My heart did not sing a glorious hallelujah when I was asked to participate in the commemoration of his birthday over two decades ago. Dark clouds instantly gathered above me as an ominous ear-piercing aria played in the background. I was so enraged and ballistic that had there been an explosive device nearby, I would have detonated it without remorse. The headline in tomorrow’s news flashed in my head: Explosion rocks LU elementary school.

Such was the turmoil in me as I stood before my school principal who revealed that I was handpicked as the school’s representative in a poem writing competition for Rizal’s 135th birth anniversary, happening in two days. I was ten years old.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew who he was and my young mind understood that he was an important figure in Philippine history. The quintessential white bust erected on that grass-covered ground in our school facade that welcomed me every single day was a dead giveaway to his greatness. Posters of heroes mounted on the walls of our classrooms were top billed by his face with that familiar trimmed moustache and sleek coiffure which remained in the consciousness of Filipinos across generations. To top it all, we committed to memory his famous adage about the youth being the nation’s hope, both in English and Filipino.

So you might ask, why the fury?

This happened in a time when child protection policy was not conceived, that sparing the rod to discipline a child was far-fetched. This was a time when saying no to elders was a form of rebellion and turning down high ranking officials without reservations, including but not limited to school principals, is punishable as it brought disgrace to the entire family. It did not help that my mother was a teacher and the aforementioned school principal was her immediate superior. In that fateful meeting, I was furious because I couldn’t stand by my truth and say that I couldn’t be up for the challenge; that forcing me to do something against my will was a direct threat and violation. I knew that if I dared to be a disappointment by saying no, dire consequences awaited me at home. No one to blame but me. I had them coming.

Dropping my bag on to the floor, I dashed towards the comfort room, shut the door and just cried my heart out. In between sobs, I gnashed my teeth, clenched my fist and drowned myself in agony and remorse, disowning this life of constant obedience that allowed only a yes for an answer, and never a no. No one asked me if I wanted to join in the first place. Why does it have to be me? From afar, I heard my cousins gleefully shrieking while playing tag or hide and seek. My young shoulders trembled heavily as muffled tears flowed across my cheeks, wiped by the sleeves of my shirt. Why couldn’t I be like them, safe and distant from the troubles and anxiety caused by forced obedience?

Such must have been the dilemma of Jose Rizal as young a child growing up in the sleepy town of Calamba, Laguna. He bore witness to the abuses, injustices and excesses of the Spaniards who looked down on Filipinos with their feline noses. In their eyes, they were Indios, perpetually inferior who only deserve no more than a life of servitude and submission to these foreigners.

In his young mind, he might have had wondered why such inequality existed between these two groups of people, why there is so much premium placed on the color of one’s skin, when, deep inside, both are irrevocably the same. And because of this factor one race is entitled to occupy the pedestal while other is relegated to the mud and is expected to take it wholeheartedly, without question.

Eventually Rizal grew up and became a man with a mind of his own. There have been armed movements that aimed to topple down the government that only brought strife to Filipinos, but Rizal chose a different path and forged, in reckoning, a formidable force that preferred the power of the pen over the sword. Through his works, he caused an awakening, triggering even the most passive of Indios to rise up and say enough is enough. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo surely shook the Spaniards out of their wits, exposing what they were guilty with: tyranny, cruelty, immorality.

And this is what I admire most about him: he stood on principle and fought against forced obedience that only made the abuses, injustices and excesses worse as the years rolled by. He took it upon himself the responsibility to use his talent, his brilliance as potent tools to jumpstart the liberation process of his beloved Philippines and finally expel foreign rule from abusing a single Filipino. He stood up. Yes, he did, even if it meant his death. Indeed, death is sweet for the sake of one’s country.

A day before the competition, my coach, a grade 6 teacher who would later on become my newswriting coach the following year, graciously taught me how to write a poem: its structure, its beat, its rhythm. She gave me a list of keywords I could use: freedom, martyrdom, nation, love, patriotism, sacrifice. Each word glimmered on the surface of the paper as she explained to me what they meant and how they were supposed be used in poetry. I must admit that the training was enervating to say the least. Just how many times was I asked to improve my output, or how many pieces of paper I crumpled out of sheer discontent, I have forgotten. But one thing was certain: I understood Rizal deeper and better as I wrote about him. Those muffled tears and wretched attitude towards my own life were replaced with a sense of pride and honor to participate in the commemoration of his birth anniversary.

A week later, my principal summoned me to see her in her office. With a smile on her face and glint of pride in her eyes, she handed me a local newspaper. My heart sang a glorious hallelujah when she pointed to me a news article published on the front page: First place, Lingsat Community School… Coach, Rebecca Andaya…principal, Alicia Balanon… pupil…Ferdinand Marc Sandoval.

Overcoming all the troubles this celebration caused me, I whispered to myself: Rizal I forgive you.

I hope you can forgive me too.

By: Ferdinand Marc P. Sandoval, La Union National High School (San Fernando City SDO)