Hello, Ateneo

We all know now that the Ateneo is truly special, and it was no different in 1968. But for me at that time, it took a while for that fact to sink in. Although I was only 15, I didn’t see myself as being so naïve. To my cousins from Catbalogan, I was the sophisticated city boy. I knew how to take the red JD bus from Project 6, where I lived, to Quiapo in downtown Manila, or how to take a jeepney to Cubao.

In fact I was so incredibly naïve that I had never even heard of the Ateneo, until that fateful day when Father Steinbugler visited Mapa, my high school. It must have been in December 1967, when my teachers already knew I was going to be the valedictorian, that they told the good Jesuit about me. I remember talking to him then but not what was said. But that conversation must have been the first time I heard of the Ateneo.

What does stick in my mind is a letter from a Thomas B. Steinbugler, S.J., dated February 6, 1968. It read, “You did quite well on the exams last Sat. Congratulations!!” It also mentioned a few possible scholarships. I remember the excitement that letter caused at home, my father calling up my Tia Mely to tell her about it.

Up to that point, the whole idea was for me to go to UP and study architecture. UP meant stately acacia trees along country roads, the quintessential “groves of academe.” It was where President Marcos and where Senator Salonga had gone. Of course I was aware of other universities, like UST and FEU, both of which I knew about because I would pass them on the way to Quiapo. And there was Silliman, where my parents had met and where I suspect I was conceived, but that was in far-off Dumaguete. But Ateneo? It wasn’t in the picture at all, even if it was so near UP.

With that offer from Ateneo, my Tia Mely and Tio Iling would have none of UP. They were the rich aunt and uncle of our clan: they owned a car, they had been to the States, and all our family gatherings were held at their big house in the Roxas District of Quezon City. Tio Iling said, “Natanggap ka na nga sa Ateneo, bakit ka pa magyuyupi?” He was awestruck by the prospect of their little Elito going to Ateneo, and I owed it to the whole clan to go there. It did not matter that Ateneo had no architecture course, nor that it was Catholic and I was Protestant. Evidently, the Ateneo transcended fields of study and religion. So the decision to go to Ateneo was made for me by my well-off uncle.

Tio Iling had reason to be awestruck. At the Ateneo’s freshman orientation, we were told that we were the crème de la crème. This was no idle claim. In 1968, the number of Filipino males entering college was about 35,000. Fewer than 400 of them would be admitted through the Loyola campus gates. In that freshman class, I was only one of 31 valedictorians and only one of 53 students on scholarship.

To a high-achieving student from a public high school, however, these numbers did not make you feel special. They were just numbers you used to impress the Tio Ilings of the world.

The first thing that struck me about the Ateneo was how the students loomed so big and tall. These college boys were veritable giants. They all wore polo barongs and carried Samsonite briefcases, which they deposited in their own lockers. And they held their heads high with an air of confidence, even a sense of invincibility.

It did not escape me that part of the Ateneo mystique was the money. These Ateneo kids did not just belong to families that owned cars. They drove their own cars. To go to Ateneo in those days, I would take the UP Ikot jeepney to Katipunan Avenue and catch a tricycle from there. At first I wondered why I was invariably the only Ateneo student standing on that dusty corner near the Shoppersville Supermarket. Then it dawned on me that everyone else went to school in a car or lived in a dorm on campus. Eventually, I figured out that if I timed it right, Butchie Lat in his Karmann Ghia – bless his heart – would come roaring by and give me a ride.

The teachers were spectacular. There was the flamboyant Rolando Tinio who brought to life Dylan Thomas and Guy de Maupassant. There was Jess Dumagan who, with a sure hand on the blackboard, took you through the minefield of economic forces and guided you to the right equilibrium. And there was Father Nicholas Cushner, who taught history so authoritatively that he catapulted you back into the 18th century, so that you found yourself sailing the Manila galleons and fighting the Dutch and British invaders.

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The students themselves were no academic slouches. Many came equipped with Latin and integral calculus, most prominently Mon Macaraig from Manila Science, who solved polynomials in his sleep. But none of these was as impressive as the fact that the typical Atenista was well-tutored in the anthropology of Manila’s exclusive women’s colleges. This was perhaps to be expected when it came to Maryknoll. Ateneo in 1968 was an all-boys school, and it would not admit women for five more years. So if Harvard had Radcliffe, Ateneo had Maryknoll. But the Atenista’s uncanny understanding of the ways of convent schools reached far beyond Loyola Heights. He knew the finer points of organizing a joint class party with students from such unabashed bastions of pulchritude and chastity as Assumption and St. Theresa’s, including whether a live band would be required.

In the end, what must have clinched it for me were two teenaged girls of Project 6, who proved to be mature beyond their years. Ginny, the mestisahin girl on whom every boy on my street had a crush, had not deigned to talk to any of us for years. But once she learned that I now went to Ateneo, she would talk to me on the phone and say that all those other boys were mere “butangeros.” Jill, who lived four blocks away and whose last birthday party my friends and I had tried futilely to gatecrash, knew me all of a sudden. Out of the blue, she called to ask whether my butangero friends and I would like to come over for merienda. Over a platito of pansit, she then wondered whether I could buy her the small blue Ateneo athletic bag that was sold in the college canteen.

I don’t know when it was that I first felt in my heart that the Ateneo was truly special. But if you had seen me at the end of freshman year, you would have been able to discern under my polo barong a t-shirt emblazoned with “Ateneo” in big letters and the silk-screened image of a blue eagle stomping on a green archer, like the Archangel Michael vanquishing the devil.

Mr. Remolona, who has a doctorate degree in economics from Stanford University, belongs to the Ateneo college batch of 1972, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

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