THE 44-YEAR-OLD KOLEHIYALA

Yup, that’s me. And this is my story.

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HOW IT ALL STARTED

I have never denied the fact that I totally suck at Math. When I was studying in UP during the early 90s, it had always been my waterloo. I took Math 11 (College Algebra) three times, Math 14 (Trigonometry) six times, and Math 101 (Statistics) three times. During my last sem, I got a conditional grade of 4.0 in Math 100 (Calculus) so I took a removal exam. That was back (way, way back!) in 1994. I was already working and pregnant with my first child when I learned that I failed the exam. However, things that were much more important than trying to pass my Calculus started to happen almost all at once.

First, we had baby #1. Then, I had to quit my job because my husband’s work required us to move to the province. Baby #2 came along, and baby #3 after just another year. A few short years later and it was time to send them all to school. Then, we had to move to another province.

Before I knew it, more than two decades had already passed me by.

When two of our children were about to graduate in the same university that brought me and my husband together many years ago, I decided to take a leap of faith and enroll Math 100. I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if the three of us all graduate at the same time? A mother and her two children. Also, I wanted to surprise my parents. They had no idea that I didn’t graduate in 1994. I just fed them with the lie that, during that time, I didn’t want to march with a protruding belly.

 

IN PURSUIT OF A DIPLOMA

Going back to school had not been easy for me, though. It was, in fact, extremely difficult and challenging.

Every Tuesday and Thursday for a total of four months, I had to wake up at 3:00 AM to prepare my family’s breakfast and make the commute from Bulacan to UP Clark for my 2-hour class.

My classmates were too young, younger than my youngest child. They called me Tita, and would always talk to me with po and opo. Thankfully, my teacher was almost my age. However, she had the annoying habit of addressing me Ma’am. In shame, I wished the ground would open and swallow me up each time she would do that.

In my desire to pass Math 100, I had to rekindle so many long-forgotten relationships that I would rather bury in oblivion — with X and Y, with Sin and Cos, and with Limit, Derivative and Integral. As a long-time wife and mother, my brain has been wired to dealing with and solving domestic issues and conflicts, no longer to decoding the complicated relationships between equations and functions!

I also had to endure the humiliation of being tutored by my son. I knew that it was equally hard for him (he was often my shock absorber cum emotional punching bag especially when I would get frustrated due to a difficult lesson) but, as a parent, I had been used to doing the teaching to my children. It should not be the other way around.

During exams, I was always this one big, useless, confused, mumbling ball. Nobody at home would dare talk to me or ask anything from me. I was so focused on reviewing days and nights before the exam — only to have the various topics mixed up in my mind during the examination itself or to forget everything I’ve meticulously studied. For the first five minutes of my first long exam, I got completely immobilized by nerves. My brain refused to function, my heart was racing, I was breaking into a cold sweat, I was feeling dizzy and lightheaded, and I had difficulty breathing. When I eventually managed to will my hand to move, it was shaking uncontrollably. I thought I had to run to the clinic!

Unsurprisingly, I earned a singko for that exam.

Things didn’t get much better during the succeeding exams. I still suffered from panic attacks or would be prone to pre-exam “catastrophes” such as the flu, early arrival of the monthly period, and diarrhea.

During the final exam, I was among the “walking dead” or those students sporting eyebags the size of a golf ball, disheveled appearance, and glassy eyes.

I had a perfect attendance and I was always the first one to arrive in the classroom. I was attentive and I always did my homeworks. At one point, I even got the highest score in our exam (but that still failed to push my grade to a passing level.) My teacher knew that Math 100 was the only thing that was keeping me from my very elusive diploma. She knew how badly I needed to pass that subject.

In the end, though, she still gave me a grade of 4.0, with no option to take a removal exam.

I was devastated.

I was furious.

I was embarrassed.

I found comfort in my husband and children’s assurance that there was no shame in what happened. I did my best, and that was what’s most important, they said. In hindsight, I realized that if my teacher gave me an undeserved passing grade out of pity or sympathy, my high regard for UP would be shattered.

So, when the hubby and kids urged me to re-enroll Math 100 the following sem, I did just that. That time around, I chose to enroll in UP Diliman.

 

THE SECOND CHANCE

On the very first day of class, I wanted to quit.

