J.E.M.S: Childhood lessons from elementary school

Returning to Jose Escaler Memorial School (JEMS), my elementary alma mater, after 45 years felt both nostalgic and bittersweet. As I stepped onto the familiar grounds, memories of my childhood came rushing back, each one a vivid reminder of the carefree days I spent there. The old playground, now refurbished but still recognizable, brought back flashes of laughter and camaraderie shared with my classmates. We would run across the field, our tiny legs carrying us with boundless energy, playing games that seemed to last forever.

In 1979, I stood on this very stage, delivering my valedictory speech with a mix of pride and nervous excitement. My mother, Soledad, also teacher in the same school, nervously watch me trying to finish a well-crafted speech, which up to now, I don’t know who wrote it.

Back then, the future was a vast, uncharted territory, and our dreams felt limitless. But we were not thinking about the future. We were looking forward to another hot summer when we can just play around, running on rice fields, hunting birds with our “tiradol”, flicking postcards, crawling on the ground with our “jolens” or hiding behind banana trees engaging in an imaginary war with our wooden armalites and Thompson rifles. The nights were spent watching television outside the windows of our rich neighbor or  playing hide and seek near the moon-lit surroundings of the public cemetery.

Walking through the corridors, I could almost hear the echoes of our youthful voices, filled with the innocence of our questions and the eagerness of our discoveries. The classroom where I learned to read and write, the blackboards that held our chalky scribbles, the desks where we exchanged secret notes—all these relics of the past felt like old friends welcoming me back.

As I wandered around the school, I was delighted to see some of my former classmates who are now teachers themselves, guiding the next generation just as we were once guided. It was a touching sight to see former classmates whose children and grandchildren are now members of the graduating class. The cycle of education and legacy continued, and it filled me with a deep sense of pride and continuity.

I visited former haunts and hideaways, including the large sampaloc tree where we would hie off during recess. This tree was our sanctuary, a place where secrets were shared, and dreams were whispered. I could almost hear the echoes of our laughter as we played hide and seek around its massive trunk. The open ground where we used to play seemed smaller now, but during our days, it seemed to span endlessly, a vast expanse where our imaginations could run wild. We played games of patintero, sipa, and tumbang preso, games that required nothing but our creativity and a few simple items, yet brought us immense joy.

The school grounds were our world back then. I recalled the daily stunts we make, running around playing moro-moro, tumbling and tambubung; while the girls are playing jakistone, Chinese garter or piku. The thrill of racing against each other, the taste of sweet victory, and the lessons of humble defeat keep us wanting for more games and as dusk falls, we will go home, smelling like taklang aldo and our skin covered with grime, sweat, dirt and kibal.  We had no worries beyond our next exam or the game we will play after school. Life was simple, and happiness was found in the smallest of things.

Now, as I prepared to deliver the Inspirational message to the graduating batch of 2024, the weight of the years and the journey I had taken added a new layer of depth to my words. The faces of the young graduates, brimming with hope and potential, mirrored the innocence and ambition we once held.

Standing before the new generation, I felt a profound connection to them and to my past self. The emotions were a mixture of joy and sorrow, pride and longing. I saw in them the same dreams and aspirations, the same eagerness to take on the world. My heart swelled with a sense of fulfillment, knowing that the values and lessons instilled in us so many years ago still held strong.

Reflecting on my journey, I realized that my elementary school days were the foundation upon which I built my life. The lessons I learned within these walls went beyond academics. They taught me resilience, perseverance, and the importance of hard work. I learned the value of friendship, the power of kindness, and the significance of integrity. These values guided me through various phases of my life, through successes and failures alike.

I am not a politician, a popular movie actor, or a very wealthy businessman. My accomplishments may not be celebrated in the headlines, yet the honor of standing here today fills me with immense gratitude. I often wonder why I was given such an honor, but I hope the stories of my failures and successes, the lessons I have learned, and the insights I have gathered can inspire a few of those young people. If I can offer them any wisdom, it is that life is a journey of continuous learning and growth. Every setback is a stepping stone, and every triumph is a testament to their potential.

As I concluded my speech, I looked out at the sea of young faces and felt a renewed sense of purpose. The cycle of life and learning continues, and in their eyes, I saw the promise of the future. My journey had come full circle, and in that moment, I was not just a speaker but a bridge between the past and the future, a testament to the enduring spirit of our alma mater. May they carry forward the torch of knowledge and the spirit of our school, lighting their path towards a bright.

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