How I Became an English Major

Penman for July 4, 2011

WE SEEM to be in the season of centennials (and sesquicentennials, and quadricentennials), so it may not be all that novel to celebrate another one, but that’s what we did, anyway, last month at the Department of English and Comparative Literature in the University of the Philippines.

That’s where I work, and where I’ve spent most of my adult life. These days I wear the exalted title of “Professor,” and sometimes I still wonder if I deserve it, refusing to believe that it was that long ago when I was a wet-eared freshman trying to find his place (and many other places, in the typical freshman runaround) in Diliman.

I entered UP in 1970 as an Industrial Engineering major. I was a Philippine Science High School graduate, and while we didn’t have any contracts then to tie us down to a career in science and technology (on a side note, I firmly believe such contracts to be stupid and counterproductive, as many of these bonded teenagers then do everything they can to get out of it), I did want to become a scientist of some kind.

I’d grown up on Tom Swift books, and the McGraw-Hill documentaries on space travel and marine research that we were shown in school whetted my appetite. For a while back there, I thought that the coolest thing anyone could wear on the planet and beyond was a space suit or at least a laboratory smock; in bed, I dreamt of making wild discoveries with Bunsen burners and pipettes (assisted by a curvy aide with a sharp resemblance to Rosanna Podesta).

Unfortunately, my aptitude (or rather the lack of it) in mathematics refused to cooperate with my ambition. My shimmering halo as the entrance-exam topnotcher in my PSHS batch dissolved quickly with a “5.0” in Math in my freshman year, and only a written appeal kept me in school, on probation. With some help from my dad, I pulled out all the rhetorical stops and poured my 13-year-old heart into a document that began grandiosely with “At the outset, let me state that I bear malice toward none…” It must have worked, because they let me hang on, and I even became editor in chief of the school paper not long afterward.

I guess that was my personal initiation to the power of the written word: the words you chose to put on a piece of paper could change your life, create happy outcomes, and even get you girlfriends, plane tickets, and wads of cash, never mind changing society and improving human lives beyond your own.

So I straggled on to UP as an IE major, and this time hubris did me in. Having taken and miraculously passed such esoteric subjects as integral calculus in our accelerated high school, I felt insulted to be taking up Freshman Algebra again (there were no advance placements then), and skipped my classes, earning me another “5.0.” This must have eased my decision to drop out of college altogether just before martial law was declared, to work as a journalist on the one hand and to pursue my activist agenda on the other.

To cut to the chase, I was out of school for ten years, during which I went to martial-law prison, met and married Beng, got a government PR job (former activists made good propagandists), and started a family. But I longed to go back to school, not just to pick up the diploma my own father never got but also to indulge myself in what I really wanted to do, which was to immerse myself in the heady stuff of prose and poetry. I’d kept on writing plays and stories and started picking up Palancas, but it was nothing like waking up in the morning to read Shakespeare or Marlowe, with Arcellana or Brillantes in the afternoon and Neruda or Dylan Thomas in the evening. That’s what I imagined the life of an English major to be, and I wanted to be one, especially after spending a summer in Dumaguete with the Tiempos, who urged me to “save my soul.”

So I applied for readmission to UP as a returning freshman in 1981 (I had quit UP with just 21 units in tow). For a moment, I dithered between English and History as my major—history continues to be a keen private passion—but settled on the original and more practical option.

For the next three years, I reveled in my second life as a UP undergraduate, and the English Department became my second home. The names on the department’s doors at the Faculty Center were those of a gallery of icons in literature and its teaching: Francisco Arcellana, Leopoldo Yabes, Damiana Eugenio, Concepcion Dadulfalza, Alejandrino Hufana, Gemino Abad, Wilhelmina Ramas, Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, and Nieves Epistola, among many others.

I was thrilled to study with Sylvia Mendez-Ventura, who walked us through the English Renaissance, and also led me on my first systematic study of the short story. Her closed-books, spot-passage exams were excruciating for many, but I must have been a masochist, because I loved these guessing games. When I couldn’t for the life of me remember the answer to one question—very likely because I never knew it in the first place—I quoted a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“So quick bright things come to confusion!”) and escaped with a 1.25.

Indeed, to be an English major then was to worship at the altar of agony, whose votive fires were kept burning by such avatars as Prof. Ramas (whose five-hour exam on “The Idea of Tragedy” was the very demonstration of the subject); Profs. Eugenio and Filonila Tupas, whose objective quizzes were legend; and Profs. Yolanda Tomeldan and Dionisia Hermosura, whose survey courses toured us around the English landscape. (Many years later, living and working in England, these landscapes would come alive for me, as would “Beowulf” in the British Library.)

But I drew comfort from the company of fellow writers and English majors—our seniors like Franz Arcellana and Alex Hufana, and fellow juniors like Charlson Ong, Gina Apostol, Isabel Banzon-Mooney, Ramon Bautista, Judy Ick, and Luisa Mallari. We’d sneak beer and gin into the old Creative Writing Center office, and get drunk on liquor and literature (alcohol was officially prohibited on the premises, but the dean himself, the late Pablo Botor, often tippled with us). Franz sort of took me under his wing, encouraging me to produce new work and eventually writing the introduction for my first book in 1984.

That year, 1984, would mark not only the publication of Oldtimer and Other Stories, but also my graduation with an AB English degree and my entry into the teaching staff of the department as Instructor II. Soon my own shingle went up on one of those brown doors, and I felt like I had just been given a new mission in life, to awaken in my students the same wonderment at words that had set me on this path.

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