I learned that, unlike in Clark, I had to go to Diliman four times a week for a one-hour class each day. Every Tuesday and Thursday, my class would start as early as 7:15 AM and my classroom was on the third floor! (On Wednesdays and Fridays, it was a little later at 8:45 AM. Class was on the fourth floor, though.) My teacher was really young, just a little older than my eldest child. And when I saw the course outline, I knew right away that the pace would be brutal, the coverages (particularly for the first two quarters) would be long, and no exemption from the final exam would be allowed.

My children could take as many as seven subjects in a sem, and I would expect them to bring home impeccable grades, while there I was, allowing myself to abandon my long-time dream of earning a diploma, to give up the fight even before it started, to be daunted by the obstacles that a single subject entailed.

And so, with my children as my inspiration, I went ahead and kept going.

After two sems, I acquired more white hair and reacquired migraine; nightmares and panic attacks became my constant companions before exams; I reconnected with caffeine; I lost at least 15 pounds of unwanted fats (this, I considered a positive development); the sight of square roots, absolute values or greater integer functions no longer frazzled me as much; and I have come to appreciate more the effort that my children have been putting into their studies. But, most importantly, I was able to accomplish my goal.

Together with my two children, I am going to graduate tomorrow!

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LALA, OUR CUM LAUDE!

We already had two sons when Lala, the youngest and the only girl in our brood, came along. I’m not sure if it’s the same with other parents, but there was something about the arrival of a daughter – our daughter — that instantly inspired a farrago of emotions in me.

I was, of course, ecstatic for being the recipient of such an amazing divine blessing, and excited to take on the challenge of raising someone who could be a little version of myself. However, I was also anxious knowing that the world she was about to open her eyes into was not an ideal place for what the society calls the “inferior and weaker sex.”

And that was when my protective instinct as a mother started to kick in.

I know that this sounds a lot like stereotyping (I didn’t feel the same way with my boys, after all), but I’ve always had this irrational notion that our daughter was as extremely delicate and fragile as my grandma’s fine China. In fact, when I first heard her cry and felt her warm body comfortably nestled in my arm, I had an instantaneous desire to pull her into a tight embrace and never let go. The urge to shield her, to protect and defend her, was so strong, so immediate and so unbridled, it was almost stifling in its intensity. I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself that no harm could possibly come to my precious one — especially since we were still at a hospital at that time and were closely surrounded by family and friends.

She was a crybaby as a toddler, so I expected her to be whiny and petulant. As the youngest in the family, I thought she would develop a sense of entitlement. Being the only girl among all the cousins in her father’s side, I was expecting that she would be vain, frivolous, and superficial, and would grow into a temperamental prima donna. Her brothers were already academic achievers even then, so I was already preparing myself if ever she would turn out to be an academic non-performer and a quitter.

Growing up, though, she proved to everyone that she was made of tougher stuff.  She did not only defy my expectations; she managed to surpass every one of them.

She would display fierce independence early on. I could still remember this one time when, as a 3-year-old toddler, she stubbornly refused the hand offered to her by her ninong while we were all climbing the unfamiliar stairs in the latter’s new house. We were worried because even a single misstep could be fatal. But, she kept going — slowly, painstakingly, resolutely. And when she reached the top of the stairs, she faced us and beamed with utter pride and an undeniable sense of accomplishment.

She had been like that ever since.

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As a schoolgirl, she was competitive yet accommodating to her classmates who would approach her for help. She was focused and driven, and she knew her priorities. Her perseverance and diligence were admirable. She would have her notebook/reviewer with her all the time in case there was a lull in her busy schedule. But when, finally, she was able to tick off every single item in her to-do list, she would relish the time she spends with her family, friends, and orgmates. For her “me time,” she loves to bury herself in her novels.

As a friend, she is amiable, forgiving and easy to please. She has a ready smile for everyone and is loyal, even to a fault. Don’t be fooled by her small frame, though, as to attempt to intimidate her. She could hold her own and could even be a merciless bully to someone twice her size when provoked.

She is so simple that she doesn’t see the need for any makeup, accessory, jewelry (even a wrist watch) or perfume. The only indulgences that can bring a spark to her girly eyes are clothes and shoes. But even with those, she is never impulsive. She knows the style and color that she wants, and she sticks with it.

She is self-assured and confident in her own skin, and is fair in all her dealings. She is morally upright — hating shortcuts, quick fixes, and palakasan system.

