Before I Forget

Redeemed by Sister Miriam

The St. James regime would emerge in reminiscence seven years later at Agence France-Presse—the legendary Teddy Benigno had taken a chance on me at age 18

The author's book for news writers, the second edition (left), published in 2020, 30 years after the first (right) in 1989

I entered St. James Academy in June 1957 as a high-school freshman, at the premature age of 11, and immediately felt overextended, overmatched, absolutely out of my class.

An extension of Maryknoll (now Miriam) College and run by the same order of American nuns, St. James spoke English, and I didn’t— anyway, not to any such degree of familiarity, let alone skill, as might afford one the minimum confidence to get by. I’d have gone to another school if it had been up to me, but my father had been sold on St. James, sight unseen, mesmerized by its reputation. He spoke about it as if my very future depended on it. He spoke on faith: James, suddenly, was his patron saint of secondary education.

St. James stood, walled in all around, right in the sociopolitical center of the rich fishing town of Malabon. It had nearly an entire block to itself. A short tunnel connected it to its only neighbor on the block, the Church of St. Bartholomew. Certain Fridays it delivered our hymn class, under the eminent soprano Remedios Bosch-Jimenez, herself a town citizen, into Bartholomew’s south aisle so that our collected voices might be contained and not disturb the rest of St. James. Within an easy walk from the block lay the municipal hall, the town square, the public market, the better shops and restaurants, and the only theater that played American movies exclusively.

‘We have more millionaires per square kilometer here in Malabon than in any other town’

Although a mere half-hour jeepney ride from Manila in those sparser days, Malabon felt provincial, except to its families who could afford the fancies of modern living. (As my father never failed to point out, “as an established fact” whenever the issue of wealth and privation arose: “We have more millionaires per square kilometer here in Malabon than in any other town.”) And for these families, a St. James education was one of the biggest bargains: It gave their children a headstart not only for college but possibly for life. Indeed, a high plurality of St. James graduates went to two of the country’s highest-rated private colleges—Maryknoll itself for the girls, the Jesuit-run Ateneo for the boys.

I went to St. James myself by the only means possible—a scholarship for my entire first year. The challenge was maintaining the grade that would allow me to keep the scholarship for the rest of high school, a not-too-hopeful prospect under St. James’s standards. Before St. James, I only had known Tonsuya Elementary, a public school where education was free for the children of the barrio for which it was named and also of three or four neighboring barrios, including my own. It had prepared me well, to be sure, for high-school math and science, but not for St. James altogether.

Tonsuya Elementary spoke the vernacular Tagalog. It did teach English, but only superficially, in a course called Language; it didn’t provide a working knowledge of the language. One got one’s idea of how English sounds from unsure and affected tongues, and one learned to arrange English-worded thoughts from the skimpiest vocabulary and in the simplest forms.

St. James demanded more. Indeed, it seemed to me to demand more than expectedly merciful or even reasonable. Not only was St. James foreign territory, it existed under a rather closed regime: Apart from being strictly English-speaking, it was exclusively Roman Catholic and severely sex-segregated. It had its own uncompromising system of crime and punishment: Anyone caught mouthing a non-English word was fined. And deficient as I was in both medium and means, I felt doubly disadvantaged in a class composed mostly of graduates of St. James Elementary.

The choice for me was as easy as the alternative was impossible. Unless asked and required by propriety or rule to open my mouth, I kept it shut in the classroom (except, naturally, in the native-language class, Pilipino) and elsewhere within St. James’s confines. I must have appeared an especially woeful case to Sister Miriam Emmanuel, the English teacher. It showed in her soft, sympathetic eyes.

As it happened, Sister Miriam had descended to earth to redeem me. She offered me a tutorial after classes 

As it happened, Sister Miriam had descended to earth to redeem me. She offered me a tutorial after classes two days of the five-day school week for 40 minutes each session, exactly as long as the regular class period. She walked me through the operating logic of the language to give me a sense of its structure. She read to me with an authentic voice, had me read to her in turn, then sat with me to talk about what we had read. Every new word provoked an exciting impulse for discovery, and every freshly turned phrase and deftly crafted sentence raised a challenge for emulation. It was doubtless in Sister Miriam’s tutorial that I began to develop not only some ear for English prose but also, in time, some critical appreciation of it—and some confidence, too, to try my own hand at stringing English words together with any serious purpose.

The first big test for me, as well as for Sister Miriam, surely, whose own reputation was inescapably staked on it, came in my second year. She prodded me to enter a contest open to all high-school students at St. James for “the best meaning of success in no more than 25 words.” While I may have ingratiated myself into contention by putting my entry in the compelling Christian context of triumph of good over evil, of success not counting unless it advances a greater good, I’d like to think the intrinsic merit of the sentence in which that context was deployed, a sentence I had myself constructed, was itself crucially contributory. But again, it was an act of creation that could not have been without Sister Miriam.

The award came in a little hexagonal medal with the word SUCCESS, thus styled, chiseled into its gold-plated face and painted shiny-blue. No sooner had it been pinned on me than I unpinned it and handed it, intending it as a gift, to Sister Miriam. She laid it on her palm and briefly regarded it, all the words to be said in her silent smile, then handed it back for me to keep—and misplace, as it would happen (I know I kept it but don’t remember where; as for the winning sentence, it is lost from memory irretrievably; my last bet was the St. James newspaper, The Chimes, which had published it, if I recall right, but no luck there, too).

The next year I would be out of St. James. A nun, this one with a mind apparently too primed for righteousness to be judicious, called me out for an imagined mischief and sent me to the principal’s office. With a new confidence in my ability to express myself in St. James language, not to mention a clear conscience, I argued my case to the principal in the presence of my accuser, who had asked that I be suspended for two weeks.

My father, who had appeared within the hour on a summons, listened, obviously disappointed, not in me, but with the turn of events. I don’t know that the principal, Sr. Mary Beata, was herself disappointed in her prosecutor; anyway, she offered on her own to commute my sentence to a week’s suspension. But I was not taking anything other than full acquittal, and neither was the St. James establishment prepared to concede and decide against its own nun. I left feeling so wronged I didn’t even think of saying goodbye to Sister Miriam.

The St. James regime would emerge in reminiscence seven years later at Agence France-Presse, the French world-news supplier. Its Manila bureau chief, the legendary Teddy Benigno, had taken a chance on me, at age 18. He began his workday by reviewing, for errors and shortcomings, the newscast that had gone over the wires the previous day to the Philippine subscribers—mostly newspapers and broadcast stations and foreign embassies—and posted his critique on the bulletin board, typed on sheets of copy paper stapled end to end to make a long lolling tongue of prescripts and fines.

Thrown into many further battles in life across the years, I had lost touch completely with Sister Miriam, since St. James. As Providence would have it, two angels from my class—Virgie Borromeo-Cabrera and Nila Barican-Tupaz—managed to not only trace her for me, but get me a picture of her lay-clothed, head thrown back in a hearty laugh, in obviously happy retirement at the Maryknoll Motherhouse, in New York—she must have been in her late eighties when it was taken. I tried to get in touch, but before my effort could be rewarded I learned she had passed on. In any case, Sister Miriam will never be lost to me as long as I write.

And, as it happens, I write to live.

Writer’s note: Written in 2007 as a draft, this essay had remained unpublished until after some reworking for inclusion in a volume of essays, each by a different writer, intended as a tribute to teachers (Teacher, Teacher, Technological Institute of the Philippines, 2012). It has been added to and reworked again since, into the form in which it appears here.

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