I’ve always been a reluctant speaker at graduations. I’ve always suspected that graduates everywhere would rather get on with the ceremonies than listen to stale sermons. Besides, what can one really say on such occasions that will not sound trite?
But it was very difficult to refuse the invitation of UP Cebu Dean Socorro Villalobos, who had been a solicitous high school teacher to my wife and children. So there I was in Cebu last April 30 delivering the inspirational speech to the graduates of 1996.
The predictable theme of graduation speeches is service to the country. The new graduates are usually admonished to rise above narrow self-interest and personal advancement, and contribute to the improvement of the lives of our people, especially the underprivileged. I wanted to avoid this framework precisely because it is a cliché, and the university graduate will have previously heard a version of this theme at least twice — in grade school and high school.
I spoke of selfhood instead, of the need to develop inner strength and moral sensibility. I purposely avoided talking about the challenges that our society confronts today or what a UP graduate can or must do to help in the effort to build a better society. I opted to develop the more modest theme of personal cultivation in all its aspects, especially through reading.
But I found the symmetry between 1996 and 1896 enchanting — two generations of Filipino youth separated by a hundred years. And so my speech drifted to the years between 1870 and 1890, when young Filipinos were sent abroad by parents who were fearful for their children’s safety in a time of political ferment.
It was an illustrious batch. They called themselves Indios Bravos, the valiant Indians who discovered their collective identity and shared aspirations in the distant shores of Europe. Their leader, Jose Rizal, was only 21 years old. He spoke of the country all the time, and how it was necessary for the Filipino students to conduct themselves always with dignity.
Like all young people everywhere, many of them were carefree and they sometimes found Rizal’s passionate patriotism a little odd. Yet, when the time came, not a few abandoned their studies abroad and, to the dismay of their parents, came home to join the revolution.
We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ precocity, I told the graduating class of 1996. But, I added, it is far from my intention to suggest that heroism must always be sought in the fields of armed confrontation. Today, the arena for worthy struggles can be found wherever there is power and domination: in everyday life, in the university, at the workplace, in the community. There are no particular centers of gravity of the struggle, no privileged sites of confrontation with power.
I concluded with a quote from the educator Jacques Barzun: “The corner where you are and whose rights and wrongs you know at first hand is a large enough field for your best endeavors at making the world a better place.”
The following day was Labor Day. I decided to extend my stay by a few hours to watch the local labor groups converge at Plaza Independencia and march to Metro Gaisano. As one speaker after another mounted the platform to give stirring speeches, a woman in her 40s approached me in the crowd and told me she had recognized me.
She was anxiously looking for her daughter, she said, and mentioned a student organization to which she belonged. The mother had come to see and hear for herself what her daughter was fighting for and what kind of people she was with. She was worried for her because the last time they talked, her daughter had told her she was leaving school to become a full-time organizer. She asked me if I knew the group that her daughter had joined. I’ve heard of it, I said.
Her next questions were familiar enough, for they reflected the agony of all parents who are left in the dark about their own children’s political involvement. Is she with a communist-influenced group? Will my daughter be okay? What can I do to persuade her to remain in school? Is it wrong and is it being selfish of me as a parent to stop her from serving the higher cause of country and people that she has chosen? These were her questions. I was stunned, and I could not immediately answer.
Earlier, some friends had told me that a growing number of students from the major universities in Cebu were dropping out to join the movement in the countryside. My mind quickly flashed back to the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s when hundreds of promising students all over the country were quitting their courses to go underground. I thought of UP Diliman student Joselito Ame and PUP student Ariel Bonaobra, both killed only recently in the mountains of Camarines Norte by troops assigned to hunt down NPA guerrillas.
My thoughts went back to what I said in my commencement speech the previous day, that the country today no longer demands that young people literally offer their lives to the nation. Maybe I was wrong.
Young people of every generation can and do invent causes worth dying for. An older and wiser generation that has seen so much blood spilled in the name of causes will say, what a waste of youth and talent that young students have to leave school for the “real struggles” in the countryside and underground. But I doubt if among the committed many are listening. The seduction of a dangerous life and a heroic death, it seems, haunts every generation.
I tried to comfort the mother by telling her that what her daughter is doing is something to be proud of even if we, the elders, did not fully understand it or agree with it. You may speak to her about your apprehensions, I said, if only to let her know how much you love her, but if she has gone this far, it may be impossible to stop her now. She looked at me with sad eyes, and left.
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