Nights ago, I dreamt I was back in my senior year of high school, that academic year made most memorable by the fact that it was the only one we spent at our new campus, then just three buildings for three departments—preschool, elementary, and high school—with the elementary and high school buildings designed in a similar manner: five floors stacked on top of one another with two wings each lined with classrooms stretching out from a main spine. (Imagine a scout leader extending his arms forward, counting as he calls his boys to assemble.)
Hence, the vignettes that play out in my mind are distinct, immediately recognizable. Because our previous campus was situated in the heart of Metro Cebu, and was a messy complex of buildings designed by different architects and built over time as the campus expanded, there is a drabness, a messiness in my recollections of that place. Our new campus, on the other hand, because it was new (so new, in fact, one of my batchmates joked about “devirginizing” the urinals on our first day there with early morning pee), and built on an eight-hectare stretch of former marshlands and mango groves, was better planned out. It had a frontier-like quality to it, a private, Jesuit-run St. Petersburg or a Puritan colony rising up from a barangay in the foothills of Cebu.
In the dream, I’m seated in a classroom on the fifth floor, on an armchair in the second row, first column—the exact spot I’d be sitting in during our “regular” Chinese class (as differentiated from the “special” Chinese class, which was attended by batchmates who hadn’t studied Chinese as long as we had and necessitated a mass migration of students between two classrooms). I’m looking out into a clear blue sky visible from our wing. I can barely recall the faces in my presence, but I’m guessing in front of me is my high school best friend, and beside us are two other classmates we share a geeky camaraderie with (movies and pop-punk/emo bands among our favorite topics) and who are now based in the States. This is the only time I remember being chatty with seatmates, with each of us having memorized each other’s Chinese names in case our lăo shi calls us for a surprise recitation.
But the fondness only lasts for so long.
Like slow gray clouds, the emotions I felt throughout much of my high school life—unsavory emotions I tend to gloss over in my fleeting episodes of nostalgia—start to creep in: aloofness rooted in an inability to relate with other topics most of my other classmates indulged in, anxiety over not performing so well in math and science (those two prized subjects that carried the most weight in our grading system but which required from me a little more brain power than usual to do well in), shallow envy over not being able to own the same gadgets my wealthier classmates showed off every couple of months (a PSP, an iPod, the first iPhone), and annoyance at the louder, more bugoy types who leeched off their smarter classmates with the same assiduousness they would dedicate to discussing an NBA finals game. Just to name a few…
A familiarity I had thought long buried or long irrigated out of my system then lingered as I lay there in the dark, waiting for my workday alarm to ring.
I can only surmise this latest dream of mine was triggered by my attending my younger brother’s senior high school graduation a few days prior.
A Much Broader Outlook
Though rarely do dreams of this nature occur—dreams that reacquaint me with a certain anxiety-inducing period in my life (my scouting days, for example, or that one semester of law school where every day was a hellish trudge toward a firing range where I was a possible target), I always do appreciate how they function as a subconscious check on a tendency of mine to romanticize, to even yearn for, my younger years. Nostalgia, undeniably, is something a lot of us tend to be susceptible to. Lord knows how many times I’ve encountered memes on my newsfeed that bemoan the many missed opportunities for afternoon naps our youth affords us, or memes that feature poorly resolutioned pictures of old video game consoles, screenshots of Cartoon Network shows, and other trinkets from the ‘90s and early 2000s (pogs, marbles, cheap trading cards meant to be slapped together) in an effort to serve as some sort of barometer for a “complete childhood.” The term “adult” in millennial-speak has become a verb with often dull, practical connotations. “To adult” or “to be adulting” means a whole range of things: to pay rent, take care of bills, buy groceries, budget a salary that’s barely enough to cover all these—basically anything that requires the sidelining of hobbies, interests, and other youthful frivolities. Even older generations are not immune from looking at the past with rose-colored lenses: How many times have we heard our older relatives talk about how a belting from lolo or a soaping of the mouth from lola helped straighten them out, turn them into the “responsible adult” they are today?
Now that I’m in my late twenties and have the benefit of hindsight and life experience to scrutinize certain aspects of my own past, I gauge these vignettes with a more critical lens—and it dawns on me how much of an enclave my private school education truly was, how centered it was around the individual, the self, often to the detriment of a much broader outlook.