She is beautiful, both inside and out. She is compassionate and empathetic to the plight of others. Secretly, she has a dream to change the world for the better, or at the very least, to be part of that change.

She may not look it, but she is a voracious eater. She eats almost anything except those with mayonnaise and ketchup.

She is politically aware and socially conscious, and is a girl of principle and conviction. Whenever her schedule permits, she goes with us to talks, rallies, and other protest actions.

She is an amazing ball of contradictions — demure yet tough, soft-spoken yet assertive, and gentle yet fierce.

Now that she is growing into a young woman, we are discovering, much to our delight and surprise, that the two of us have much more in common than we previously thought. I used to think that all those talk about mothers and daughters growing into best friends is just romanticized. But, not anymore. Increasingly, we find ourselves giggling at the same girly stuff, swooning at the same gorgeous hunk, crying at the same scenes of some telenovela or movie, smiling conspirationally at some naughty idea, and getting enraged by the same societal injustices.

The moment she smiled at us for the very first time when she was a baby, she had us completely wound around her little finger. She was like a warm ray of sunshine on a chilly morning, a cool breeze on a humid afternoon, a glimpse of heaven here on earth, and a reminder that there is still hope, after all.

Today, she still continues to amaze us. As if all her academic achievements were not yet enough to make us eternally proud as parents – she was accelerated and conferred with the second highest honor during preschool, she was hailed the batch valedictorian in grade school, she passed the Pisay entrance test joining the company of 239 other academically-gifted high school students who bested 20,000 examinees all across the land, she managed to get into the University of the Philippines with a quota course of BS in Biology, she bagged a DOST academic scholarship, she earned a 99+ percentile rank when she took the National Medical Admission Test, and she was accepted to the medical school of her choice—, she has recently managed to surprise us with yet another accomplishment.

Our daughter is graduating Cum Laude!!!

WHEN OUR CHILD’S WORLD CRUMBLES

In the entire span of your life as a parent, you will undoubtedly face countless challenges. You will soon discover, however, that the toughest and most hurtful are those which cause your children immense pain and suffering.

I should know.

As a parent of three young adults, I have already witnessed innumerable times how my children would struggle and, each time, my heart is ripped into tiny pieces.

  • Emar losing his front tooth when he, as a toddler, tripped on the pavement.
  • MD as a baby with a heart murmur.
  • Lala getting her hand burnt when I was cooking while she was in my arm.
  • Emar experiencing his very first loss in an academic competition.
  • MD being bullied by his classmates due to his big voice. (He never talked in school for an entire year because of that. Irked, his adviser locked him up in a tiny, dark storage room.)
  • Lala being fed by her teacher with a piece of crumpled paper.
  • Emar caught up in the throes of his first romantic break-up.
  • MD relentlessly compared with his siblings, and always found lacking.
  • Lala finding herself struggling academically in high school after she graduated valedictorian in grade school.

Just recently, Emar, our firstborn had to contend with a disappointment so great that caused his world to crumble.

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Emar has always been an academic achiever. The impressive array of medals, certificates, scholarships and scholastic commendations and citations he has received and amassed since his preschool years can easily attest to his unquestionable love of learning, and to the discipline, hard work and perseverance that he continues to consistently demonstrate as a student.

It, therefore, pained us to witness how devastated he was when he learned last year that he could not graduate alongside his friends and batchmates from the UP Dep’t. of Chemical Engineering.

He was a candidate for Cum Laude, so when he and his group encountered a trouble in their Plant Visit subject, he opted to drop the said subject rather than earn a grade of 5.0 which could adversely and irrevocably affect his ‘Laude status. In UP, though, there are certain subjects that are strictly offered on a seasonal basis only. Sadly, the subject that he had to drop was one of those. (It was also a prerequisite to a subject that was a prerequisite to another subject.) So, he was left with no other option but to take his 12 remaining units in 3 successive sems (5, 4 and 3 units for each sem respectively).

We were, of course, disappointed and dejected. He was, after all, the first grandchild from both sides of the family and, thus, the first one expected to graduate in college. The entire clan, especially Tatay Bebot, his paternal grandfather, was excited to see him walk up the stage to receive his college diploma. (Sadly, Tatay Bebot would no longer get to see that day. He died of brain aneurysm last year.)

