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Rizal’s Ateneo

Ateneo Loyola Schools welcomed a new batch of freshmen and returning students this school year on June 16, the same day in 1875 that Jose Rizal returned to Ateneo Municipal after the summer vacation. Contrary to popular belief, Ateneo in Rizal’s time was a colegio, meaning a secondary or high school, and not a facultad or universidad, referring to tertiary education or college in our usage. In the book I am working on, titled “Rizal and me,” I ask Rizal about his school days.

ARO: What was a typical day at Ateneo like?

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JR: I dressed like the other students—that is, I put on a coat with a ready-made necktie. With what fervor I entered the chapel of the Jesuit fathers to hear Mass, what most fervent prayers I addressed to God, for in my sadness I didn’t know whom else to invoke. After Mass, I went to class where I saw a great number of boys, Spaniards, mestizos, and Filipinos, and a Jesuit who was the professor.

ARO: Aside from your “enhanced” boyhood photograph in Ateneo uniform that seems suspiciously elongated because we all know you were short, there is a charming 19th-century painting in the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas that depicts two Ateneo boys standing by a table. On that table rest some thick leather-bound books, one of which an art critic mistook for the reading and writing primer or caton. Ateneo boys already knew how to read and write; the book was part of their classical education (this caton is the Spanish form for Cato the Wise). Then as now, I think you could tell the school from the uniform. You make a nice observation in Chapter 12 of “El Filibusterismo” of students on their way to Intramuros.

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JR: Some were dressed in European attire, walking fast, carrying books and notebooks; preoccupied they were in thinking of their lessons and their compositions. These were the Atenistas. The Letranistas could be distinguished by their being mostly dressed in native attire or a la Filipina, being more numerous and less loaded with books. Those from the University [of Santo Tomas] dressed more neatly and smartly, walked slowly and, instead of books, often carried canes… Here and there the procession was made pleasant by the graceful charm and the richness in colors of the female students of the Escuela Municipal, ribbons over their shoulders and books on their arms, followed by their maids.

ARO: You wrote in your student diary a great tribute to the Jesuits, “I owe to this Order all, all that I am.” What do your remember of your Jesuit teachers at Ateneo?

JR: [One] was called Father José Bech, a tall man, thin, with a body slightly bent forward, with hurried walk, an ascetic, severe and inspired face, small, deep-sunken eyes, a sharp Grecian nose, with thin lips forming an arc whose ends turned toward his chin. This priest was a bit crazy, so that one should not be surprised to find him sometimes disgusted and ill-humored; other times he played like a child.

[Another] professor was a model of uprightness, earnestness, and devotion to the progress of his pupils; and such was his zeal that I, who scarcely spoke middling Spanish, was able after a short time to write it fairly well. His name was Francisco de Paula Sanchez. With his aid I studied mathematics, rhetoric, and Greek to some advantage. Father Sanchez was a penetrating observer, although rather pessimistic, always looking at the bad side of things. When we were in school we used to call him a “dark spirit,” and the students nicknamed him Paniki, which is a kind of bat.

I had other professors, called Fathers Vilaclara and Minoves, the first one of whom liked me very much and to whom I was somewhat difficult. Although I was studying philosophy, physics, chemistry, and natural history, and in spite of the fact that Father Vilaclara had told me to give up communing with the Muses and give them a last goodbye (which made me cry), in my leisure hours I continued speaking and cultivating the beautiful language of Olympus under the direction of Father Sanchez.

Father Heras, our friend and chief, complained that the work was very tiresome. Father Pastells was my best friend; he was the most distinguished and the best traveled among the Jesuit missionaries. He was also very zealous. I sketched his picture from memory but Father Sánchez took it away from me… Fr. Federico Vila was a linguist; he also spoke German, French, English, Greek, Latin, etc. I still remember the hardships of Father Torra when he entrusted to me the first page for the Cartas de los PP, etc. Those were happy days.

ARO: Can you tell us about the Jesuit teaching methods?

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JR: You should know that in the Jesuit colleges, two empires were established to stimulate learning and competition among the students. One was Roman and the other Carthaginian or Greek, constantly at war, and in which the highest positions were won by challenges that were successful when the opponent made three mistakes. They put me at the tail end. I scarcely knew Spanish, but I already understood it.

Rizal would not recognize 21st-century Ateneo because the campus he attended is now a historic ruin. There is a lot more he would not recognize in the Philippines we now live in. Which often makes me wonder: If Rizal foresaw the sorry mess we find ourselves in today, if he saw the pork barrel scam, corruption, worst airport in the world, etc., would he have allowed himself to be shot in Bagumbayan?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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