The morning of the first day of school greeted me with the sun in my eyes, and the ringing of the alarm clock in my ears. I groggily got up of bed to a meal of sinangag, sunny-side up eggs (the yolk just warmed through – just the way I liked it), hot dogs, and a tall mug of Ovaltine. My school uniform was neatly pressed; the blue slacks creased to perfection, the white polo shirt bleached and starched, my shoes shined to a brilliant black, and my jacket folded neatly over the ironing horse. After the bath, Father slathered pomade on my hair and spritzed me up with his cologne, and Mother whisked me off to school.
I open my bag and see everything is in there: schoolbooks, notebooks for all my subjects, pens and pencils and erasers and marker pens and colored pencils in a neat Transformers pencil case. With a few flicks of the wrist, turned into a fully-functional toy Optimus Prime. The teacher frowned upon it, and so told me to change my pencil case to a more conventional one. The plastic bag at the back row contained multiplication windows, spelling tablets, folders, rulers, and all the other requirements that would be submitted to the adviser on the first day of school. The books would be placed neatly in the lockers; the pages scanned for “tex,” Pog, and copies of “Heavy Metal” that would get you a trip to the Principal’s office in no time. All of them were labeled with my name, my section, and my address.
Through the school year, teachers would inspect the notebooks. They will all take them home, and patiently pore through the completeness of our notes. There was always a handmade “Best in Penmanship” ribbon on my notebooks when I get them, save for the Math notebook, which contained a curt reminder from Teacher Shirley: “copy all formulas.”
Mother had two ways of getting us to eat lunch. She either stood by with the other parents at the gate to give us our packed lunches, or take us out for lunch to one of the canteens outside the school. I particularly enjoyed it when Mother just gave us money because she’ll be having lunch at work: it was off to the soda fountains for “lunch,” me and my very few friends stuffing ourselves silly with “mix” Fanta (every flavor in the cup) and packs of Rin-Bee and Cheez-Zum, and after school it was off to the cotton-candy and snow cream sellers by the gates.
Fast food was a no-no: we would only get Jollibee or McDonald’s if we brought home a ribbon or an Honor Card, or if she showed up at Recognition Day to help us get a medal at the CCA. Only then would Father take us to Robbins or Traderland for that friction-operated spark-gun, or to Tiong San for the Tamiya. Only once did he concede to a pre-constructed deck of Magic cards.
Nobody liked me in the playground, so it was off to the library. The English readers accompanied me through the minutes that remained of recess time, as well as Catechism books that an old teacher left for me by my usual seat near the window. The bell rang, and we were back to the classrooms, everyone smelling of play and rubber-band balls, while I piled the English readers and the Hardy Boys novels at the bottom of my seat. Just on top of the thick folds of manila paper that was my report for Religion class.
“You can’t read all of these,” Mother said as she fetched us from school, as I wrote the day’s essay assignment, spelled “aardvark” on sheets of paper, or memorized the difference between isosceles, equilateral, and scalene triangles. I brought home good marks, rewarded by pizza or an extra 30 minutes of TV time.
“How many times did you recite in class?” “More than ten.” “What was your grade in Sibika at Kultura?” “I got a perfect score at the quiz bee.” “How many new friends did you make?” “None, but Teacher Leo and Teacher Peter (the guidance counselors) want to talk to you.”
“Go to sleep, but pray first.” “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here. Ever this day, be at my side, to light and guide, to rule and guard. Amen.”
More than twelve years later, the malls are filled with parents and children buying school supplies, preparing for the first day of school. Everyone has the stroller bag, the plastic bags from National Bookstore filled with all sorts of requirements in the school’s checklist. The neatly-pressed uniforms are now gone, replaced with the black shirts and jeans I wear to work every day. The home-cooked breakfast replaced by a Coke and Potato Chips, and a pack of cigarettes. No rewards of medals and cards and ribbons, just Outlook buzzing a meeting or telling me I got a lot of mail to pore through.
They say that when you’re hitting your quarter-life crisis, you can’t help but reminisce. The first day of school may be a distant memory for many of us who no longer have to go through it, but it’s a memory that in some ways, can be lived in a few bits, in a few whiles that make us remember that childhood, like a lot of things, makes much more sense when you’re past it.
Perhaps hot dogs for breakfast tomorrow, or ask the drugstore if they carry Flintstones chewable vitamins.
* – The picture is our class photograph from Grade Six. I’m the boy on the third row, second from the left.