Not a lot of people know this but technically I went to two high schools. The first was Uno High School where I started kindergarten all the way to first year high school. The second was Philippine Academy of Sakya where my mom transferred me (and my brother) after I flunked my Chinese classes during first year. Yes, I flunked. Badly.
It wasn’t even because it was hard. More than anything I think I just got bored and just stopped putting in any effort. To give some context, Uno is known as a really strict school with a high standard of education. The strictness is borderline like a military school in that everyone is expected to follow the rules to the T. There was a lack of extracurricular activities as the focus was purely on academics.
My mom felt perhaps the setup wasn’t ideal anymore for me given that I was an honor student in kinder and grade school and my performance in school slipped as got to Grade 6 and 1st year. She decided to transfer me to her alma mater, Sakya. I wasn’t happy about this because coming from Uno, the perception was that Sakya was a lesser school (or pretty much all other schools for that matter given how much school pride was drilled into us ever since in Uno). I was embarrassed but deep down I knew it was my fault for failing. I remember arguing with my mom about not wanting to take the entrance exam in Sakya even right before I was about to take the exam. I actually thought about punting the exam but I think that would have been more embarrassing to say I also failed a basic entrance exam.
Long story short, I did end up going to Sakya, and despite my initial trepidation, I’m very grateful that my mom made that move for me (and my brother too who was more excited to join me in moving schools). The biggest adjustment was how the school wasn’t as strict as what I was used to in Uno. Talking to your classmates was allowed when there was no teacher yet in the classroom, which I never once experienced in Uno because there were cameras watching the classes with no teachers. Like I said, military-level strictness lol. And in my first week there alone, I witnessed more fights than in all my years in Uno. It was definitely a culture shock for me.
But what I immediately liked about Sakya was how more well-rounded the school was in terms of activities whether it was in sports or the arts. I thoroughly enjoyed being exposed to different sports outside of basketball like chess and volleyball, to excelling in spelling bees, to performing on stage whether in plays, interpretative dances, and even discovering that I can sing (a bit). It was really through my 3 years in Sakya that I learned more about myself. Also, given how bad I felt about flunking in Uno and how it went against what I thought of myself as a good student, I rediscovered the drive to excel in academics and graduated with honors.
In my 3 years there, I had two favorite teachers – my English teacher Mrs. Gusi and our THE/Drafting teacher Mr. Simpao.
From Mr. Simpao, I learned the value of taking pride in my work and the discipline to do things the right way. He had a couple of sayings he never got tired of drilling into us. “Love your work” and “Do it right the first time”. These words are forever etched into my brain even the way he said them in that laconic almost melodic tone that was his signature. His subject was probably the hardest because he was such a stickler for details and craftsmanship even for the most basic plates (as the drafting sheets were referred to). Each line is scrutinised even how clean (or dirty) the plate you submit was. He was not above tearing your submissions or dumping them in the trash (never mind how much you slaved over them) if he felt it was beneath his standards. He berated and forced all of us to level up our work to a standard that for sure felt like it was an impossible one to meet.
Watching J.K. Simmons’ character in the movie Whiplash actually reminded me of Mr. Simpao. And like Fletcher the movie character, I can see that Mr. Simpao simply wanted his students to hold themselves to a higher standard, to push us to do our best work because sometimes we also don’t know what we’re capable of. I was never the top student in that class as a handful in our batch were really amazing artists but I certainly put in the effort to excel as much as I can. My proudest moment was that in my senior year, one of my projects scored a 99 which he said was the highest grade he ever gave (impossibly high standards like I said). It was for a project where we needed to use vines in a creative way and I used it to make a “belen” with lights for Christmas. I still remember submitting it and how he even got teary-eyed for a bit while scrutinising it. My mom still uses it under the Christmas tree every year until now.
With Mrs. Gusi, she treated me almost like a son given that she was also the teacher of my uncles and aunts when they were in Sakya. It helped too that English was my strongest subject and that I had quickly dominated (pardon the blatant bragging lol) in spelling bees , writing contests and the like upon my transfer. Reading all those books when I was younger definitely came in handy for my vocabulary. During 3rd year, the school decided to send a representative to a Metro Manila wide speech contest and I was tapped to represent the school after winning the school speech contest.
But, during the preparation for this contest, I think Mrs. Gusi kinda saw I was mailing it in and not really taking the practice seriously. To be honest, I wasn’t too confident that I can compete and have a chance to win. I had built up the competition so much in my mind I was sort of sabotaging my preparation thinking there’s no chance anyway. In the last practice before the contest, Mrs. Gusi sent me home early but not before leaving a note in my speech sheets. She said that she has full confidence in me, that even if I pretend not to care or believe that I can do it, she knows that deep down I have the ability to do well if I only believe in myself. She ended the note by saying she knows I’ll do my best and that will be enough come the contest. It may sound weird but really up until that point in my life, no one has really said encouraging words like that to me, not even my parents. It certainly had the right effect on me as that night I took those words to heart and practiced my speech a couple more times with much more effort.
During the competition, the field was incredibly talented and well-prepared. With Mrs. Gusi’s words of inspiration, I took the stage and delivered the speech better than I imagined or practiced. I felt good about my chances but in the end I had to settle for 1st runner-up as the winner actually combined singing with his speech which was pretty good I must say. But, I still did it, I brought home a trophy to the school in a competition of almost 30 schools, I performed well enough to beat everyone except for one. It’s a lot more than I expected going in and it wouldn’t have been possible without Mrs. Gusi’s confidence in me.
Until now, I still value the impact they had in that critical juncture of my life, as I was going through adolescence and learning more about myself. In fact, at the tail end of senior year, when all the department heads (of which both of them were for their respective subjects) were deliberating on the honors, I was told by another teacher that no one argued more on my behalf than Mrs. Gusi and Mr. Simpao. Honestly, even if they didn’t do that and I didn’t make the cut to graduate with honors, the lessons they imparted have benefitted me more than an award ever could. And for that, I’m forever grateful to have been their student.