The generosity of experience

LOS ANGELES – When I retired from full-time teaching early this year, my brother, David, or Goli as we fondly call him, wrote me a warm letter from Los Angeles, where he now lives. He said that he had a gift for me on my retirement: he would like to treat me to a four-day motorcycle ride, with him as guide, through the scenic Pacific Coast of the United States. Only a fellow biker would think of a long drive as a gift. Goli rides a Triumph 1050 cc Speed Triple to work. And so I’m here in the United States, in the beginning of autumn, to claim my gift, as well as to visit my four siblings and their respective families who have immigrated to America.

The age gap between me and Goli, our bunso, is about 22 years. He was 3 months old when I, the kuya of 13 children, got married. When he was barely in his teens, I taught him how to ride a motorcycle. Now the roles are reversed – he will be showing me this weekend how to navigate the fast California highways and the sweeping bends that surround the awesome canyons of this vast state.

Because practically a whole generation separates us, Goli had looked up to me more as a paternal authority figure to be feared than as an older brother he could turn to for help and advice. It was my son, CP, two years younger than him, who instead became his friend. They grew up and went to school together at the University of the Philippines. Their bond became stronger when CP went to Stanford for graduate studies. By that time, Goli had followed my sisters to the United States, quite unsure of what he wanted to do.

Unlike previous visits, when I would usually stay with one of my three sisters either in San Diego or LA, this time around I am being hosted by my brother and his wife Gigi. This has offered us both a rare chance to reconnect in a non-hierarchical way and to talk about our respective lives like two adults. While he attended UP from grade school to college, he did not fall exactly under my care.

I had no idea about his views on social issues, and how much his UP education had meant to him. This visit has given us time to exchange notes about the academic community in which we spent a good part of our lives. He distinctly remembers the conversation we had soon after he finished the bachelor’s program in economics. I had advised him, he says, to find work right away, get some experience in the real world, and then go back to school. He had no problem getting a job, but going back to school was farthest from his mind. Instead of triggering a passion for learning, university education appears to have only succeeded in shutting off his mind to anything that had to do with classroom learning.

In retrospect, he thinks he could have done better at UP. “I would have been a more creative student if I had been a little more engaged in what I was learning. I would have developed my skills quicker and would have been more focused if I found what I loved to do sooner – if only I had a glimpse of what was waiting for me.” I felt a little guilty that my own brother had gone through what seemed like an alienating education in the same university where I taught for more than 40 years. Albert Einstein once said: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” My brother regrets that he did not give to college education the seriousness and commitment it demanded.

The fault, of course, is not in the quality of a UP education itself, my brother readily acknowledges. It was just that he was too young, he says, to appreciate the value of the knowledge he was getting. Only obedience and the sheer terror of being laughed at in the family had kept him from dropping out. It was only many years later, when he was already holding a responsible position in an American firm, that he realized how much he owed to his UP education. He thinks he would not have been able to summon the discipline and creativity needed to solve problems at work if he had not been forced to be a diligent student. What he laments is the aversion to higher learning that accompanied his college experience. If he could go back to school and be a freshman again, he tells me, he would know how to make the most of university life and enjoy the whole journey of learning.

Do you recall, I ask him, who your most memorable teacher at UP was? Without hesitation, he blurted out the name of Dr. Pablo Botor, a professor of Spanish who was best known in UP for his sense of humor. Why Botor? I inquire, greatly puzzled by this unlikely choice.

My brother recounts his first day of class in Botor’s Spanish 20 course, the final subject in the compulsory Spanish curriculum. “Welcome to my class,” Professor Botor begins. “Here I will teach you everything that I know about life, and a little Spanish.” The class bursts out laughing and instantly relaxes. He then spends the next meetings listening to his students talk about themselves. This is the reason every semester, students patiently queued up to enlist in Professor Botor’s class. He made learning an enjoyable and non-threatening experience, Goli says. And did you learn anything? I ask Goli. A lot, he replies, but, as promised, not much Spanish.

“I can’t be a UP freshman again,” my brother tells me, “but I can be a mentor to someone like me when I was that age. Because of the Internet, a heart-to-heart talk about life and learning is just an e-mail away. I’m sure there are hundreds of alumni like me who went through the UP experience and are eager to share the wisdom of that experience as viewed in the light of real life problems, and play a role in the formation of the next generation of UP students.” That would be a unique way of tapping the alumni.

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