Tuesday, December 7, 2010

ARTICLE RE BEHIND THE WALLS, Edited by Brainard & Orosa

THE COLEGIALA EXPERIENCEby Maria Clarissa Estuar (The Philippine Star), Dec. 5, 2010

MANILA, Philippines - Maria Clarissa Estuar, 34, is a scriptwriter for ABS-CBN. She is part of the creative teams behind the primetime soap opera Kristine and a soon-to-be-launched teen drama. She has seven Palanca awards to her name.

In a couple of weeks, a wedding will bring my high school barkada together for the first time in 13 years. We were sophomores when we gravitated towards each other at the exclusive school for girls where we were enrolled. E-mails and Facebook helped keep the friendship alive even though half of our group has settled in North America, and the other half has remained in the Philippines. I’ve been feeling understandably sentimental, so when I chanced upon the book Behind the Walls: Life of Convent Girls, I got myself a copy and started skimming it.

Behind the Walls is a collection of essays from women who went to convent schools from before World War II to the 1990s. I immediately skipped to the essay by Eunice Noelle Lucero after figuring out that she went to the same school on Leon Guinto just a few years after my friends and I graduated from there. The soundtrack to my barkada’s high school experience was New Kids on the Block while hers was Pearl Jam, but I discovered that not much had changed during her time. Our ancient Filipino teacher still terrorized girls on a daily basis. The typing teacher still made her students wear brown paper bags on their heads during touch-typing exercises. She wielded a small triangle that she hit to signal the class to start pounding on their typewriters’ keys. To help keep the pace, she played music from a portable cassette recorder and stomped her foot to the beat. I suddenly remembered somebody telling me that once, the typing teacher’s heel got stuck in a hole on the teacher’s platform. Apparently, she timed her efforts to pull herself free to the beat of the music.

Reading that piece was a nice start because it brought me down memory lane, but I wondered if I would enjoy the essays written by women who went to other schools. As students, we held biases against girls from our rival schools and old prejudices die hard, I suppose, but I promised myself I’d keep an open mind as I plowed through the other essays.

I was amused by what appeared to be a universal difficulty in following our schools’ dress codes. Several essayists mentioned how they waged battles on skirt lengths, the resentment they felt for being forbidden to wear colored (and not just neutral) hair accessories, and how they managed to experiment with makeup even though the nuns who ran their schools frowned upon the use of mere pressed powder. Our own blue and white uniforms caused us a fair amount of grief whenever our teachers caught us walking around with one jumper strap artfully dangling off one shoulder or when we were basically using our skirts as mops whenever we sat down on the floor and slid to our friends to gossip with them.

As Holy Ghost alumna Milagros Delgado Enage pointed out, colegialas have always been expected to live out the virtues of order, simplicity and modesty, but honestly, the indoctrination process wasn’t exactly painless.

For the record, I did not go to school with a bunch of well-behaved girls. For the most part, we behaved like high-spirited teens who refused to be caged in. “Boisterious” was how fellow Scholastican Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz described us.

Through the years, colegialas have tried to stretch the boundaries in different ways. Rosemarie MontaƱano related that back in the 1960s, she was on her way back to school with her fellow internas when they made an unplanned detour to pick guavas by the roadside even though they knew they’d be severely reprimanded. Maria Concepcion Abeleda-Beltran confessed to procuring a contraband copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, only to be disappointed by how badly written it was.

In a way, the good nuns who ran these schools contributed to the cultivation of this daring side of many colegialas. In keeping with their goal to provide a well-rounded education to their girls, many of these institutions had outreach programs that required students to go to depressed areas to teach catechism, distribute food and clothing, and be exposed to certain social realities for the first time in their lives.

Karina Africa Bolaso pointed out how ironic this was, for she was sent to a “harmless convent school” because her parents believed no harm could come to her there because it was a place where “fine, well-bred young gentlemen went to look for their future wives.” Little did her parents know that within a year, their precious daughter would be joining protest rallies and going to evacuation centers with the blessings of her school’s administration.

