Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dreams and Pastures

Five years ago, my brother - then a Block 13 LU I Intarmed student - won 2nd Prize in the 54th Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Kabataan Essay (English) category for "To Be President... Why Not?" Well look whose turn it is now. A million thanks to dearest brother for being the chief editor and critic of this essay, and to dearest mother for being the best editorial consultant (I made that title up). And, of course, praise be to God.

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When I was little, I swore to myself that I would travel all across the world, reaching places far and wide, away from the bleak and dismal atmosphere of the Philippines. I told myself that the future would see me trekking along the slopes of the Himalayas, gazing at the Pyramids of Giza, navigating the Amazon River, and sleighing across Antarctica. With the nonstop socio-political crises and economic difficulties growing worse by the year, my dreams also got more and more colorful – even that of living a different life in a different land.

My high school peers seemed to agree to the idea. One wants to be a mariner – a seaman, colloquially – because aside from the promise of dollars, you also get to be “away from this stinking country.” Some of the boys plan to take up engineering, “since engineers are earning big bucks in Britain.” Half the class aim to become nurses and join the gold-yielding bandwagon, hopefully somewhere in the US or Canada. But sometimes, ideas just fade away.

For one, I’ve long given up on my ingenuous goal of circling the globe, in exchange for a deeper understanding about this ill-stricken society. In fact, long enough already that by the time those ‘ambition-confessions’ started to unfurl, I’ve already signed my future self up as part of an army of people willing to cure the country of its diseases, not only out of love but out of responsibility as well – an army that’s getting smaller and smaller.

As I listened to my classmates’ conversations, images of decrepit shanties popped up in my mind – a scene I had encountered from my Manila vacation not too long ago. The rundown houses lined the murky depths of the Pasig River, feeding the waters with apathy and agony. And we call this our most urbanized city? That moment, I was also reminded of the country’s distressing performance in an international math and science test a few years back, where we ranked in the bottom five. With this came the millions of Filipino children all robbed of the opportunity to go to school. And we call ourselves the pioneers of education in Asia? The verdict stuck to my mind with unshakable veracity: Juan de la Cruz is very, very incompetent.

But there I sat, surrounded by people my age, all yearning to savor the archetypal greener pastures once out of college. I’m not saying it’s wrong to crave for a taste of foreign air; given that we are indeed trapped in a boiling pot of misery, it’s even more rational to do so, especially for those who grew up suffocated by the cloaks of hopelessness, hearing radio commentators launching endless tirades against the government while TV news anchors broadcast political scandals and murders almost everyday. It’s just terrible to know that those who have been dubbed as ‘the hope of the motherland’ think only of deserting the pasture that nourished and nurtured them, a pasture that was once also very green. What a hard-hitting irony… and to think that this diaspora of sorts has penetrated even our modest high school classroom.

I’m not exactly what you would call a “hopeless patriot.” I certainly won’t be the first one to die for this country if the time comes, especially since many have blindly done so in our war-stained past. I just happen to have a strong faith in the capabilities of the Filipino youth. Despite the dire state of our nation, I strongly believe that we, the predestined saviors of society, can rebuild this democracy – maybe not to be the best, but at least to be a competent one.

After all, we already have the foundation for the job: education. Sometime in our fourth year English class, our teacher tasked us to come up with an analytical paper on the South African leader Nelson Mandela. It was in making this paper that I met one of his most powerful statements: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

In our case, those words most certainly ring out with truth: Education is our only recourse left in jumpstarting this mission to change the face of our nation. It is already fact that we have the brains, but an even bigger one that where we fall short is in honing these intelligences, making everything seem like an awful joke since we happen to be heirs to an intellectual heritage created by some of the greatest beacons of knowledge. Likewise, if we set aside some time for scanning our history books or library archives, we would see that not too long ago, education in this country wasn’t quite different from that of the current superpowers (or ‘superlearners’, should I say). It’s all a matter of making the largest and youngest group of Filipinos realize that we have the books and the brains; what’s needed is our willingness to learn, our cooperation in resurrecting our dying learning system, and our helping hands for those who think otherwise.

