My favourite teacher in college was Ms. Macapagal; I was in my second year in the university when I had her for Philippine Literature. I took her during the summer, in an effort to clear myself of back subjects, and to this day I hold that decision to enroll in her class as one of the best I ever made. Students (and maybe in secret, professors) called her Big Mac not only because she was a big woman (with Mac a contraction of her surname), but also because of the urban legend she was once caught eating two Big Mac’s.
Yet she stood out not just due to her size (and I say this with affection) or a seemingly exaggerated story but because she was smart, humorous (often self-deprecating or sarcastic), and engaging without being contrived. Ms. Macapagal was a genuine spirit who possessed the virtues of teaching so effortlessly. In her presence, I felt naive but without being disgraced. Rather, I was inspired to learn to read again, because she made me feel there was so much more I should know, so much more I could discover. She had very little pretensions, or obvious quirks and external stylings that would point out to her being “cool”. But she was. She was beyond cool and she didn’t even have to try.
She had the natural ability to make her students appreciate literature – a tough job when most found immersing in hundreds of pages of (required) readings a very arduous, repetitive and even boring task. Academic texts, after all, often took out the pleasure in reading fiction. But Ms. Macapagal was able to restore it with both ferocity and ease, with grace and a heightened sensibility; her confidence in what she knew and what she felt about a story passed on to weary college students allowing them to rediscover the magic in words, to be spellbound and held captive by the sublime.
As a teacher, she was very strict about attendance and always locked the door to late students. If you were but a second late, you would have missed her class. But even if you were punctual and present, she was strict, almost a terror for those unfamiliar to her ways; for Ms. Macapagal only had one simple rule when you attend her class: you’re prepared. She disliked the inattentive, ridiculed (albeit humorously) the ill-equipped to handle the pressure of recitations, and scared the hell out of cheaters (which was deserved). She widened her eyes at students who mumbled answers and who revealed they had not read the assigned readings. When someone could not answer she would always shout, “Luk Luke na!” which terrified and amused us all the same. But everything was done within the limits of decent human behaviour. She never cursed. She never purposely humiliated a student to demoralize them. She never caused offense.
Instead, what Ms. Macapagal did was to give tough love. She wanted students challenged. She wanted students to will to learn, to will back into their hearts the love for reading. She respected us, but that respect had to be earned and deserved.
Her style was simple. For the most part, she sat in her chair (mainly because of her size, she found it difficult to walk around the room) behind the teacher’s desk, and discussed the story with nuance and passion. She slowly peeled the layers of the narrative until we had burrowed into the author’s heart. To some, she was traditional, old-school, and even outdated what without the dramatics or profanities. But her simplicity contained power and substance, a hidden force which made you turn pages with devotion rather than necessity. She made all her students pay attention and more importantly, open their eyes to the power of reading between the lines.
In between recitations and discussions she would snap a joke so nonchalantly, many of us who were quite frankly naive, took a few seconds to get it. And when we did, we laughed. Hard. That made class so enjoyable. Ms. Macapagal mixed her life stories with the assigned stories, which frankly, felt less of a task under her wise ways. I remember her once explaining her surname. She said, “I am not a relative of that evil midget” referring to the corrupt ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It was one of her many quips, most of which I have preserved as anecdote for moments like this, when I write about the people who matter, or talk with friends about priceless college memories. Ms. Macapagal had an endless resource of opinions: some were tirades against society, others were witty and sarcastic remarks that made me proud of being a Thomasian–she was truly yellow-blooded.
I rediscovered my love for reading because of Ms. Macapagal, and she taught me among many things, how to pinpoint a character’s epiphany. It wasn’t easy. Looking for revelations often required one to read between, beneath and even beyond the lines. As there were countless selections in our Literature reader, I spent the whole summer reading poetry and short stories, essays from post-Japanese occupation Filipinos who wrote fiction in English and collections from local writers I had never heard before. Not once was I bored. Not once did I complain. I enjoyed her class so much I believe she was the first wherein I needed no big motivation (like a precarious midterm class standing) to attend. I simply wanted to because I learned a lot. Her class wasn’t just worth every penny of my tuition fee. It was invaluable.
Ms. Macapagal was far from those professors who took pleasure in pressuring students, giving them impossibly difficult requirements which made no sense nor taught any. And she was definitely not like those prehistoric, outdated instructors who were better of retiring. She pushed us to our limits but reigned in on masochistic tendencies most teachers are guilty of.
Under her watchful eye (as I said, beware cheaters!), our thoughts were provoked, our ways of thinking gradually honed to be more critical, our hearts warmed by the virtues we unearthed from the stories. It was truly a fascinating development. We came into her class sheepish and bewildered, but always came out reinvigorated, fulfilled, and more human – toughened by the simple challenge to read with pleasure but also softened to allow the stories we read to alter us.
I doubt this will reach Ms. Macapagal, who would rather stick to pen and paper than the Internet. But I suppose it would do no harm to share my life-changing experience under her guidance. It may seem too much to claim she really changed my life but she did. Without her nuanced enthusiasm for literature, I wouldn’t be bothered to write, and more importantly, read. I had Ms. Macapagal at a time when there were so many changes in my life in the university. Having her for the summer served as an anchor for what laid ahead. She made me certain I chose the right path. And isn’t that what teachers should aim for? To make a dent on another’s life; to form and to instruct, but also to enkindle a flame that burns steady in against the snarling, dark uncertainties of life?
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.