My mother, my first teacher

The author’s mom Flora (right) and her niece, Esperanza (left).

October 5 being Teacher’s Day, I would like to pay tribute to the very first teacher I ever knew – my mom, Flora. (I only saw this picture of hers for the first time – after she had passed away last Oct. 1 – when my younger sister was going through some old pictures of her to compile into a collage.) Based on said picture, I can already guess the qualities that attracted my father, Francisco, to her. She possessed this intelligence and quiet but supreme self-confidence, a self-assuredness and her ability to remain calm under any circumstance (that was evident to me even at such an early age).
And these qualities blossomed as she grew into womanhood. She remained unflappable even in the direst of circumstances. When I showed her an open wound that was spewing out blood, she would calmly say, “Let’s wash it with soap and water…. don’t worry too much about it because it will heal by itself.” Whereas my aunts (her sisters-in-law) would get all worked up, and insisted that I be brought to a hospital’s emergency room immediately which, naturally, my mother didn’t do.
My mother was born on Nov. 25, 1925 to Yang Moon Choo and Mary Young, both of whom were Cantonese. From what I understood, my maternal grandfather was a Chinese physician who knew and traveled with Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which is how he made his way to the Philippines shores. My mother graduated from Philippine Women’s University with a degree in Associate Arts, a two-year college course popular back then.
Only a few know the story about how we enrolled into Xavier School’s first Kindergarten I class back in 1960. The spanking new and sprawling school’s then principal Fr. Joseph Ly, S.J. would only accept my three older brothers (as transferees from another school) on the condition that one of them – whose English was deemed “deficient” for the next grade level – repeat the same Grade School level at Xavier, instead of progressing to the next Grade School level he’d have been entitled to in the former school.
Of course my mom, who was also a very practical person, found this unacceptable. With only one family car, how could she ferry her boys to two different schools in opposite sides of the city? She refused this condition, insisting that all be accepted/advanced into the next grade level they were eligible for.
Mom’s feisty reply “You take all, or you take none!” “But”, she quickly added, “Should you accept all of them, you will not regret it!”
And so during our first two years in Xavier, she took it upon herself to personally tutor all four of us boys every day, as soon as we got home from school and had finished our merienda. And we didn’t turn out too badly either, much to her relief, because all four of us became consistent honor students, garnering First Honors and Second Honors along the way.
After two years of tutelage, she left us to study on our own – that was how she imparted to us a sense of responsibility, of how take charge of our own future. It was a valuable lesson to learn at such an early age, and it’s something I’ve tried to pass on to my own children as well.
Xavier School likewise benefited in the sports arena as we became varsity athletes in basketball, volleyball, softball and baseball.
Another little known fact is that my mother, the “Great Cook,” did not even know how to boil water when she married my father. That she taught herself how to cook, and cook well, showed her initiative, resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance and immense love for us (by keeping us well-fed!). It probably reassured my father as well that he had made the right choice.
Her meticulously-prepared meals also helped balance the family budget, as restaurant meals do tend to be more expensive, and less “healthy,” than home-cooked ones. And being of Cantonese stock, she probably embraced the Cantonese’s discriminating palate and high food standards, whether taken at home or outside.
Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in passing on her skills in the kitchen to us (her sons), with sometimes tragicomedy results. I remember one time when I was in Grade 3 or Grade 4, she was having guests over for dinner when she ran out of lettuce.
She dispatched me to Unimart, instructing me to look for the vegetable that was green and shaped like a bowling ball. True to her description, I indeed came home with a green vegetable resembling a bowling ball – some nice heads of cabbage!
When I got my driver’s license, I started driving and accompanying her every Saturday to Farmer’s (wet) market where she obtained our weekly supply of fish, meats, and vegetables. Boy, were those bayongs heavy! It boggles the imagination how such a small woman could carry such heavy baskets all around the market, constantly adding more loads with new purchases!
And every week, I remember there’d be this wiry young Tsinoy meat vendor, hair slicked back with pomade as was the fashion back then, wearing a sando, who’d motion her over to buy meat from his stall. He’d always flash Mom a warm smile, give her a good price, and even throw in a few additional meat portions into the bayong for good measure.
Curious, I asked her who this friendly pleasant suki of hers was.
“My former student.”
“When?” I asked her.
“When he was in kindergarten,” was her reply.
I left, in awe of the impression a good teacher could make on his/her student.
The saying that “We touch the future — we teach” is indeed true.