However, learning alone is insufficient in shaping competence, when the mind detaches itself from tradition and principles. In other words, just as the Filipino youth gather knowledge, so should they also cherish and firmly grasp the cultural values that define and glorify their home. The bayanihan spirit, respect for elders, close-knit families, hospitality, long-lasting perseverance, to name a few – they are our shatterproof vests against the bullets of excessive modernization, our shields against the swords of excess radicalism.

I say this because I was raised in a similar way. I belong to a family that upholds its values and philosophies – which, in an era of no-sweat living and unreasonable extravagance, most probably comes across to others as unwise or nonsensical. While some people would instinctively and immediately go on a wild goose chase after luxury and magnificence, we prefer to silently toil at a corner and work for the bigger and grander scheme of things. This, perhaps, is a result of having grandparents who were both living epitomes of hard work, simplicity, and most of all, frugality – a belief system which we continue to honor and preserve.

In a society that’s battered by broken promises but still blinded by mindless ambition, some would say that it’s already pointless to keep on living by one’s idealistic principles, since both have seemingly died out. I disagree – because peacefully existing in this kaleidoscopic microcosm of the world with my family’s time-tested traditional values has led me to form an identity I’ll always flaunt with sincere pride. It’s more than just a way of life; it’s a lifelong source of dignity.

Sadly, it’s the very same kind of dignity which my fellow youth lack. We may have vast treasuries of knowledge on our hands and the principles to stand by for, but if we don’t take pride in them or believe that we can soar the skies with them, all will be for nothing. How many times have we Filipinos proven that as long as we believe in our dreams and work hard for them, we can make things happen? All the same, we must generate that time-tested confidence: that a country now chained to the manacles of poverty and endlessly troubled by insurgency will be able to rise above the ashes and see better tomorrows. In the end, it all boils down to whether we still have that same kind of hopefulness, that undying perseverance… that optimism that is just so natural among us. In the end, it will all depend on whether or not we decide to believe that Juan de la Cruz, however incompetent, can and will survive the most trying of times, emerging as a better (if not the best) Republic with the Filipino youth at the forefront of this national makeover.

So there, I guess I’ve sounded patriotic enough to border on ironic. But I consider myself a totally different species – a “hopeful patriot.” Many a selfless Filipino once sacrificed his life for the sake of defending our freedom and giving education in this country an identity of its own; to take part in feasting on this hard-earned education granted only to a privileged few, and then, just try to leave this land of heroes as early as possible – is just as foolish as others regard not heading abroad. I’m not advocating idealism here; I want to revive it, more so at a time when holding fast to one’s idealistic principles is supposedly tantamount to being impractical or naïve.

As I write this, it’s only a little more than a month before college life unfolds. In a few weeks, many among my friends would then don their best armors and hurdle the academic life to the best of their abilities, headed for the promise of a future abroad that they themselves have envisioned and are hoping to fulfill. I myself would also don my shiniest armor, only that I haven’t spent more than a couple of ancient, solitary moments picturing myself to be frolicking with foreign grandeurs. Strangely enough, seeing my fellow youth map out their futures in some distant land only makes me all the more believe that mine should somehow be in this country.

But who am I to stop them, when I used to be one of them? Nevertheless, I’ve learned to dream of better things: That someday, there comes a class of high school seniors who don’t simply aspire to spend the future manning majestic ships or pricey cruise liners along the high seas, tending to patients in a New York hospital, or overseeing the construction of a skyscraper in London. Instead, they aspire to be part of an army willing to transform the Philippines into a globally competent nation – to be doctors, teachers, or even virtuous and selfless political leaders in a land that pays them with harshness and injustice. Then, we shall see less of dilapidated houses along filthy waterways, read less of the country’s tragic results in some international aptitude test, and hear less of children with no prospect whatsoever of getting into school.

It’s not the most sensible dream there is; but it’s not impossible either. The youth can make this happen – and we must make it happen. All we need to do is cherish our intellectual heritage, stand by our traditions and values, and believe that we can rebuild this land to become a greener, or even better, the greenest pasture there is.

It’s a dream every hopeful patriot is willing to fulfill. And it would all be a million times better than conquering the loftiest of mountains, gazing at Egyptian pantheons, sailing along exotic rivers, traversing an icy continent – or living a different life in a different land.

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