The year 2019 marked the golden year of our grade school class. In 1969, we graduated from elementary school, perhaps unaware then that we would be caught up in the vortex of turbulence all around us.
What happened in 1969? The US escalated the war in Indochina, despite reducing its troops in Vietnam. Investigative journalism exposed the savagery and devilry of the 1968 My Lai massacre. Student protests and other forms of civil unrest shook the world. Hundreds of thousands of mainly young people participated in manifestations that demanded an end to the war. “Give peace a chance” was the call of the times.
Woodstock and similar music festivals became anti-establishment emblems. Progressive and psychedelic music ruled, with Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd launching albums that became among the finest in the discography. And Miles Davis popularized jazz among the youth.
In the Philippines, 1969 was an election year, with Ferdinand Marcos getting re-elected as President. But it was a dirty election that Marcos won through guns, goons, and gold. The worse was yet to come as Marcos was planting the seeds of dictatorship. Radical opposition was mounting. The exploitative conditions of farmers and workers and the brutality of the police and soldiers made armed struggle a tempting option for the activists. Indeed, the New People’s Army was founded on March 29, 1969.
In the cities, the students had Molotovs and manifestoes, Mandrax and marijuana. The Kabataang Makabayan militants and the hippies cohabited. The hippies joined the demos despite the violent clashes and the activists smoked weed to calm their assertiveness. Almost everyone wanted the system to fall. The rules were crumbling, and the youth were creating their own utopias.
This was a rough period that shaped our adolescence. We graduated from grade school unscathed. High school, however, turned out to be turbulent and thrilling. For the administrators and disciplinarians, this batch was a challenge, if not a nightmare.
Eight sections made up our batch that entered high school. By the time we enrolled in fourth year, the number of sections was reduced to six, and the average number of students per class diminished. The most devastating was the transition from third year to fourth year, the period just before the declaration of Martial Law. One whole section was wiped out. Jun Dalandan, who serves as our attentive, single-malt-loving spiritual leader, estimates that 25% of our cohort did not graduate as scheduled — they repeated, they were dismissed, they left, or they simply vanished.
Classmates were punished — flunked or expelled — for the wrong reasons. It was preposterous to give a failing mark in Pilipino and Religion to bright classmates — they who spoke Tagalog in daily conversation and they who believed in Father the Almighty and obeyed the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Flunking Pilipino or Religion meant repeating the whole year.
Others didn’t fare well in Math not because they were lousy at numbers and in abstraction, but because they were terrorized and verbally abused by a foul-mouthed Jesuit teacher.
A bigger number of classmates repeated the year or dropped out because of circumstances associated with drug use. It was likewise preposterous that possession or use of hallucinogens was subject to dismissal. Then, the approach of harm reduction was still far out. The ironic part was that while taking cannabis or LSD was prohibited, smoking cigarettes, which has caused greater harm to individuals and society, was permitted so long as the high school student obtained parental consent.
Drug use, then and now, is considered deviant behavior. But how could have it been a deviant behavior when drug use was accepted as part of the social norms by our batch and arguably by the entire high school? Almost everyone was using or experimenting with mind-altering substances. The guy who abstained from drugs was the weird one.
Call it counterculture. But embracing a counterculture is far different from being socially deviant.
Perhaps our batch was even ahead of the iconic Steve Jobs in discovering the wonders — and the profundity — of mind-altering substances. Here is what Jobs said about LSD: “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to this coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
It is okay to have a homecoming, reminisce about surviving those tumultuous times, and wax poetic about the marvelous experiences. But all this has a higher purpose of learning lessons that can be applied today and tomorrow.
From the experience of the class of 1969, I draw a few insights that our society can think about.
First, practice tolerance. Give space to the non-conformists and the rebellious. Allow counterculture to flourish. They do not cause serious harm to society. On the contrary, their existence builds the mosaic of a vibrant, discursive and enlightened society.
Second, have rules that do not create further harm. A school policy of having a student repeat one whole year because of poor performance in non-core subjects that are taught through rote learning makes the student worse off. Similarly, a policy imposing severe punishment on students using drugs does more harm than good. The Jesuits of 50 years ago could be pardoned, for they had no inkling of the harm reduction approach.
But the adverse effect of the drug policy during our high school days would be a thousand times less severe than the outcome of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has resulted in thousands mercilessly being killed.
Third — and here the Jesuits deserve the credit — basic education is not just about making the young literate and numerate and giving them the comprehension and analytical skills; equally important is imparting the values that will make them good individuals and citizens. This got somewhat lost in the country’s educational system, as we became preoccupied with addressing our technical deficiencies.
Our basic education in grade school and high school inculcated in us the values of discernment, of being a man for others, and of being constantly true.
Our batch consists of respected and renowned men in different fields — music and fine arts, judiciary and law, health and medicine, manufacturing and services, finance and banking, public service and civil society, journalism, athletics, entrepreneurship, and the academe.
Typifying the character of the class is Rogie Tangco, who received the 2019 Golden Jubilarian Lifetime Award. The Award cites Rogie “for cultivating his Ignatian roots towards being a healer for others, as exemplified by his selfless dedication to provide pacemakers to the indigent via the establishment of a pacemaker bank.” Rogie humbly says that the award is for his classmates, from basic education to medical school. One way or another, each one has served to be a man for others or a healer for others.
This is the class of Joey Ayala and Bogie Tence Ruiz, artists who have made protest art sublime yet accessible; the class of Andy Soriano, the fiercely independent judge who ruled that strongman Duterte’s Proclamation on the issuance of a warrant of arrest against then Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had no factual basis; the class of Eddie Dorotan, a doctor like Rogie, who champions good local governance through Galing Pook; the class of Jun Dalandan and the late Joey Pengson, who gave purpose to the alumni by initiating socially and politically relevant programs.
This is the class that popped acid and smoked pot; the class that boycotted classes and joined protest actions denouncing Marcos, the imperialists and the cleric-fascists; the class that went through the harrowing early period of martial law. For all that, this is a class that has served our country and our people — Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.