My First School

“Woman with child on the seashore” (1921) by Pablo Picasso

I was seven then. I was still living with my parents and four siblings in a small, small house with a failed and barren garden and an uncouth pet maya bird in the suburbs of Cavite City and every weekday I would wake up, sky still dark, at 4:30 am to avoid the traffic and undertake the two-and-a-half-hour ride to school in Alabang with my mother and my elder sister in a rickety old blue family van that would overheat and stall in the middle of the highway at least once a week.

About a three-minute walk from our home was the town’s public school. All the other boys in our neighborhood attended class there. But the only time my mother ever entertained the idea of my going there was when I’d misbehave or refuse to do the chores, after which I’d wake up in the morning to find a white polo shirt and navy blue slacks (the uniform of this public school) folded by my bedside and my mother waiting on a chair nearby with her sly and mischievous grin, and then I’d cry and piously plead my mother that I had learned my lesson, please don’t make me change schools. My mother has a peculiar sense of humor and I think I inherited that from her.

I’d just finished Prep level and during the first summer morning I was splayed on the couch at home watching cartoons on television. I had been deprived — during the school year our parents only let us watch television on weekends, and only after we’d finished all the chores and read a book for an hour. I therefore planned to make the most out of that summer.

But my mother came in and stood in front of the television. She held a pile of thick, multicolored leather-bound books in her arm.

“Excuse me, Mama,” I said. “I can’t see.”

“Turn it off, please,” she said. I didn’t pay attention. I stretched out my neck in an attempt to see the cartoons over her.

To my dismay she reached out and turned the TV off. She piled the books on the dining table and sat down and told me to follow her (back then our home was so small that the delineation wasn’t so clear between the living room, the study and reading room, the dining room, and the kitchen; all were mixed together in one indistinguishable ROOM). I grudgingly got off the couch and dragged my feet. I looked over her shoulder.

They weren’t storybooks. They were used math worksheets, hundreds of them, line upon line of overwhelming and incomprehensible numerical operations and at the end of each line a clumsy penciled schoolgirl scrawl, all the worksheets bound up in numerous volumes by worn-out leathery covers of light blue or red. Later on I would learn that these had belonged to my mother’s friend who was thinking of throwing them away because her daughter had already finished them all. My mother had asked for them instead.

“They’re already answered,” I said hopefully. I saw my summer plans threatened.

My mother didn’t reply. She took out a rubber eraser and opened to the first page of one of the books and, with one hand pressed down on the cover, started to rub out the answers on the worksheets. She flipped to the next page and started to erase it as well. I watched as the gray rubber lint accumulated in piles beside the pages and in that unhappy dust I thought I contemplated the defacement of my own summer freedom.

When she’d finished erasing a good number of pages she stopped and pulled a chair beside her and made me sit. She passed me a pencil and slid the workbook to my side.

“This is called addition,” she said, indicating the very first line on the page. “Look. One plus one … that makes?” She held out one finger on each hand and then put them together. “Two,” I said.

“Correct. Write two. There. Now, next … three plus two? Here, you try.” She took my two hands and clenched them and then pulled up two fingers on one hand and three on the other. “Um … five?” I said.

We were at it the whole morning. I soon discovered that my fingers were not enough and so when needed you would have to hold ten mentally in your head, and count from there. In the same morning I learned you could get rid of using fingers altogether because at one point you could just count them all in your head. By lunch I’d gone through the first few worksheets and my head was throbbing. I imagine that at that point I couldn’t have ignored that my spoon and my fork made two utensils, that two cups of rice more would mean I’d already eaten four, could you add two sardines to my three okras, please?

And that’s what we did every morning of that summer: I — working through the set of math worksheets assigned to me before every session — and beside me my mother — erasing the used worksheets (the eraser dust in piles around her on that dining table which also functioned as study desk, her erasing arm almost as vigorous as my writing arm) and then going meticulously through my finished work to make sure I got it all correct. I worked fast, voraciously, not out of pleasure but because I wanted to finish early and watch TV as soon as possible, much like how the child at dinner scoffs down the cabbage and carrots because he knows that only so doing will he be allowed to eat the sundae for dessert. The answers came to me automatically now, almost unthinking instinct — six plus seven thirteen! nine plus nine eighteen! — and soon I was adding two digits to two digits and later three to three. I learned subtraction as well. Before summer ended I’d finished all the workbooks and my mother had had to re-erase them so I could thus re-answer them.

