When I was in grade three, we were taught about fractions. Fractions as in ½, 4 ¼, and the like. The stuff was a complete enigma to me. “Why are there miniature numbers and why do they have bars along with them??” I thought. The simple explanation that a fraction is an “expression that indicates the quotient of two quantities” never really sank in me, like it were in a different language altogether. To me, it was as challenging as the question on the meaning of Life. I guess my thoughts were muddled up way too much that I never brought myself to comprehending the logic behind those bars.
My understanding, I admit, is very selective. That’s not to say that it is entirely intended, however. For instance, I’d be watching a classmate in college rhetoric (Speech 130) explain her powerpoint presentation on the early history of rhetoric and I’d be particularly interested in a slide with a picture of Cicero’s bust, and I’d wonder why most of the Greek relics only have heads and separate body parts and why they had so many statues and just how much marble they had reserved for art in the first place. And then I’d think of how Cicero was like during his days, and if he knew Cleopatra, and if she really came rolling out of a smuggled carpet from Egypt just to reach Caesar. From there, my thoughts would go on and on until they reached the lost Pangea and Panthalessa and way, way up to the mystery behind the etymology of the "penal code" and Bob Ong’s real identity.
Once, I raised my hand and asked our then rhetoric professor (now my thesis adviser) why Quintillan was named Quintillan. Was he fifth among his siblings? Did he have a younger brother called Sextillan or Sextus, maybe? I would come to understand a lot more about a man’s works if I knew more about him, wouldn’t I? My professor said it was irrelevant, and my classmates only smirked while one remarked, “Si Lara bibihira na nga magtanong, off pa!” Whoever gave this remark might have also been irrelevant so it is not anymore necessary to mention his name, although I would just like to openly express that it was a moment I cannot forget simply because it was unforgettable and not because I have since harbored a grudge against the comment’s source, a certain Mr. Oscar Serquiña, an intellectual and friend whom I find to be very likeable, despite his incredibly brutal honesty and loud, garrulous nature. He is one of the most vocal critics I know and I am not exempt from his evaluations. He once told my batchmates that I “dozed off” in our rhetoric classes, which is not true, by the way. Well, maybe I was caught “in the process of dozing off” but I never really reached the point of actually being asleep, with all due respect to the former dean of the College of Arts and Letters. O.o Besides, why would I settle for rhetoric as my thesis topic if I couldn’t even keep my eyes open during rhetoric classes in sophomore year? Uh-uh, I am taking this pretty seriously. So damn serious, I now forget to smile. I had to watch Blades of Glory one recent sembreak morning if only to remember how to produce genuine laughter again—the kind of laughter that has no pretensions, the kind that’s not borne out of sarcastic humor (which is usually my cup of tea, to the displeasure of one person who thinks I’m not being funny when I think I am), the kind that doesn’t hide an uneasy squirming feeling about the sort of humor that keeps us laughing nowadays, i. e. Aling Dionisia jokes (Erap jokes are understandable, but Manny’s mother never really plundered the country so why should we not just leave the poor lady out of this circus?), cross-dressing spoiled brats who harass their cross-dressing yayas, twin daughters/heiresses to a tycoon, one a deranged bipolar bitch, the other a pooch-loving, candy-eyed retard, etc. Real laughter, to me, comes hard these days. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m being way too serious and that something’s wrong with me, or whether there is something wrong with the world and that it’s not taking things seriously.
