No goodbye, just “text me whenever.” That was the ultimate promise my high school friends and I made on graduation day. We have taken different paths filled with new friends and new experiences, yet we still find ourselves back home, always in the same restaurant that our city is known for. The strong aroma of grilled chicken, the old songs sang off-key by the same old, bald man, and the familiar faces of girls I spent half of my life with, somehow bring me comfort. But it doesn’t last very long. The comfort is always replaced by shame and bitterness inching toward my stomach. I don’t finish my food—the first sign that something’s wrong. My horizontally challenged appearance is a dead giveaway that I always finish my food.
They usually start with “How’s it been?” followed by “Is there anyone gwapo (handsome)?” Then the conversation drifts to “Remember when…?” They turn to me. Their questions are knives prying open the imaginary box in which I keep the worst of my grade-school memories. Suddenly, everything comes crashing back, like waves crashing to the shore, the last always stronger and more painful than the first. But I manage to dismiss the questions with the best laugh I can fake.
I distinctly remember the day my Grade 1 adviser told me to run for the post of sergeant at arms. In the car I bragged to my mother that I’d be running… in the field. I smugly handed her the certificate my teacher had given me. She laughed. I could tell she was proud. She explained to me that I was going to run for that post in the student council of the whole grade school. Did I want to? In all innocence and naive confidence, I said yes. And I ran for a post of which I had no iota of knowledge. I was seven years old, and the attraction of holding a post and being known was more important to me than the thought of making any contribution.
I went from classroom to classroom to deliver the 3-sentence speech a campaign manager had written for me on the torn page of a notebook. They put words in my mouth and told me to smile and make the thumbs-up sign. I was small and fat, much like Ryzza Mae Dizon who now seems to be the epitome of cute (but I don’t agree with this popular opinion). I earned a number of “awws,” a few pinches on the cheek—and a post in the student council.
I became the wonder kid. Year after year I ran and I won. I cannot now recall the significant things I did, but I figured I got voted because they liked me. Grade 5 came and I handed in my certificate of candidacy for president. I didn’t think it was a tough contest. My opponent was a girl I grew up with, being a classmate since Grade 1. She had long hair, a thin frame, and hands that created masterpieces. An artist. She was the quiet, serious type, as opposed to my gregarious and outgoing personality. She was never a strong contender, always below me in the honor roll, always sticking to her circle of friends. I didn’t take her, or her desire to assume the post, seriously.
I was the incumbent vice president, popular and dependable, a shoo-in for the presidency. I rallied my friends and relied on the votes of the younger ones who, I knew, looked up to me and assured me of a landslide win. In the frenzy of my activities, I didn’t realize that a storm was brewing behind my back. A plan had been hatched, and it bore fruit on election day.
The candidates were allowed to oversee the vote count by members of the Girl Scouts Club in a classroom. I sneaked a glance and from a few steps away the handwriting on the ballot looked oddly familiar. The vote wasn’t for me. My eyes landed on the signature on the bottom left of the small gray paper. It was my best friend’s. Suddenly, my vision became a hodgepodge of green, white and gray. I ran out before the tears began to fall. I knew I had lost the only battle I was so sure of winning.
I found refuge in the dimly lit restroom at the end of the corridor. I was on the floor, bawling. I couldn’t tell what I was feeling—a mix of betrayal, shame, and loss. I cried for the embarrassment I would face, for the friendships I knew I had lost, for letting my parents and teachers down, for disappointing myself. And, although I would not admit it, I cried because no one came. I wanted solitude, true, but I also wanted someone to hold me, to tell me I was a good leader (or a good person at least), to assure me that I didn’t deserve this and that everything would be fine. I don’t know how long I cried. It may have been minutes, or hours.
I still believe that on that day, the universe contrived to extract all hope from my heart. When the tears stopped, I curled into a ball. My breathing evened out, and I noticed an uneasy feeling between my legs. I took a peek under my uniform—and saw red.
I don’t know how or when, but my mom came to get me. She found me on the floor with my bloodstained shorts showing. She knelt and took me in her arms. I finally felt safe.
The next weeks were marked by emptiness. I learned that I had lost by a mere 11 votes. In my class of 47 I got only 13 votes, mine included. My friends and classmates didn’t vote for me because they found me bossy and a know-it-all. They thought having someone completely my opposite would save them from my tyranny.
I would walk the halls looking down, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I did not participate in class. At 12, I felt that my self-esteem had collapsed. The hardest was losing friendships formed since kindergarten, and finding myself alone in a crowd once filled with familiar faces. At 12, I was both humbled and jolted to the realities of failure, in myself and in human relationships.
Armed with my reality-based, self-adjusted ego, I entered high school with no high ambitions. I was bent on reinventing myself in order to mend broken ties and start on a clean slate. I was flawed but not damaged. I planned to make my studies top priority, and to be as ordinary as the rest of them, shunning any leadership title.
Yet even the best-laid plans have a way of going astray, and I found myself pressed to run for freshmen governor. It was a difficult job that no one wanted, and suddenly I became the anointed one. I ran against the same girl who won the presidency in grade school. This time, I didn’t delude myself that I was the popular choice, or that I was the best for the job. I was prepared to lose, and I accepted defeat even before the election was held. If there was one lesson I had learned, it was that defeat becomes painless when acceptance comes easy.
But fate found a way of seeking redemption for me on that day. I got the majority votes.
The people who betrayed me, who ensured my loss, are the same people I see in high school reunions. I don’t feel the same about them anymore, yet whenever they bring up how I got my monthly period on the same day I lost the election, I still feel a sting in my heart. I don’t know when it will wear off. They say I have been redeemed, but I still feel the hurt and the shame. Maybe the first scars are really the last to heal.
One thing I am glad about is this: I have realized that my grudge toward my “friends” lies in the deepest corner of my imaginary box, which the knives fail to reach. So after I manage to dismiss the questions with the best laugh I can fake, I begin a new thread of “Remember when…?” Their turn to be embarrassed. Maybe it is in this moment that I find true redemption.
Patricia Maxine Gallo, 17, studies at Ateneo de Manila University.
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