘to!”

Last March, however, Kristel faced the reality of the uncertainty of achieving her dreams, and chose to end her life.

“Hindi ko inakalang aabot sa ganoon.” The professor shook her head. Kristel had probably come to the conclusion that when her life ends, so would her parents’ problems.


Her passing sparked massive outrage against the University’s officials.

Former Student Regent Cleve Arguelles said, “The case of Kristel Tejada was not a suicide. She was killed by the system—a system that refuses to recognize that education is a right, that life is measured in your capacity to pay.”

In agreement with Arguelles, Kristel’s parents argued that the system is not pro-poor. During our interview, Tatay Chris lamented that education, which should have been a right, has become a privilege. He had been so incensed over his daughter’s death that he wrote a letter to President Alfredo Pascual about the injustices of the University Code.

President Pascual answered, stating the courses of action that the University is taking to address the issue. In his response, he promised that no student shall be barred from a good education because of financial difficulties. In addition, he said that students will be able to borrow 100 percent of their tuition fees and that sections 330, 430 and 431 of the University Code will be revised.

The said sections of the code tackle the matriculation policies of UP as a system. Section 330 stipulates that students who have yet to pay for their tuition shall not be admitted to class, while sections 430 and 431 state that a student who fails to settle their dues may either have his grades withheld or be barred from enrolment.

The provisions are admittedly hard to reconcile with the UP charter, which declares that "No student shall be denied admission to the national university by reason solely of age, gender; nationality,
religious belief, economic status, ethnicity, physical disability, or political opinion or affiliation." President Pascual also said that STFAP will be restructured, admitting that he knew the policies are flawed.

Tatay Chris and Nanay Blessie shrugged. “I appreciate the sentiment.” Nanay Blessie said. “Pero hanggang pangako pa lang ang lahat ng ‘yon, hindi ko masasabing sapat na ang ginagawa ng administration. Mariz Zubiri, UP Manila's USC chairperson, also thinks the admin response is inadequate: "They haven't scrapped the no late payment policy yet; they just settled for temporary solutions. However, until the policy is scrapped, there is no guarantee that the university will stay relatively lenient."

UP Manila has allowed delayed payments and case-to-case full loan grants, but the proposed revisions to the UP code have yet to materialize.


A lull came to our conversation. I asked, “Birthday po niya last week, 'di po ba?” Tatay Chris smiled sadly, “September 8. Dumalaw kami noon sa puntod niya." He brightened up as he told me of her friends who had also come to visit, flowers in tow. “Iba kasi talaga 'yung kabaitan ni Kristel."

Kristel’s younger sister Krizia, a Grade 8 student, then stepped into view. I asked her, “Gusto mo rin bang mag-aral sa UP?”

“Kung makakapasa.” she shyly answered, with a laugh.

Tatay Chris then intervened. “Talaga namang prestigious na eskwelahan ang UP.” He hugged Krizia, then turned to me and muttered: “Kapag nabago na ang sistema."