This reminds me of my third grade Mathematics teacher whose laughter I don’t remember having heard, although I remember her quite well. Her name was Mrs. Jacob and she had Anna Wintour’s bob, a Spanish nose with freckles on it, and eyes that were so animated you could read emotions from them even if you sat 20 rows of seats away at the back of the classroom. Come to think of it, her eyes might have done all the laughing for her. Well, just when I thought fractions were a force to reckon with, Mrs. Jacob introduced REMAINDERS. Again, she tried explaining that this was another concept that we could encounter following division. A remainder is the “number left over when one integer is divided by another.” If I already knew how to curse back then, I know I would’ve said, “What the motherfucking hell??” Not to mention that up to now, I still can’t quite grasp what on earth an integer is. My brain was still in the process of touching base with remainders when the bell rang and Mrs. Jacob hastily gave us a 100 item-assignment of problems for which we would have to find the remainders, if any. I tried to look for helplessness in my classmates’ faces, tried to use my x-ray mind-vision and see if I could read “DUH?” in their heads as huge and questioning as the one in mine. But I found none. They were all just eager for recess, and so, I figured that I should be feeling as normal, too. Heck, I was a kid, and it was recess! That must have meant salvation to me. To hell with remainders! Life awaited me!
That night, worrying over Mrs. Jacob’s homework at last, I ran to my aunt/second mother, Tita Manay. My brother and I grew up calling her that since Mama and the rest of her sisters refer to her as such because “Manay” means “Ate” in Bicol, and we thought that was her actual name. So, technically, we have been calling her “Tita Ate” all these years. O.o Anyways, she said she already forgot all that Grade Three stuff and got up to ask Mama/biological and first mother who was a statistician then. Mama looked at my notebook in consternation, trying to recall what “remainders” were. After poring over the very few notes that I took—perhaps because I was too busy thinking about the philosophy of remainders and how sad it must be to be mere “leftovers”--she realized that it was just a matter of division. And so, she got out a thin black gadget and taught me how to divide using the calculator. One by one, I solved for all 100 problems and I was looking at the calculator for any sign of a little r which was supposed to stand for “remainder.” Instead of this, though, the answers came with dots like periods, as in 1.21, and I thought that maybe if these signaled separations, then perhaps the digit that comes after the period must be the “leftover.” And so, happily, I clicked away on the calculator and I wrote down all the answers on my notebook, imagining the wide grin on Mrs. Jacob’s face, her eyes widening as if they had a life of their own—a pretty sight, an affirming sight, a sight that could've easily said, “Excellent job, never mind that you flunked the quiz on fractions!”
The day after, Mrs. Jacob wasn’t grinning when she was checking my notebook. No, her eyes were not even showing a smile in progress. They did widen, though, and she said, as if in slo-mo, “Lara, did you do this homework yourself?”
“Uh, yes, Ma’am.”
“Are you sure?”
“Uhm, I got a little help but I worked on th—”
“Got a little help from whom?” she asked quite sternly, but Mrs. Jacob always talked in her stern tone of voice, so it didn’t startle me much. Nevertheless, there’s something about Math teachers that never really registered quite well with me, although I have always known that Mrs. Jacob was, in fact, an awfully kind lady. .
“Mama, uhm, and her calculator,” I confessed.
To this, she summoned my aunt who was always in school to watch over my brother and me. There was a lounging area for parents and guardians in case something happened to the children, like, if his/her lunch was taken by a sixth-grade bully (sixth graders were total zombies to us) or if somebody accidentally peed/pooped in his pants/her skirt (we all have those particular classmates who got to live with this reputation) or if somebody used a calculator for her Math homework (I guess this is as criminal as copy-pasting from Wikipedia in one's homework). My aunt explained that I was having such a hard time, so they tried to make it easier for me but that I was the one who clicked on the calculator and that I wrote my own homework (which was true). Mrs. Jacob was smiling this time—and it did look kind of weird—and explained that I was not doing a homework about remainders and that what I did was on decimals, instead. Decimals. The first time I ever heard that word. What in the friggin’ name of Beelzebub was a decimal??? Of course, I didn’t think like this at that time yet, but I would have if I already had advanced language skills. Well, needless to say, I got a zero out of 100 for that particular homework. But Mrs. Jacob gave me another shot and made a new set of problems that required no use of calculator. I forget when I did learn what remainders were exactly, but I think I did pretty well afterwards since I don’t remember any further “leftover shit.”
