Our heroes as students | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Our heroes as students

Pagasa says the rainy season officially started early this week with rain that left parts of Metro Manila under water.

Filipinos of a previous generation tell the young willing to listen that June should be dry because past wet seasons started in July and peaked with the heavy rains of August, then blame the early onset of the rainy season on climate change. It seems that climate is not the only thing that has changed over the years. Many people remember that school opening used to be after Independence Day on June 12, but this year many schools began holding classes last Monday June 10; some even opened last week.


Elementary school teachers could tell their students about our heroes as students. Let’s not burden them with Jose Rizal’s sterling example right away. Let’s talk about others like Andres Bonifacio who was orphaned early in life and did not attend a formal school.

Contrary to popular belief, Bonifacio was not illiterate and poor. His father may have been a tailor, a lowly profession in our day but one that paid quite well in late 19th-century Philippines, such that Bonifacio studied under a private or neighborhood tutor and, according to the late Teodoro A. Agoncillo, attained our equivalent of “Grade Five.” He knew how to read, write and do simple math. Bonifacio became a lifelong learner, educating himself by constant reading and he learned verse by watching, and later participating in, the verse plays known then and now as “komedya,” which depicted the life and miracles of the saints or acted out stories from folklore, legend and history.


The most popular komedya depicted the conflict between Christians and Moros and has come down to us as “moro-moro.” Aside from verse, Bonifacio is said to have learned sword-fighting and dance moves that served him well during the Philippine Revolution.  It is unfortunate that we have scant documentary material on Bonifacio’s childhood.

Compared to Rizal who left us with a revealing adolescent diary and some letters, Emilio Aguinaldo wrote little, but there is a revealing chapter on his early education in his memoirs “Mga gunita ng himagsikan” that is worth returning to this year with the opening of classes. Aguinaldo did not have an iPad nor Lego, but he had building blocks: “I still recall that during my childhood, one of the toys that my beloved father gave me was a huge basket full of blocks two inches square. These blocks were of different colors and on each face was written a letter of the alphabet. My father probably had two motives in giving them to me—first, that I may have something to play with and, second, to arouse my interest in the rudiments of learning, particularly the alphabet. Actually, while I played with the blocks, I did learn the alphabet and eventually joined the letters to form words. Very beautiful beginning, but when I was introduced to formal schooling on the cartilla alphabetica in the school of Sotera Aguinaldo, my grandmother, instead of attending to my studies, I spent my time playing the common games of the times such as kalahuyo, sopo, calderon, baticobra, piku-piko, San Anton, and tubigan.”

It is clear from the above that Aguinaldo had a quick, inquisitive mind that folded up rather than blossomed in a formal school environment. Had play been used in his education, perhaps Aguinaldo would have turned out differently.

Aguinaldo was a likeable student and a likeable classmate who was rarely punished for not knowing his Math and Spanish. Unlike his dull classmates who were whipped, hit on the palms or made to stand in front of the class with hands outstretched, he was a teacher’s pet. Sometimes it is a teacher or a school that brings out the best from a student or stifles his learning.

Aguinaldo began his memoirs by narrating how his father hastened his mother’s difficult delivery by exploding firecrackers under the bed and jolting Aguinaldo out into the light. Gunpowder was thus part of little Aguinaldo’s first breath, and that familiar smell would be with him during the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War. Aguinaldo described his toy gun as: “a thin strip of rattan wound around a piece of bamboo with a small hole cut near the knot. I would put a wick of phosphorus and, presto! I had a toy gun. This toy gun I would use in shooting atis and chico from the fruit trees in our yards. I would shoot at the maya and other small birds too.”

Childhood games and the toy gun distracted him from the formal schooling he disliked. Despite this, Aguinaldo’s mother sent him to Manila to study and there he “was discouraged to discover (following the execution of the three priests: Gomez, Burgos and Zamora) that those who were highly educated were either sent to the gallows or deported.”  This pivotal period in Philippine history is best described by the late O.D. Corpuz as “the Terror of 1872.”

Homesickness and loneliness did little to dispel Aguinaldo’s “aversion to study,” so his days in San Juan de Letran were better spent outside the classroom watching the boats and ships moving along the Pasig from his lookout on the Paseo de Magallanes. Knowing what our heroes were like as students not only makes them human, it also helps us understand what they were like and how their education or the lack of it influenced and made our history what it is.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Andres Bonifacio, heroism, Jose Rizal, komedya, moro-moro, pagasa, Philippine Heritage, philippine heroes, Philippine history, rainy season, Teodoro A. Agoncillo
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