JJ and the Z Guy

JJ and the Z Guy
Image captured from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1534747

This article was done in the summer of 1999 during my Creative Writing class that I offered under Xavier’s Summer Enrichment Program. It was inspired by my two unforgettable student writers JJ Chan (XS) and Zebedee Uy (Grace Christian School). It was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Young Blood column on May 9, 2000.

In the eyes of a child, there is joy, there is laughter…

And a chance to shape the future…

For the lessons of life, there is no better teacher…

Than the look in the eyes of the child…

I’m a teacher. I chose to become one, and I still am one four school years and a collage of experiences after.

 I fell into teaching like I was blown there by the wind. The wind is still for now and so I haven’t changed jobs yet.

 Many people are surprised when I tell them the kind of work I’m doing. There are probably two reasons for their surprise: it’s either my personality or teaching itself, or maybe a little bit of both. For one thing, my voice sounds as if I’m gonna cry and break down in an emotional outburst. In college, I was once described as having a “pang-Maria Clarang boses.” And believe me, I had a hard time getting the right voice modulation during my first year of teaching.

Another reason is that I have always been something of an introvert. A lot of people probably thought I wouldn’t stay long in the profession, but I have. It is really a wonder and it amazes even me that despite all the pressure, I have come to love teaching.

 I think I know why. I stumbled upon the reason during summer last school year.

 Summer is a time teachers look forward to. Teacher do not sit idly behind desks. Our work doesn’t stop and the grind keeps us preoccupied until the school year ends. By April, we are eager to enjoy what working people call a vacation because by May, we will be starting the grind again.

 Thus in March last year, I found myself thinking of what to do on vacation. I wanted to visit Bohol after 14 years, a plan I kept shelving for one reason or another. Last year I was really set on going because I felt I badly needed to rest.

 When the planned trip fell through, I decided to teach a “summer enrichment” course rather than just hibernate in our house in Cainta. I offered to teach the course I love most – Creative Writing – and found myself in front of six students in three different time slots. Classes of this size usually folded up, but this one didn’t.

 They say when you love your work, you’re not going to work a single day of your life. I guess I am experiencing this. I get to teach the things I like and I get paid for doing it.

 But to be honest, waking up each morning then was a drag and having to go to school and go through the traffic on Ortigas Avenue wasn’t exactly a good, early-morning motivation for me. Walking through empty corridors and seeing chairs placed upside down on tables made me wonder why I opted to be there. But just as I was about to sink into a mild depressive state, I found two reasons to give me smile for the rest of the day: JJ and his one and only classmate, Zebedee (whom we fondly nicknamed the Z Guy).

 When we started out, I thought they wouldn’t get along well. I thought both of them were really honest when they told me they loved stories because they themselves had many stories to tell. I didn’t mind it, in fact, I was glad because I knew that guys with endless stories made good writers. The problem was that they wanted to tell their stories at the same time so I had to raise my hand to stop one and listen to the other tell his story.

 I thought making them both feel that I was treating them equally would be a problem since Zeb was four years younger than JJ. But I was wrong. As the days moved on and we went from story to story, the atmosphere became more and more relaxed. The two learned to listen to each other’s stories and laugh at each other’s expressions. They were acting like brothers, with JJ helping the Z Guy with the little things he had to do.

 One day Zeb took out some homemade polvoron his mother had cooked as we had our hands full making a collage of pictures cut out from newspapers. During that five-minute break, I felt embarrassed to realize that the two boys knew more about cooking than I did as they gave me tips on how to make polvoron. All along, I thought I knew polvoron inside and out since it was one of my mother’s best recipes.

 I did not have to lift a finger to motivate them for they became so excited about the lessons that I sometimes felt like it wasn’t me who was contaminating them with a love for writing, but they were contaminating me.

 One time as we were preparing to call it a day, JJ just kept going about the games he played on his Playstation. Fired up with excitement as he moved from that topic to game in the arcade, he asked me, “Cher, do you play in the arcade?”

 I never put on a façade in front of my students even if it means admitting to naïveté sometimes. So I told him no.

 Surprise was written all over his face as he demanded, “But why, Cher? Everyone enjoyed arcade games.”

 I had to go to great lengths to explain that I was older and that the things I found interesting were not always the things he would find interesting. But then he responded by saying that his father loved the arcade almost as much as he did. And at that moment, I felt as if white hair had grown on my head.

 I’ve had my share of remarkable students. Last year, JJ and Zebedee came into my life and made me see things I had been missing. Maybe in the rush to do my lesson plan, check the quizzes, compute the grades, attend meetings, and beat deadlines., I’ve failed to see life through the eyes of a child with the same merry wonderment for life and all it has to offer. Maybe I’ve drowned the kid in me in 1996 the moment I heard that I had been hired. I had forgotten that it was the kid in me who could laugh with a JJ or talk with a Zebedee with a mouth full of polvoron. I got back to thinking it was important that I get that same kid to help her adult version help her students go through the ultimate assessment and evaluation of education, which was real life.

 Now that brings me to the song above. It has more meaning to me now because I see JJ’s infectious smile and hear through Zeb’s nonstop laughter as I go through each line. In fact, it is not only their images that I see in the song. I see Jam, Eric, Richard, Darwin, Arianne, and all of the students who have passed me by and have colored my world with their own stories. I hope I have done something for them, as I know they have done something for me.

 One afternoon, in one of our conversations, Zeb mentioned something like, “when I get to be an adult and you are old already…”

 I told him, “Yeah, and by that time, you’d be successful already. Who knows who you’re going to become in the future?”

 Then JJ suddenly butted in to say he wanted to be a cartoonist someday since he was highly interested in cartoons. I saw he had the talent, and I seized that golden chance to boost his ego by saying, “Oh that would be great! Why don’t you put your creative writing skills into your cartoons so you’d end up a cartoonist someday?”

 He got more excited by what I said, and he gave me the pseudonym he would use when the time came. When I heard him say that, I wished I could put time on fast forward.

 It’s such a cliché to read about the most influential teachers of our lives. But still, we marvel at those stories that can fill up volumes upon volumes (or servings upon servings) of Chicken Soup for the Soul. I think alongside those stories, we should insert a chapter on the most influential student teachers ever had. And if I were asked to do so, I would write about JJ and Zebedee. I honestly do not know how long I’ll stay a teacher, but as long as I am one, the primary reason would be students like them.

 Last April, that Bohol vacation still belonged to the future as I wondered who I would be meeting for the summer.

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