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Gold’s memories

Class reunions are important in the Philippines, with frenzied preparations made way ahead of time. Last week, I was asked by my urologist about where I bought a coral-colored shirt I was wearing in an Inquirer social media post. His batchmates, the medicine class of 1985 from the University of the East (UE), were preparing for their 35th anniversary next year, and 35th is coral as silver is 25th and gold, 50th.

It becomes easier to attend these reunions after you’ve retired, which I haven’t, so I missed our high school batch’s golden anniversary celebrations (note the plural). But I still got, in my email, “see what you missed” photos.

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The celebrations did make me pause to think of what it meant to be graduating from high school in 1969.

In 1960, I belonged to one of the pioneer batches for a new Xavier School that had moved from congested Echague Street in Quiapo to a small town in Rizal province called San Juan. Our parents were ambivalent, worried about the wilderness that was San Juan but attracted by the idea of quality education provided by Jesuits—Americans, Canadians, Spaniards and Chinese who had been missionaries in China but were expelled after the communists took over.

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Education in Xavier was rigorous. We had classes in English, Chinese and Filipino and had all kinds of subjects and training for various competencies. We learned to touch type in sixth grade, a skill useful for high school when we learned to do term papers. Our math classes were intensive, with endless exercises that make Kumon pale in comparison. We learned to use the abacus with a giant model mounted on the blackboard, and we would recite the procedures in Chinese as we manipulated the beads: yi sang yi, er sang er (one up one, two up two).

Soon, college was on the horizon. The Jesuits took no chances about the final push. I was dismal on current events in the career tests, and was told not to go into journalism. We all took the American SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) partly to benchmark Xavier’s education, and partly because some of our classmates were intent on studying abroad.

Like many of my classmates, I took the admissions tests for UP and Ateneo, the latter because in my junior year, I was part of a summer scholars program in Loyola, a kind of appetizer to convince us to stay with the Jesuits for college.

I passed both exams, but my parents were firm: Not UP.  Communists. Drug addicts. Sex addicts.

It was a tumultuous time.  Once Southeast Asia’s most developed country, the Philippines’ fortunes were rapidly declining and social discontent was widespread, with Manila’s streets marked by more and more protest actions.  The countryside was a social volcano, the Communist Party of the Philippines having been reestablished in December 1968 and a New People’s Army in March 1969, the very month and year our batch finished high school.

It was only in Ateneo where I got a glimpse of the social unrest. We had presidential elections in November that year, and many Ateneans idolized the charismatic and fellow Atenean Raul Manglapus, who had run for president in 1965. He did not run in 1969 but visited campuses, warning about overwhelming social inequality and Marcos’ ambitions beyond a second term.

Many parents, mine included, considered Manglapus a communist. But the radicals were not in Ateneo; they were about a kilometer away, in mysterious UP Diliman, with red flags fluttering in the distance as UP students prepared for rallies.

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The First Quarter Storm of 1970 was inevitable, vividly chronicled by Jose Lacaba in a book aptly titled “Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage.” UP Diliman was to be a hub for that storm, and our life in Ateneo became one of uneasy, even restless, calm. Blue was our color, but the red in the distance seemed to draw closer.

It was not until 1971 that I got my way and transferred to UP, in time for even more colorful times. I think of my young(er) friends from UE, studying medicine from 1981 to 1985, who would witness seas of humanity, both red and yellow.

Colors and themes aside, anniversaries should be times to reflect on how we were, and how we became what we are. I think back with gratitude to the Jesuits, for developing habits of the mind as well as habits of the heart—habits that prepared me well for UP, and for the world.

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