That was an awe-inspiring story that came out in the Inquirer last Monday about Dante Tabunar. He is the 44-year-old who graduated from PUP at the top of his class. In every sense of the word, “top,” and in every sense of the word, “class.”
Forced to quit school at 19 to help his family, he worked variously as house help, balut vendor, security guard, and printing press assistant, till he found a clerical job in the public affairs section of the Comelec in Quezon City. Through all this time, he never stopped dreaming of going back to school and earning a college degree. In 2009, he stopped dreaming and started acting, enrolling in PUP and majoring in IT but later shifting to business management. He finished his course in less than four years, studying by night and on weekends and reporting to the office by day, often after only three hours of sleep.
The sacrifice paid off. Last week, Tabunar graduated with the highest honors. The “bonus” of getting top honors came from his philosophy that if he was going to do anything anyway, he might as well do it well.
His 81-year-old mother was there to witness the event. As well indeed as his kids who made the event doubly joyous: His daughter graduated from UP a couple of years ago cum laude in economics, and his son finished his mathematics course at PUP at the same time he graduated. Now he has a past to look back on with pride and a future to look forward to with optimism.
It doesn’t end here for him: He plans to take up postgraduate studies in community work or public administration in UP. “Learning never stops,” he says. “I want to have a sense of fulfillment.”
This is the second time in a couple of months that a story has come out about people passionately, desperately wanting to get an education. The two stories are a study in contrast, this one having a happy, indeed luminous, ending, and the other a tragic, indeed horrendous, one. The other story of course was that of Kristel Tejada, the 16-year-old student who killed herself by drinking cleaning liquid after being dropped off the lists of UP Manila apparently for failing to pay P6,000 or so in tuition.
She had taken out a loan from the school of that amount which she had tried to pay back over the semester but failed. She applied for another loan but was refused. Faced with the prospect of not being able to get past the rut of want and misery—her parents could barely eke out a living doing manual work—she ended a life that had barely begun.
Both are admirable, even Tejada who took the way out. I will not say the easy way out, it is easy only if you live in more livable circumstances. If P6,000 is not a matter of heaven or hell for you, if P6,000 is not a matter of life and death for you. She is admirable in her ache to better herself, or improve her mind, or merely escape poverty, whatever education meant to her. How many kids her age value education like this? How many kids her age cling to the hope of school like this? Hell, I know some kids who would rather drink rat poison, or threaten to do so, than be forced to go to school, let alone college.
But Tabunar is obviously the far more admirable. Or the more easily posed as worthy of emulation. He is the one who shows that education is the surest—no, the only—way to escape poverty. At the very least, that is so not just because after graduating at the top of his class even at that age, he can look forward to more gainful employment. He will never have to ply the streets selling balut again, he will never have to spend sleepless nights guarding empty buildings again, even if there is nothing wrong with selling balut and being a security guard (today is Labor Day, there is such a thing as the dignity of labor).
Quite apart from that, Tabunar shows what real poverty is and how learning—or wanting to learn—is the surest—no, the only—way to escape it. Being poor is not just a plight, it is a mentality. It is not just a condition, it is an attitude. It is not just a lack of things, it is a sense of powerlessness before things. The day Tabunar refused to give up, the day he ruled to pick up schooling again one day, the day he did everything he needed to do to survive but dreamt of more than surviving, he stopped being poor. The resolve to study itself, the desire to learn itself, made him stop being poor. He might have lived in impoverished conditions, but he was no longer poor. He carried with him the seeds of progress.
Indeed, the day Tabunar refused to just get by in his studies, to get a diploma that he could hang on a wall, to get the credits that could get him a better job, the day he ruled to strive for excellence, to do the best that he could, to be the best that he could be, he stopped being poor. Being poor is not just having little or nothing, it is settling for having little or nothing. It is being resigned, it is being prostrate, ganyan talaga ang buhay, bahala na ang langit. The day Tabunar ruled to reach for things beyond his grasp, he stopped being poor and started being rich. That is what the rich do: They do not just think of getting by, they think of getting ahead. They do not just think of surviving, they think of prevailing. They do not just think of necessity, they think of possibility.
Still, indeed, the day that Tabunar sent his own kids to school, took pride in their accomplishments, continued to dream of studying, learning never stops, he showed not just what not being poor meant, he showed what being rich meant. Being rich is not just having things, it is having the things that matter. Being rich is not just the having of things, it is the pursuit of things. Being rich is, well, look at Tabunar and see if he is not rich in ways the rich themselves will never know. What can I say?