When Grade 1 started we didn’t take up addition until the fourth quarter, roughly seven months into the school year. After a few sessions the math teacher had explained to us how to perform addition and then during one math period he asked us to answer a set of basic exercises on our math textbook. I must have finished mine in two minutes. I stood up and took the textbook to the teacher.

“Need help?” he said.

“I’m finished, sir.”

“What?”

“I’m finished, sir.”

He took my work and checked my answers and then he stared at me. He flipped to the next few pages. “Here,” he said. “See of you can try answering these. But no problem if you can’t. They’re a little more advanced.”

I suppose he must have been shocked to see me standing in front of him again after less than five minutes. As I stood there in front of the teacher’s table I could feel on the back of my neck the heat of my classmates’ eyes. I grew uncomfortable. Looking back I recognize that it must have appeared like braggadocio on my part but it was not so. Back then I had no desire to stand out, call attention — among these city boys raised in the upper echelons of Alabang society I’d always been the bumpkin, the overweight teary, wallflower with the provincial manners, a natural-born bully bait — no: I had simply finished the work and meant to pass it.

“All right,” the teacher said, taking my book and turning the pages. “Try these. They’re a little more complicated. They involve carrying over. If you finish, try these. Three digits. And you can also try these, too. Subtraction. But we’re still going to take it up next week, so don’t worry if you don’t know how, okay?”

I finished all the exercises on the textbook before half of the period ended. My teacher had run out of work to give and so to pass the time I sat on my chair, I must have been reading some Roald Dahl book, trying to ignore the malicious gazes thrown in my direction by my still working seatmates.

On the next day the teacher gave us more exercises to do.

“Not you,” he said to me as I was pulling my pencil case out. “You’re coming with me. Take your bag with you.”

Although my teacher did not lose his benign, ever-present smile I felt my heart sink to my stomach. The tense silence that had filled the classroom — that miraculous evanescent hush among rowdy schoolchildren born not out of fear or nervousness but out of the snooping and wicked desire not to miss anything in the punishment of a peer — did not help, either.

He guided me, his hand on my shoulder, as we walked down the hall.

“I’m moving you to a different math class, see,” he said. “The advanced group.”

I didn’t reply. I didn’t even look up at him. I’m afraid to confess it now but at that point my eyes had welled up in tears. Though I still didn’t exactly understand what was happening I must have already known that I wasn’t heading to the principal’s office. But nevertheless I was gripped by my coward and insular heart’s fear of change and the unknown.

My math teacher knocked at a classroom door and led me in. Dozens of buzzing, unfamiliar eyes greeted me. Two of them belonged to a teacher at the blackboard, his hand holding a stick of chalk suspended on drawings and numbers and mathematical figures.

“Here’s the new student,” said my math teacher, nudging me in. “I hope he fits in well.”

“I’m sure he will,” said the new teacher. “Well, take any of the empty seats.”

“Go for it, champ,” my former teacher said to me. “See you around.”

I chose a seat at the backmost row. After some weighing glances at this tearful and fat newcomer the other students went back to listening to the lecture, their backs leaned forward as they took down their notes, their eyes sharp, their pencils racing through the gridded paper with a fury, the occasional hand raised and the intellectual question or remark that I could not follow. This was a new crowd.

I stared at the new teacher as he wrote equations energetically on the board and answered the students’ questions with a palpable passion. But I wasn’t listening. My desk was still empty. The tears hadn’t ceased flowing. My mind was still in my old classroom and I wanted to go back. That whole math period I just stared and stared at the blackboard. And in my tear-clouded vision the chalkmarks seemed to blur and gleam like a panorama of stars — of fortunes rewritten and a million unfathomed worlds for the taking.

This story is autobiographical. Essentially correct though I cut out some details that I thought would make the narrative distracting. While writing it I thought I had finally produced a decent story, possibly my best one. However at rereading it I was quite disappointed. Darn.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.