When parents graduate

Over supper a couple of weeks ago, our youngest daughter, Jika, announced that the next day was going to be her last exam day – not just for the current semester but for her entire life as a university student.  “That means you would soon be graduating?” I asked, pretending not to know.  “Yup,” she snappily replied, as if to say: “Mission accomplished.”

It is a big day when a child finishes school.  But it is the greatest milestone in a Filipino family’s many transitions when the last of the children graduates from college.  Parents have every reason to feel their duty is done. This is their graduation: there is a sense of achievement in it.  You look at your children, and with a willful sigh of relief, you hear yourself saying:  “Now I can rest.”

Parents say this too at the marriage of the last of their children.  But the feeling of accomplishment is less, and even possibly ambivalent. Not so with the children’s education.  Parents think of this as wholly their project.  At the moment of birth, parents may hardly imagine their child as future husband or wife, but already they will cast him/her in the role of doctor, engineer, or lawyer.

The premium on completing a college education is probably highest in our culture, especially among families that are not landed.  “We have no property to leave you,” my late father used to say, “but a solid education would be your greatest inheritance.”  He meant a formal education, of course, and not necessarily a love for learning.  To Filipino parents, a university degree is a more lasting asset than any piece of property they could possibly bequeath to their children.  You will never lose it, they say.  They would sell everything and do anything to get you an education.  Your only duty is to finish it.

My parents sent all their thirteen children through university.  I think it was the toughest thing they ever did in their lives.  The beginning of the school term when tuition had to be paid was always panic time for my mother, who was expected to produce miracles.  Had they sat down to ponder what it would take to send all of us to school, I doubt if my parents would have been as crazy to bring out so many of us into the world.  I still catch my mother these days, with gleaming eyes, wondering aloud how they did it.  Today’s parents are wont to go through a rational planning exercise, deciding between an educational plan and a medical insurance.  And that is usually enough to deter them from having more children.

The difference, I think, lies in the fact that yesterday’s parents were more confident in the capacity of public schools to give children the necessary basic education that would prepare them for college.  My parents sent us to public schools, and tuition was not a major family expense until we got to college.  But today, the preparation for college begins with the decision to put a child in a high-quality nursery and kindergarten school, which, not uncommonly, may charge tuition several times higher than what is paid at a first-rate university.

To leave children in the care of the public school system, in the view of many parents today, is to automatically destroy their chance of entering a good university.  This perception may be sweeping but it is not entirely without basis.  Basic public education in our country has indeed deteriorated.  And its present state has not provoked any sense of urgency largely because those who are in a position to do something about it, the country’s decision-makers, do not have to send their children to public schools.  They do not know what the system is like.

My wife and I were lucky. What we had to do is nothing compared to what my parents experienced, or what today’s parents must go through to ensure their children’s education.  From kinder to college, all our four children attended the University of the Philippines, where we teach.  As children of UP employees, their tuition was free.  With our salaries as UP professors, it would have been impossible for us to send them to private schools.  Thus, as soon as they passed the entrance exam for kindergarten, we knew they were set.  Still, on the day our youngest said she was graduating, our sense of fulfillment was undiminished.  We actually felt it was we who were graduating.

As none of them is yet married, I figured that it would be sometime before anyone of our children realized the full measure of education as a parental achievement.  But I am mistaken.  They know what education can mean especially for those who have nothing in life.  For more than a month, my three daughters took turns tutoring 5-year-old Carla to prepare her for her kindergarten exam at UP Integrated School.  Carla’s mother, a single mother, is our househelp, and not having finished grade school herself, it was farthest from her mind that little Carla might someday study in UP.  “I can’t afford to send her to school,” she warned the three girls. “Please do not put any ideas into her head; she will only be disappointed.”

“She can have the future she wants,” my daughters admonished her, “give her this chance and we promise to help her.”  Till the last minute she hesitated to submit her daughter’s application papers.  In her heart she was convinced that UP and everything it represented was not for people like her.

It is graduation day today in UP Diliman.  “Do you want to have a party after your graduation,” I ask Jika, who has finished the grueling 5-year course in Accounting, with honors.  But her mind is elsewhere.  She anxiously awaits the day of the release of Carla’s examination results. Her parenting has begun, and so her graduation will have to wait.


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