Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Growing Up St. Scholastican by Neni Sta Romana Cruz


The following article by is Neni Sta. Romana Cruz. This is part of the book BEHIND THE WALLS: LIFE OF CONVENT GIRLS, a collection of personal essays by graduates of Philippine Convent Schools.  The collection includes writings by Gemma Cruz, Imelda Nicolas, Herminia Menez Coben, and others. 

For more information about the book, visit . The online store of the publisher Anvil Philippines may have a few copies. 


by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz

copyright 2005 and 2023 by Neni Sta Romana Cruz

Because my mother and her four sisters had all studied at St. Scholastica’s College in their girlhood, I too, like the rest of my female first cousins, had to study there, if I was deemed to be brought up with the proper trappings of respectability. 


My early elementary years were with the Belgian nuns of St. Theresa’s in Quezon City, because we lived closer to this campus then.  All I recall from those years were the red silky Chinese costume I wore for a dance, the frilly and uncomfortable party dresses the day’s birthday celebrants were allowed to wear to school, and the fascinating triangular head gear the warm and friendly nuns had.

It must have been the family bias for the Benedictine education that has totally blotted out my Theresian memories.

For my entrance exam for grade 5 at SSC,  I was mortified then and for decades after that I had gotten the plural of valley all wrong.  Vallies, I had written and my anguish over that bespeaks of this scrupulous conscience in the making.  I had feared that my inadequacies would be uncovered by my overachieving older cousins already well entrenched in the school system. 

No, vallies did not lead to my non-admission to the school — and thus began 11 impressionable years with the Benedictines known for stern discipline and their time-honored ideals of Ora et Labora, Pray and Work.  My mother, who had to look after twin brothers who came after me, must have been so relieved and pleased that much of her child rearing had been relegated to the nuns — of the German variety —  she used to brag with pride.  To her, it was the best thing she could do for her eldest child.  How could those nuns not right any wrong?  How could they not straighten the ways of those astray? 

There was a special day in November designated as Marylike Day when all of us came to school in clothes the Blessed Virgin would have approved of.  This was not a problem for the few among us who had passed the stringent membership requirements to be a Sodalist or a true child of Mary in both behavior and apparel.  The rest of us had to take extra effort, in the very same manner one would choose a prom dress, for the perfectly modest dress that was neither tight nor short nor revealing.

            But wearing one’s blue jumper uniform in grade school and high school carried its own hazards.  It had to have the horizontal and vertical straps in the right place and in the proper shade of blue, of course.  The ruffles on the white blouse had to fall gracefully and not appear pleated or one was easily viewed a social outcast — somehow, only the one official school seamstress had the magic touch for all those details.

In college, when the skirts began its fashionable and immodest rise, one ran the risk of being asked by the much feared dean, Sister Caridad, to kneel wherever she found you for that ultimate skirt length test.  If the skirt did not touch the floor, then it had to be ripped right there and then.  One also was not allowed to wear those trendy stretch hairbands close to the forehead, the way Gloria Diaz wore them so fashionably on campus then.  Sister Caridad also banned teased hairstyles and these had to be deflated with immediate washing in the restroom.  “Woe to you!” was her signature warning that evoked brimstone and hellfire.

It was Sister Caridad who also warned us college seniors ready to conquer the world and male hearts, besides, never to take an apartment in New York, the most dreadfully sinful city of all, because that was sure to lead to eternal damnation.  That was a warning more dire than the earlier one in high school when we were forbidden to go to UP because atheists reigned supreme there. Will she from her celestial perch forgive us infidels for being so enamored with this evil city today?

    Also in the same genre were her words about using one’s arms to maintain safe distance as one slow dragged — yes, you had to push your partner as far away from you as possible . . . And horrors, nothing of the cheek to cheek sort.  What bliss and what guilt I felt during all those junior-senior proms away from Sister Caridad’s presence.


Another major influence was the excellent math and science German nun, Sister Odiliana, who called those of us without proper underwear — a chemise to cover any trace of a bra (it was not proper to call it a bra then) “Harlots.”  And when she saw our bare arms from sleeveless dresses, she would say that a viper was certain to emerge from such exposure.  She would be so enraged one felt totally responsible for the fall of man and the existence of original sin.  When our graduation was imminent, she finally deigned to smile in our presence.  It was then when she revealed that she had taught boys and through their firsthand accounts, knew what gave rise to all those sins of the flesh.

Neither has Mitch Valdes been unscathed by the Odiliana experience.  Her present showbiz spiels always include admonitions about the risks of pregnancy while swimming with the opposite sex, as the sperms may come your way.

 In the eyes of the nuns then, my most serious crimes must have been literary.  I was “caught” engaging in letter writing by my high school principal, Sister Lieou, she who fascinated me because of all the vowels in her name.  My name had appeared on the school board for “Mail Call” (the ultimate achievement for me then) and she said she was apprehensive about where this would lead.  And I was certain it was not even a boy who was writing me then.

As a college freshman, my class and I were enthused about a class magazine we called Smoke Signals.  We all worked hard on this over school holidays, pooling all our resources.  I was editor in (mis) chief and on the back cover, we had painstakingly glued  a matchstick with the line, “This magazine’s not for burning!”.  Those were such juvenile touches, but little did we know that the latter would emerge an ominously appropriate symbol.

            On the day we were set to circulate these, a few of us were summoned to the dean’s office.  She, the same Sister. Caridad who so despised New York, minced no words about her regret about this “unauthorized” publication, something the school could not condone because it meant the unauthorized use of the school name.  She did not complain about its contents, our syntax, our grammar, any subversive ideas.  It just was not proper form.  We were not even brave enough to argue back and remind her we did not even use the school seal — too complicated for our homegrown type of desk top publishing then.

