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There’s the Rub

Impoverished

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I’m aghast at and overwhelmed and thoroughly defeated by the death of Kristel Pilar Mariz Tejada. Some deaths do not particularly weigh heavily on the mind; others do. This is one of those that do.

Tejada was the 16-year-old who took her own life by drinking cleaning liquid. She was a student of UP Manila, taking up behavioral science. It is not entirely clear why she ended her all too young life last week. She was alone in her parents’ house in Tayuman when she did, being found hours later too far gone. What is known is that a few days earlier, she quit school because she could no longer afford it.

Under the UP system which classifies students according to their ability to pay, Tejada was a “Class D” student, the second to the lowest category. “Class E” consists of students who pay no tuition at all, “Class D” of those who pay P300 per unit. Tejada’s father is a taxi driver while her mother is a housewife. She was the eldest in a brood of five. Last year, during her first year in college, she got a P6,337 student loan. She was given an extension to pay for it in November and again in December. Early this year, her father asked for still another extension and possibly a new loan for her. Since it was already the middle of the semester, his request was denied.

In fact, said school authorities, Tejada was entitled to an P8,000 tuition grant, but she hadn’t been able to comply with requirements. It was reported that a couple of weeks ago, she filed a leave of absence for the second semester. A couple of days later, she drank poison.

UP officials theorize that Tejada may have had all sorts of personal problems. But they do not rule out the possibility that her financial troubles might also have contributed to it. They have since sent their commiseration to the Tejada family and, not a little ironically, financial help to see them through in their hour of need. They cannot blame the Tejadas if the Tejadas regard their overtures less than appreciatively and remember the saying about “Aanhin pa ang damo….”

It’s tragic in all the ways that tragic can be.

At the very least, it’s so in that it’s truly tragic to be poor, mahirap ang mahirap. Many years ago, I wrote a speech titled “Tongues on Fire,” which also became the title of a book of speeches I later published. There I talked about a horrific insight I got about what it means to be poor. I’ve known poor, I’ve breathed poor, I’ve lived poor. And I’ve not forgotten the sight and sound and smell of poor, I’ve not forgotten the fear and trembling of poor.

But nothing quite prepared me for a news story I read about someone not just taking his own life but those of his entire family from having nothing in life. Nothing to see him through, nothing to look forward to. The guy had tried to keep his wife’s and five kids’ bodies and souls together, but adversity kept thwarting his efforts. The sound of his children crying themselves to sleep on their empty stomachs haunted him, and finally he and his wife decided to end it all and drag their children into it. The man came home one day, mixed insecticide into a last meal, and they went to sleep without ever waking up.

An insanity? The action of a thoroughly deranged man? To be sure. But it also gives glimpses into the pit of desperation, into the darkness of despair, into the nightmare of the poor. It is the feeling of having no one to turn to, no refuge to go to, no means of escape. It’s the feeling of being boxed in, you cannot move an inch however you squirm or thrash about.

You look at it with rich or middle-class eyes, you’ll find P6,337 or even P8,000 the silliest thing to die for. Indeed, the most incomprehensible thing to kill yourself for. Which, too, should give us whole new insights into our relative valuations of value. A peso may be bubog to us, but it is life and death, or at least food and hunger, to the street kids that regularly scour the streets badgering cars for coins.

But what makes this even more tragic is that it has to do with education, with learning, with enlightenment. It has to do with escape, with freedom, with a heroic effort to better one’s lot. What makes this even more tragic is that whatever drove Tejada to still her breath, whatever other grief she may have had in life, a good part of it was also that she could no longer go to school, she could no longer escape, she could no longer dream the dream. How can you not weep at the utter wastefulness of the wanton destruction of this girl? How can you not feel bereft at the loss of so precious a life?

That Tejada was studying at UP to begin with must suggest that she was a bright and promising kid. You cannot get to UP without being so, poor alone doesn’t cut it. That she was taking up behavioral science hammers home the loss, or the irony of that loss, all the more. To want to understood how people behave, why people act the way they do, but to not understand in the here and now why people do what they do, why life takes on the aspect of something unfeeling, something cruel, something deadly—that is the most infuriating and depressing thing of all.

Tejada may have died by her own hand, but so only literally, so only visibly, so only immediately. In the end, her hand may have been pushed to it by other things, by other beings, by other people. In the end, her death is an indictment of this country, it is an indictment of all of us, that we can allow things like this to come to pass. John Donne once said that the death of a single person diminishes us all. Certainly, the death of this one person diminishes us all.

The death of this one child impoverishes us all.


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