this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on July 17, 1999.

I can’t recall exactly how I felt on my first day as a preschooler. All I have are secondhand accounts of how I practically wailed like a siren to wake up the household at the ungodly hour of four in the morning. Mind you, I was already in my dainty school uniform when I took it upon myself to scream like a banshee. Yes, eagerness and excitement personified, that was me. Much to my dismay, I had none of those feelings when I embarked on my first day in college after a long hiatus.

After years of indecision, confusion, a campus tour of the major universities (I went to two of the top three universities), a love child (yes, you read it right, a very lovely son), I decided to finally finish a course. Somehow, after extensive rumination and the sight of my son’s peaceful slumber (mothers know how thought-provoking the experience can be), I decided that going back to school and earning a diploma was the best way I could ensure our future.

So off I went to school at an age when most of my batchmates in high school and college were either working or already married. This was compounded by the fact that I had just given birth and I felt like ”single parent” was written on my forehead. I was not exactly your typical college student. With so much apprehension and anxiety, I entered my first class.

As I walked in, some of the students scrutinized me, probably wondering if I was their teacher. Dismissing their bold stares, I nonchalantly walked past them and took the seat right across the teacher’s table. Of course, all that was just for show. My stomach was tied up in knots. I felt like I was heartbeat away from a full-blown anxiety attack. A myriad of emotions came to me as I struggled to maintain my equanimity. How was I supposed to fit in? Did I still have interpersonal skills? Did I look too old among these kids? Did I still know how to perform basic mathematical operations? Did I still know how to read and write? What if the teacher was younger than I was? Or much worse, what if the teacher was a former classmate?

It didn’t help at all that everyone seemed to know everyone, while I had no one to converse with. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the professor came. And boy, was I grateful that he was decades older than me. I managed to smile as he greeted us. Then after a brief introduction of himself and the course syllabus, he asked us to introduce ourselves. To other people, this would have been a walk in the park for me. But I dreaded the moment from the day I decided to go back to school. It is not that I am shy, meek or timid, because I personally think (and most people I have encountered in my life will agree) that I am the opposite of these. My problem was what I could say without denting the fragile sensibilities of my classmates and professor.

Even if I had no plans of becoming Ms Congeniality, I did not want to alienate my fellow students. I might have a large dose of anesthesia running in my bloodstream (and some say it contributes to short-term memory loss), but I still knew the vital importance of first impressions. Was I supposed to put on a friendly, bordering-on-apologetic look and flash a magnetic smile … la Julia Roberts? Or should I adopt a no-nonsense almost apathetic stance? Was I supposed to volunteer other facts such as my current status as a single parent? Should I do what celebrities do and subtract a couple of years? It did not help at all that most of my classmates were, on the average, four years younger than me.

As I listened to the flurry of introductions, it dawned on me that these kids were just finishing grade school when I was about to leave high school. And while they were into the latest trends in clothes and cars and what-have-you, I was choosing the best diaper and milk formula for my son. For someone who took pride in not caring about what people would say, it was not easy to compose a diplomatic and tactful little speech before a roomful of strangers. To think that I believed that I owed nobody any explanations.

Before I could even start to assimilate all these facts (not to mention the irony of the situation), the teacher called on me to introduce myself. I knew the rest of my collegiate life depended on what I would say at that particular moment. You know those moments when you feel like there is a cessation of movement of the things around you and time really slows down and you feel an overwhelming sense of unreality? Or the nanosecond right before you decide to kiss a loved one for the first time and your thoughts are still vacillating between doing it or not and before you could even make a decision, the deed is done? It was one of those moments, except that kissing is an experience I would never tire of repeating. So I stood up, trying to look as confident (read: intimidating) as possible. I smiled (or to be more precise, tried to produce a reasonable facsimile thereof) and said: ”Hello! My name is Jules. I’m twentysomething and I’m back in school after a long time. I am a single parent and I am taking Interdisciplinary Studies.”

No one said anything as I took my seat. Then the guy beside me stood up and introduced himself. I never thought my piece would be treated with non-attention. I had spent so many days and nights worrying about reintroducing myself to the academic environment and when the dreaded moment came, no one seemed to think it was remarkable. Hay naku, so much for that, I thought. You are a non-entity as far as these people are concerned. All your fears were for naught. As I was starting to settle into anonymity, our professor came forward to announce to the whole class: ”Congratulations, Ms Alcantara! It takes a lot of guts and determination to do what you are doing!” That, of course, signaled the end of my anonymity.

Looking back, I realized that my worries and anxieties were not really all for naught. In the beginning there were times when I felt I was being judged and censured by some of my peers for my different lifestyle. There were some who, upon knowing about my ”situation,” considered me immoral, promiscuous, flat-out vacuous and unfortunate. But I should stress that they belonged to the minority. A whole lot of others accepted me for what I was. Every now and then, I bring my son to school. Fortunately, I study in an innovative school where discrimination of any kind rarely occurs. I have met several other women who are just like me, single parents, and a tad older than the average student. Trading horror stories about our first day in school after a long time has made me a lot of friends. I have multitudes of schoolmates who call me ”Ate” or ”Mommy.” My grades are above average and I am even actively involved in the College Student Council. I would like to think that I have earned the respect of my peers. And modesty aside, there are some who, despite the fact that I am not exactly a role model on account of my unconventional existence, admire me. I may have lacked direction before, but I am making up for it with sheer guts and honesty. 

1 comment
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