 There was no disciplinary action meted.  I guess it was too difficult to establish clear grounds for it.  But we were strictly forbidden from circulating it further in the school.  And so that all those contraband copies would not go to waste, we clandestinely circulated them to boys’ schools through our network of brothers and cousins and friends of friends.  The reading audience we aspired for, in the first place.

            We were successfully cowed into silence, for that was the first and last issue of Smoke Signals. (Is it poetic justice that a dear classmate and cohort, a Smoke Signals columnist, Paulynn Paredes-Sicam and I now have published bylines?)  What troubled us most was that our English teacher whose name we had included in the staff box as a gesture of our admiration and affection, was similarly summoned to the Dean’s Office and soon after, quit her job to work in the most sinful city of the world.

 I do not know how I made it to high school and then to college, with respectable grades and even as student council president — but please don’t ask me how my leadership advanced the cause of student activism then — when I seemed to be breaking all the rules.  As a new student in grade 5, I met classmates who remain my best friends today, because we misbehaved together.  We were a giggly lot — high on the list of immodest behavior frowned upon — and were harshly disciplined for laughing much too boisterously in the school pergola adjoining the chapel and disturbing the nuns at Vespers.  We got the younger nuns in trouble with their superiors by engaging them in confidential conversations on campus till they were late for prayers. 

            But the nun-friends made then are even dearer to us now.  They have laughed and cried with us through every crisis of marriage and family life.  And because we are friends, they understand when we accuse them of leading us to believe that a home on a hill with yellow curtains, six children and monogrammed linen were all it too to make a marriage blissful.

            They too laugh with us when we talk of the Biology class that Sister Mary Bernard was too embarrassed to teach, and thus reproduction never went beyond frogs, of the day when I spilt a bottle of ink on Sister Simeona’s immaculate while habit and how she did not devour me for such irreverence, of the high school skit I wrote and directed for our class which was never staged completely because we went beyond our time allotment and the electrically drawn curtains fell on us.  Our excellent literature teacher then and today’s gerontology guru, Sister Mary Sylvester, far from senility, bears no remembrance of that — but she does recall having to make us toe the line, even about avoiding UP at all costs, only to reveal to us in recent times that it broke her heart to do so, as she was herself from the university!

 I dreaded a reprise of the “falling curtains” incident years later when I forgot parts of a speech for Sisters’ Feastday that I had memorized by rote.  Gentle and serene Sister Soledad did not whisk me offstage and neither did she begrudge my not giving the school a Ten Top Outstanding Student winner when she chose me to be school representative that year, decades ago.

            Who can forget Sister Mary Andrew who allowed us to write compositions in Taglish, sensitive to an era when we were penalized for speaking in the national language?  And dear Sister Anglica, now Mother Prioress, who kept in storage for me, a present from a college date I wanted to banish from my life forever?

            If I retell these tales today, it is neither to mock nor to trivialize, but to celebrate all these influences in my life — and to help me somehow understand the woman I have become.  That these continue to be retold with no bitterness nor regret, is an affirmation of having come full circle and an understanding of those no-nonsense ways of instilling discipline.  Though we left college brimming with optimism, we discovered that we were not always unfazed and that we were truly “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life.”  But we had been broken in to endure all odds.

            We were let out of the convent walls with the wild illusion that we were the best, the cream of the crop, only to discover with much shock, the many others who were stronger, brighter, more competent.  But thanks to all that has been, the hardy spirit, the work ethic, yes, even the prayerfulness has seen us through.

            Forty years after high school today, my rowdy classmates are eager to retrace the steps of our Scholastican girlhoods, in strictly disrespectful attire, one jests.  It is heady, the thought of being silly school girls all over again.

            And each time I drive through the now forever congested streets surrounding the college campus, I find myself lamenting the many changes that time and commerce have wrought, and actually turn nostalgic for the good old days, and the many secrets that those forbidding convent walls hold.



Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz is a freelance journalist, educator, and children's book writer and reviewer. Her articles have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals, in recent years, the Philippine Daily Inquirer.  Her books are:  Tales from EDSA and Sundays of Our Lives, anthologies of essays, both shortlisted for the National Book Award; Gabriela Silang; Why the Pina Has a Hundred Eyes and Other Classic Philippine Folk Tales About Fruits, 1993 National Book Award in Children's Literature; The Warrior Dance and Other Classic Philippine Sky Tales, shortlisted for the 1998 National Book Award in Children's Literature; Don't Take a Bath on a Friday: Philippine Superstitions and Folk Beliefs; You Know You're Filipino If... A Pinoy Primer.

She is a faculty member at International School Manila where her previous assignments included heading the Children's Media Center and teaching writing to talented elementary school students.  She continues to be a reading advocate today as member of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People and trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation which dreams of building a nation of readers through reading promotion programs in public schools.

            She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, major in English, cum laude from St. Scholastica's College and a master's degree in English literature  from the Ateneo de Manila University.  She has also taken postgraduate courses in children's literature from Michigan State University.  She and her husband Elfren S. Cruz, have three children: Tanya, Roel, Aina.


Read also:

Neni Sta Romana Cruz's Growing up St. Scholastican 

Herminia Menez Coben's Behind the Walls of St Scholastica College 

Gemma Cruz-Araneta's Benevolent Assimilation 

Imelda M. Nicolas's Confessions of an Interna 

Watch also: THE CEBUANA IN THE WORLD: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard Writing out of Cebu 

Tags: #Philippineeducation #Filipinoschools #Catholicschools 

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