The next big thing I had to hurdle then was knitting. In fourth grade for EPP (I forget what it stands for but it’s equivalent to home economics class). To my horror, I found out that it was, again, as arduous as answering the question on the meaning of Life. First, I tried making a table placemat. Realizing that it would take me as long as reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, I resorted to making a cup-and-saucer mat, instead. After a day’s work, I found myself looking at almost a "piece of nothing" what with the threads gone warped and haywire without making any sense at all. The project’s deadline was already nearing and I was panicking like the grade-conscious not-so-little pupil that I admittedly was (I was always at the back of the girls’ line during flag ceremonies). I then started making wristbands/bracelets, stuff that wouldn’t look as structured and could pass for “knitwear.” Inches and inches of threads, and pounds and pounds of effort later, I found myself surveying another piece of crap, crappy enough to be called “crappy” because it didn't even look like it was worthy to serve any kind of function at all. In fact, it wouldn't even pass for an abstract art exhibit. By this time, I wasn’t panicking anymore. I was already bawling, running to my Mother for help. The deadline was the next day, and I hadn’t knitted something decent. Mama, being the resourceful and intelligent mother that she is, did not know how to knit, and so, brought me to all the stores in Legazpi City that sold knitted products but which did not have to look as if they were “sold knitted products.” Unfortunately--considering the standards on quality that most laborers in the capitalist industry have to abide by just so they can earn their wages which are, apparently, unjust abstractions of exploitation and oppression--none of the knitted cellphone holders, bags, placemats, etc. on sale looked as if they could be done by a panicky grade-conscious not-so-little fourth grader. I was devastated. Mama was angry at me for not telling her early enough and for not paying close attention during the knitting lessons (I hated home economics!). I was ready to accept a 70 (it was as dreaded as sinco) the following day when to my surprise, I woke up finding a knitted green purse at the foot of my bed. I ran to Mama showing her the miracle that God must’ve granted me (the previous night, I’d been praying like a hermit nun, promising and swearing “If-You-do-this-for-me-I-won’t-ever-ever” kind of stuff.) Mama stared at me and told me as-a-matter-of-factly that she had the purse knitted by an officemate of hers way, way before the deadline and requested that the knitting job should look “amateur,” and that she didn’t tell me previously because she wanted me to learn my lesson. I pretty much ignored the moral of the story and just marveled at how her officemate came up with a "perfect" green, little purse--perfect, because it had enough flaws and entangled threads to seem like I made it myself. I carried it proudly to school that day, thanking God for making Mama my mother and praying hard that my EPP teacher would not let me demonstrate my knitting knowhow just to check if it was indeed my work.
*Sigh* Those were the days of panic and tears. And it really bugs that I am presently going through such days again. I am dealing with thesis work, and I got an “incomplete” for 199 (the first part) last semester, which disables me to take up 200 (the second part) this semester, which may eventually lead to my extending for another semester!
*knocks on wood, slaps face, knocks on wood again*
Whenever someone asks about or gushes at my "graduating" status, I automatically say, "Ginagawan pa po ng paraan." Suddenly, it does feel like those days of fractions, remainders, decimals, and knitting all over again. The only difference now is that 1) this cannot be solved by a calculator; 2) I can’t ask my Mother or her officemate to “make me a thesis”; and 3) I have stopped promising and swearing to God anything since the day I learned about Humanism in Psychology and unlearned over-dependence on faith brought about by the false consciousness that God will somehow decide one day to bring peace to the world at last. No, constant praying will not directly stop human rights violations, budget cuts and misuse of public funds, the age-old war between Palestines and Israelites, and neither will it bring justice to the peasants who died in the Hacienda Luisita Massacre, although, apparently, Cory Aquino thought otherwise, what with her saying "Let us just pray for their souls" or something that eerily sounded like that.
I am now 20, and am on my own. No calculators or any sort of shortcuts, no proxies and subs, no God, nothing. Just will and determination. So often heard. So easily said. And yet, I am my own enemy. Aw, damn it. It’s almost sunrise and I have resorted to blogging, instead. Again. Oh well, I shall go fight myself now. It’s thesis time, and I wish I’m knitting instead.