Inside an old classroom in an elementary school in the little town of Bilar, a little boy was sitting on the left side of the first desk on the third row. It was just supposed to be one of those typical mornings where everyone has settled after the flag ceremony and his teacher would start her sermon on ‘good manners and right conduct’. For him, that day was a little bit strange because the daily teachers’ meeting seemed longer than usual yet he could feel a sense of rush going on.
Finally, he saw his classroom adviser enter the room with the school principal. That made the morning even more bizarre. The school principal should be in his office by that time. He suddenly felt his heart beginning to beat faster as though he was in trouble. In focused silence, he started bringing to mind whether he’s done something that may have upset the teachers.
“So it’s really him,” the principal said, somewhat determined and ready to pronounce a verdict.
It took him a few seconds before he realized he was holding his breath. By intuition he was quite sure they were talking about him. He noticed his hands were shaky and sitting still was an effort. His seatmate tried to say something to him but his statements didn’t make sense. He felt pressure on his bladder and his mind was telling him he needed to go to toilet. It was just one of those days again when anxiety hits him like an emotional crescendo, where fear is unknown but so real and escaping is almost impossible.
“You will represent our school for a contest! You are going to the central school later this morning,” the teacher approached him calmly. It was an order and saying no was a serious misdemeanor.
A contest! He wasn’t in trouble after all.
He was in big trouble.
He hated the idea of competing. There’s going to be a winner and, of course, losers. And he’s never going to win that’s for sure. He always thought his school is inferior compared to the “central school” where the “real bright” pupils are. His classmates may have considered him “bright” but unfortunately he wasn’t bright enough. Things seemed out of control but he still knew he had two choices. A) Follow the teacher’s “order” and face his greatest fear: become a loser or B) Run away and come to school the next morning and be reprimanded for his total disrespect and rebellion.
He chose B.
Later in the day, recess wasn’t a time to play anymore. It was an opportunity to escape. He pretended he was about to buy something from a nearby “sari-sari store” and then he started running as fast as he could. He reached home and his mother was surprised he was too early for lunch. He was interrogated the way mothers always do and received from her a litany of “why’s” and “you should’s”. It didn’t matter anyway – an even greater lecture for his misconduct is inevitable by the time he goes back to school. But as of that moment, he just wanted a few hours of relief from not having to become a loser. He was worried how his teacher would deal with the fact that the school’s contestant was gone missing. Suppression. That was what he needed. He had to try forgetting what he did and he’ll be fine…or at least a little bit fine.
The little boy was sitting on the right side of the first desk on the first row except that he was in another classroom. He remembered what happened two years ago after the escape. He went back to school the next morning and his teacher wasn’t the kind of monster he thought she was.
“Where did you go?” the teacher asked him, surprisingly without any trace of anger on her voice.
He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t even look into her eyes.
“We sent someone else and I would like to congratulate your seatmate for placing second. Well done!”
The whole class clapped their hands. Regret enswathed the whole of him and the boy wondered: What if he joined the contest? His classmate got the second place and it wasn’t too bad. Not becoming the winner wasn’t fatal after all. And now, what he could only do was wonder and wonder and ask the same “what if” question till eternity.
Two years passed and he was about to compete. This time he knew he shouldn’t escape. He’s going to the central school the next morning and he was nervous by just the thought that he is representing his school for the science quiz bowl.
It was the day of the contest and he could sense his heart was racing. He attempted to calm himself down by taking slow deep breaths and glancing at his notes as a form of distraction. It didn’t bring magic but it was enough to stop him from running away.
“How do you call that condition that results from Vitamin D deficiency?” a girl on the other table asked a boy who was sitting close to her.
“Rickets! That’s it! It affects the skeletal system of the body.” Her confidence and ‘verbal ability’ was overwhelming. “Why don’t we just talk about the nervous system?” she continued as if she’s a human anatomy guru.
They’re so intelligent, the boy said to himself. He knew about rickets but he had no idea about the details of those scary science terms as “skeletal system” and “nervous system” because they haven’t touched those topics yet.
A teacher from the central school silenced everyone in the room and gave the rules. The quiz bowl had four levels, with five questions per level. To qualify for the next level, a contestant had to get at least three correct answers.
During the first level, the boy got his third correct answers on the fifth question. Same thing happened in level two. For level three, he answered the first three questions correctly but got the fourth and fifth question wrong.
Realizing that there were only three of them left in the finals from almost thirty, he paused in disbelief. He reached level four and it was beyond his expectation. He couldn’t reconcile that fact that a pupil from an inferior elementary school who wasn’t “bright enough” could make it to the final round. Another realization got him excited: The worst case scenario would be him finishing third place. And that won’t be too bad. In fact that was too good for a pupil like him who was “not bright enough”.
The three of them got the first question wrong. Then on the second question, the two girls were able to give the right answer while he didn’t. One point for each of them. Zero for him. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he was doing well for making it that far. The third question was so familiar that he could bet money for his answer. And indeed he got it right. The other two didn’t. The fourth question was surprisingly easy that all of them got additional points.
Three finalists. Two points each. Whoever gets three points by answering the fifth question correctly will get the gold medal. If there’s more than one, they’ll throw another question to break the tie. Technically, the first to get three points will be the winner.
For him, the final question was a like a key to something wonderful and bigger. At that moment his fears disappeared and all he wanted to do was give his best and be thrilled of the possibilities.
“It is a blood disorder that results from iron deficiency. What is it?”
One minute was over. “Stop writing and raise your boards up!”
He saw the other girl’s board and it was blank.
His hands were trembling and sweaty while holding his board up. He swallowed a lump on his throat and realized his mouth had been so dry. He looked at the other girl’s board but her handwriting was so tiny for him to read from the other table.
“Scurvy,” a female voice announced. “Sorry, that’s incorrect!”
Then the girl dropped her board on her table, somehow embarrassed and disappointed.
The boy looked at his teacher who’s been standing on the corner since the contest started. He smiled at him and made a gesture as if shaking his hand.
“Anemia. That’s correct and we have a winner! Congratulations!”
The boy gave a sigh of relief and beamed as though the world turned into paradise. Winning seemed so foreign to him and he couldn’t believe it! How could a pupil from an inferior school who’s not bright enough win a contest like that? He thought it was impossible. But he was wrong. He was greeted by his teacher and other contestants and the whole experience was breathtaking he almost wanted to cry. And he was filled with joy realizing that he can achieve things and the belief that he was inferior and “wasn’t bright enough” was purely an unexamined assumption.
That morning, he stepped out of that room as new person, embracing something wonderful and bigger.
That little boy was me.
I couldn’t forget that day when wisdom flowed in my life like a river. I realized that:
That day was so special because that was the moment when I got my first medal – it was my dream since I was in Kindergarten. The joy I felt wasn’t more on the medal and cash prize though. It was more on the realization that I’m not inferior and the intelligence that God has given me was a gift that I was not supposed to bring into comparison with others.
It’s awesome to have the courage to face and confront our fears. When I was a kid, I was so scared to fail or become a ‘loser’ in a competition. That fear robbed me from the opportunities to grow and accept myself as I am rather than equate my self esteem on my achievements.
We can never escape from our fears. We need to face them. And when you do:
Then you’ll find liberation. The freedom from the enslaving effects of low self esteem and being an enemy of myself is amazing and I am so grateful that God gave me that experience to end it all.
These are all the reasons (and many more) why I see my life as wonderful and bigger.