A slogan we used to see posted all over the halls and classroom walls of our old campus read “Welcome to Success.” In an institution where the majority of students were children of businessmen, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and other well-remunerated professionals, this so-called “success” translated into our minds as “career success,” which more often than not bloats into the realm of the material. The man or woman in a suit, with their own house, their own car, and earning enough to send their kids to a fancy school on weekdays and to a mall or go on a road trip on weekends was the person we were conditioned to aspire to be.
One’s attitude or perspective toward life, and the material accumulations and personal achievements we are hashtag blessed with along the way took precedence in our education, taking the spotlight away from topics I wish I’d been taught sooner: the pointlessness of celebrating “growth” and “development” if it means the displacement of communities, the ruin of traditional livelihoods, and the skyrocketing of land prices; the bigotry and callousness inherent in serving your country blindly; the unsustainability of a system that encourages people to insatiably consume—to name just a couple.
Essentially, I wish I’d been taught more about the interconnectedness of things: How something like, say, the celebration of a drop in oil prices in Cebu is tied to economic collapse in Venezuela, a country that did not exist over five hundred years ago and whose inhabitants then, despite being unaware of our archipelago an ocean away, would be fated to share a colonizer and religion in the succeeding centuries. Or how the creation of a ride-sharing/delivery app (one that’s often praised for being “innovative” and “disruptive” by mainstream media and business publications) in Malaysia can provide a livelihood to hundreds of motorcycle drivers here in cities across the Philippines, while simultaneously exposing them to toxic fumes emitted by automobiles produced mostly by Japanese and Korean companies.
The world we have inherited, and which we are mere individual pieces in and not prime movers of, is the result of a violent history—and one that continues to unfold as such. This, I think, is the reality my private school education protected me from, glossed over.
“Normalized individualism,” as I’d like to call it, is perhaps most readily apparent in the graduation ceremony.
During the homily of the mass to commemorate the aforementioned occasion, the priest—a talented Jesuit who’d previously been assigned to our school—spoke admiringly of the labandera who would report to their residences in the old campus every day to wash their clothes and religious vestments. I was moved by the way he spoke of her dedication, her selflessness, her willingness to work despite a harrowing cancer diagnosis. There was a beautiful, songlike cadence to the way he narrated her story—every word, every stressed syllable, every pause in between sentences mattered, almost bringing this woman who had succumbed to her illness years ago back to life, giving her justice.
I was, however, ultimately disappointed when he stopped short of proposing a radical solution so that others born into similar circumstances as the labandera would not have to experience the same painful hardships. Instead, he extolled her individual virtue of hard work, citing it as a shining example of “Magis,” a Latin word that translates into “more” or “greater” and is often tied to “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (“For the greater glory of God”). Basically, one doing something more in the service of God, regardless of the odds stacked against you or the systemic injustices that abound.
This was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity, for how often do you have the heirs of businesses, the offspring of political families, and future doctors and lawyers gathered under one roof to instill in them a message they may just possibly carry for the rest of their lives?
Where was the moment to squeeze in even the slightest tidbit that someday, some of these kids will go on to become mayors and lawmakers, and hence have the avenue to pass or push for better healthcare legislation or a more equitable tax system to fund healthcare programs?
Where was the zinger to make the kids who will go on to become business leaders understand that employees are people too, and hence need to be paid higher wages and provided decent benefits to support their families and take better care of their health?
Where was the chance to tell the kids who will go on to become doctors and lawyers that the point of these professions is not to self-aggrandize nor prioritize wealthy clients, but to help the poor better understand their bodies and the legal system respectively?
The valedictorian’s speech was no better either. For my younger bro’s graduation, this part of the ceremony had a talk-showy twist to it, with the batch’s number one exchanging scripted banter with their award-winning essayist and orator. As expected, there are the batch in-jokes and references; the mentions of prestigious universities certain batchmates were accepted into; the expressions of gratitude aimed at teachers, parents, classmates, and the Lord Almighty; and the motherhood declarations (“The world is our canvas…”) that enable the two speakers to drop first person pronouns (“What I learned…” “My earliest memory…”)
No mention of current issues that, I initially thought, social media-savvy students would at least be familiar with: the drug killings that will leave many less fortunate kids from their generation scarred, the expansionist ambitions of China that our present government is more than willing to accommodate (or more interestingly, the effects this pivot in policy could have on their employment prospects in just a couple of years), or even the troubling apathy and apoliticism exhibited by Gen Zers.