Many colegialas do look back and remember how their schools gave them the chance to get out of their gated communities sans parents and amahs for the first time in their lives, forcing them to be a little more independent. Bettina Rodriguez Olmedo asserted though that in her own experience, these outreach activities “were not sufficiently involving to be capable of bursting life’s lovely bubble for the average Theresian who was usually equipped with a pair of ‘blinders’… For her, life’s problems were magnified a hundredfold. Papa’s refusal to raise her allowance was a disaster. Having to wear the same dress at another party attended by the same circle of friends was a catastrophe. Failing to catch the eye of a heartthrob was a major tragedy.”

Lolita Delgado Fansler seemed to support this view, for she wrote, “Ours was a sheltered childhood. Separated or divorced parents didn’t inhabit our tiny world because parents never gossiped about troubled marriages in front of us. Going to non-Catholic schools in the United States — or even the University of the Philippines — for college was not something colegialas were supposed to do, lest we become atheists, communists, rebels, or fallen women.”

For the most part, my own colegiala experience was peppered with trivial concerns. At times, my barkada’s discussions revolved around the stone tables, and how they became our school’s most prestigious tambayan even though it meant eating lunch on top of bathroom tiles and constantly worrying about the very real threat of higad falling from the tree that provided shade to those tables.

Other times, we tried balancing chemical equations while I nagged my friends into helping me decide if I should risk asking my crush who had spiked hair to go to the prom with me, or if I should just settle for my best friend’s cousin. I think being in the school pergola with a panicky friend when the big earthquake struck in mid-1990 was the most traumatic event in my stint as a Kulasa.

A Theresian and a Maryknoller contributed essays to the book, which spoke about a particular aspect of colegiala life that doesn’t come up often. Despite the high tuition fees, some middle class girls do manage to enroll in these schools, and I was one of them. Even though we got to wear the same uniform and learned the same lessons, we didn’t experience convent school life in the same, exact way as our more affluent peers.

Alma Clutario-Patist related how a swimming party turned sour when her friend’s mother came home to find her there: “Casually, she asked me a few questions — what’s your name, where do you live? From her look of disinterest, I knew that that would be the last time I would be swimming in their pool. My family background did not come up to her family’s standards.”

In her own essay, Sonia Carreon admitted to being subjected to “verbal bullying” from one of her classmates. She wrote, “I never pretended to be rich nor even acted rich, but I guess my effort at trying to blend in was not working. Someone actually did not like me because I was poor and from the province. What had I done to make this girl hate me?”

Luckily, I didn’t go through anything as dramatic. It helped that I was surrounded by friends who also had parents who worked hard and pinched centavos just to pay our tuition. It made things a little easier, but I still remember feeling bad — no, ashamed — because I couldn’t afford those Marks and Spencers crocheted socks that almost everybody else was wearing. Actually, I probably could have extorted enough money from my parents to buy one pair, but it didn’t feel right to indulge myself when they sacrificed so much just so that I could continue studying in that rich girls’ school.

Years after this, I got my first paycheck and was tempted to use part of it to buy myself a pair of those socks even though I had no idea where I’d wear them because my days of wearing shiny Mary Janes were long gone. I was able to fend off the impulse though because by then, I had learned that it is possible not to define one’s self through designer labels. I’d like to think that because of this, I’ve made our school’s Benedictine nuns proud.

The preface of Behind the Walls posed this question: “Is being a colegiala today of as great significance as it was then?” Almost all of the essayists in this book asserted that they developed a taste for higher learning that probably wouldn’t have germinated in another environment. We learned to push ourselves, we became comfortable competing with others, partly because we didn’t have to worry about male peers watching us and thinking, “That’s not ladylike behavior at all.” Without realizing it, being driven to succeed was seared into our system little by little.

But most of all, the essayists and I appreciate our colegiala experience because this was when we established lifelong friendships. I met Pia, Hannah and Joy when we were silly school girls who spent an inordinate amount of time teasing our bangs into a tsunami shape while trying to breathe under a cloud of Aqua Net. We drank from one Coleman during breaks and suffered through trigonometry, arnis and carpentry classes together.

Our lives now are infinitely more complex, but I have a feeling when we see each other again, it would be as if we hadn’t been apart. It would be just like old times.

Edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard & Marily Y. Orosa
Anvil Publishing, softcover, 222 pages
email: anvilpublishing@yahoo.com

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