This may be the last time the Philippine school calendar begins, unambiguously, in June. There was something to starting the academic year in the same month as the anniversary of Philippine independence and the birthday of the national hero Jose Rizal; the schedule lent itself to educational purposes and exhortatory uses. Today, except for a few institutions, all Philippine schools will be conducting classes, and countless classrooms will stop to remember Rizal.
Here’s an “OMG” fact for Filipino youth to consider: A poem Rizal wrote when he was only 18 was later used as evidence against him in his trial for rebellion. In other words, he was sentenced to death at the age of 35 in part because of verses he had written in his youth.
That poem, of course, was “A la Juventud Filipina” (To the Filipino Youth), which won first prize in a major literary contest that the Spanish colony in Manila expected would be won by a Spaniard. Its first stanza bears one of Rizal’s most quoted passages (quoted even while Rizal was still alive): The Filipino youth, he wrote, was “Bella esperanza de la Patria Mía!”—the “fair hope of my Fatherland,” in Nick Joaquin’s translation.
We find nothing unusual in this phrase now, because we are so accustomed to it. The Filipino shorthand version is familiar indeed: “Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan.” But in fact the poem was controversial in its day, and was read in Rizal’s court martial as proof of his rebellious tendencies at a young age, because of that first stanza. The command to lift one’s head in the very first line was interpreted as a subtle assertion of the oppression of the Filipino youth—else why instruct them to hold their heads high? And “Patria Mia” was taken as a sign that Rizal, even while still a student at the University of Santo Tomas, already saw the Philippines as a different patria, a nation separate from Spain.
What can the youth of that nation learn from Rizal today?
Instead of focusing yet again on the man’s many scholarly virtues, on his exemplary study habits or his excellent grades, today’s young person may wish to look closely at one understudied aspect of Rizal’s character: He failed more often than he succeeded.
That is to say, he tried his hand at many projects. Only a few were completed.
To be sure, those that were completed were extraordinary achievements. “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” were the first-ever anticolonial novels written from the perspective of the colonized in the history of literature. His medical practice, successful both in Hong Kong and the Philippines, was the fruit of many years of difficult study under some of the world’s best specialists. The school he started and the waterworks system he fashioned together while on exile in Dapitan were impressive feats, perhaps constituting the life work of a less busy man.
But Rizal started on another novel in Tagalog and did not finish it; he took advanced classes in French to write a novel in that language but abandoned the idea. He started a translation of “Faust” by the great German writer Goethe but did not finish it. He started a translation of a new work in anthropology by the scholar Theodor Waitz and spent weeks at it until giving it up. He planned to collect writings by Filipino students in Spain but was nowhere close to starting the work. He traveled to Sandakan, in North Borneo, to scout the location of a Filipino colony he wanted to establish there; he changed his mind after a couple of months. In his Dapitan exile, he made several attempts at starting a business; he was not any good at any of it.
In other words, Rizal did not rely on genius or inspiration alone. He got his hands dirty. He experimented. To use the Silicon Valley-speak that informs so much of today’s lingua franca, he was not afraid “to fail and to fail fast.”
This other, messy, practical side of Rizal: It may be time to take its lessons to heart.
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