To be fair, when I was their age, rarely did I care about social issues. Media back then was a lot more scattered, but paradoxically, also more controlled. The newspapers, the radio broadcasts, the news channels all echoed the same things: the economy is booming, a new mall is slated to open in a few months, this celebrity did something stupid, etc. With the proliferation of social media, though, views and opinions of people and sectors that were once silenced, labeled pejoratively as “militant,” or pushed to the fringe have now come to the fore. Learning of these suppressed narratives and keeping abreast of current events, however disheartening, has never been easier. One must, of course, follow the right accounts and not succumb to the homogenizing effects of the newsfeed algorithm by, for instance, giving equal weight to a random Shopee ad and the murder of farmers by state agents in a neighboring province.
This realization of just how secluded a milieu private school education is, is a favorite topic between myself and a friend I frequently correspond with. Born just a few months apart to middle-class families, and having graduated in the same year though from different schools, our experiences growing up are pretty much the same: being dropped off and picked up at school every day in air-conditioned cars; spending the entirety of the day inside campus; listening to teachers and administrators tell us that we should be grateful we were studying in a good institution, unlike “those kids outside” who had to beg for coin and food.
We talk of this past with a head-shaking incredulity, almost as if we’d bolted from a cult or distanced ourselves from a political organization with questionable, extremist views. “We lived in our own world back then,” this friend told me one time.
Unlike many of our fellow private school peers, we also don’t shy away from news and politics. With the world on fire, our country’s sovereignty under threat, and a government that’s more hell-bent on murdering its poorest citizens than addressing deeply rooted socioeconomic injustices, “How can one not care?” is the question we so pine to ask our batchmates and those of similar upbringing. Some of those we know unsurprisingly identify as staunch supporters of this regime, but a greater number opt to remain bafflingly, gallingly apolitical.
We’ve since unfollowed or unfriended the vociferous supporters. (There’s only so much mental gymnastics and fascist enabling we can endure.) But the apolitical ones leave us no less disquieted, for a middling position rests on uneasy ground. Neutrality, an insistence that “both sides” have equal merit and therefore compromise is necessary, leaves one susceptible to the propaganda and the hunky-dory narratives sold by those in power: that the country is prospering, our cities are safer, more infrastructure projects equals more growth, more money pouring in from foreign entities means more progress.
This, consequently, bodes well with the normalized individualism and uncritical optimism that many of our fellow private school-educated peers continue to operate under.
Barely can I count the number of times I’ve spotted former schoolmates in Fullybooked head straight for the business section, to presumably reaffirm this idea that we all live some kind of profit-driven purpose. On my social media newsfeed, multiple times have I come across (and even shared, in younger, more naive years) memes from my batchmates that equate poverty with laziness, impulsive buying, and poor time management, while wealth is put on the same pedestal as humility, hard work, and brilliance. Then there are the all-too-common statuses that name-drop brands, fetishize success, or (the worst kind) proudly show off a photo of oneself with a famous personality, regardless of their political leanings, what they’ve previously said or done.
Our convos centered on such topics often end in a resigned sigh, a sad face, or a heartbreak emoji. “Privilege blinds jud,” we both agree. While it’s easy to find fault in those we know, we also acknowledge that the problem is systemic—one that cannot be changed by individual actions and griping alone, and therefore requires a greater collective effort.
The true damage of the sort of private school education we have received (or any other neoliberal, hyper-individualist education, for that matter, which has become quite the disturbing trend nowadays), is that it has successfully fragmented us, turned us all into creatures of vanity who seek only narratives and views that reaffirm the positive, consequently conditioning us to turn a blind eye on harsher realities, the less fortunate, the silenced, the suppressed. Any sort of grand, public push for change and a better world is thus rendered almost impossible.
The fact that there are those of us, however few, who, despite having been brought up and educated with some degree of privilege, make it a point to empathize with the oppressed and critically engage in discourse that helps imagine what a better world would look like—one where resources are more evenly distributed, unbridled consumption is not extolled as a virtue, and environmental effects are taken into greater account—means that the corporatist, individualist agenda has not proven entirely successful.
Indeed, there is a greater optimism to be found in solidarity than in self-possessed solitude.