However, when we saw how miserable Emar had become because of what happened and how he would beat himself up for it, we put aside our own personal feelings to provide him with the support and assurance that he so badly needed at that time.

Thankfully, he was able to bounce back, albeit painfully, diffidently, slowly.

He used his ample time to pursue productive endeavors.

During his first underloaded sem, he became an active tutor in the three tutorial centers he was affiliated with. He mastered not only one-on-one but even class tutoring. Also, he found himself teaching not just students like himself, but also professionals reviewing for the Civil Service exam!

The next sem saw him busy completing his 300-hour internship with Petron Corporation. Assigned to its Research and Development department, he was always excited when he would learn new things and gain additional knowledge, and when he was able to actually apply the lessons he learned in the classroom into the actual processes he was allowed to be exposed to in the company lab.

He also learned how to drive, much to our chagrin and worry.

For his last sem, he planned to work while he studies. Unfortunately, his schedule didn’t permit that so he went back to tutoring, instead.

We all though that a one-year delay in his graduation was the worst ordeal that he has had to bear as a student. We thought wrong.

Yesterday, we learned that his appeal to be allowed to graduate with honors (despite underloaded sems) was denied. (Incidentally, it was also yesterday that we learned that Emar’s baby sister, Lala, who is also studying in UP, will graduate cum laude. That story would have to be for another blog post, though.) Emar has a General Weighted Average (GWA) of 1.587432, safely within the university requirement of 1.450001-1.75 for Cum Laude. Two of my children should be graduating with honors come this June but, since Emar’s reason for underloading is not considered valid under the Revised UP Code (health, employment and unavailability of subjects are the only justifiable reasons cited, a fact which we learned belatedly), only Lala will do so.

This entire experience will, undoubtedly, leave a scar on our son. The thought that people might be talking about him with either pity or ridicule (“Our high school valedictorian did not even finish college on time.”) could sometimes stop him in his tracks. The regret of not having his Tatay Bebot witness his graduation will always bring tears to his eyes. The pain of having disappointed us when he failed to graduate with honors will gnaw at him like an itch that doesn’t go away. But, this entire experience will also instill in him some hard-earned lessons on grit, humility, the values of time and family, and the uncertainty and fragility of life — valuable lessons that will, hopefully, stay with him when he is dealt with tougher challenges in the future.

Emar, anak, the path that led you to this particular moment had not been easy. It was strewn with trials, adversities, uncertainties, disappointments, difficult choices and hopes — fondest, cherished, dashed, renewed and, finally, unfulfilled. But like the true warrior that you are, you persisted. You strove. You overcame. You triumphed.

Congratulations, anak. You may not graduate a cum laude but we are still very proud of you. We are certain that you will accomplish greater things in life. Just remember never to lose heart. When you feel that the universe is conspiring against you, when trusted friends turn their backs on you, when adversities simultaneously assail you, when your best efforts are greeted with indifference, when you fall flat on your face again and again and again —just keep on going. Don’t give up. A miracle may just be around the corner, patiently waiting for you. And rest assured that when that happens, I, your daddy, your siblings, and the entire Baldonado and Aquino clans will all be by your side, cheering you on until all your dreams turn into reality.

 

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM:

Emar received a correspondence from the University Council exactly six days prior to the university graduation. The decision was reversed. My son is going to graduate Cum Laude!!!

 

 

HEROES IN OUR MIDST

It was in one of my Economics subjects back in college that I was able to learn an important lesson….and it had absolutely nothing to do with economics.

It happened 26 years ago but I could still remember it quite vividly.

After seeing my dismal score at the front cover of my blue book that our Econ 11 teacher just handed me, I immediately leafed through its pages, hoping that my teacher made some kind of mistake in checking it. I even borrowed a seatmate’s blue book and compared our answers. Right after dismissal, I hurried after my teacher and, right there at the crowded corridor, I told him, “Sir, I think you made a mistake in checking my blue book. My seatmate and I have almost the same answers. You considered his answer correct, and mine incorrect.” Tight-lipped, he told me, “You should not compare yourself with others. You compete only with yourself.

I didn’t know if he was just in the mood to be philosophical right that moment, or if it was his instinctive reaction when a student happened to catch him out committing a mistake. Nevertheless, it worked. I did not pursue my complaint. More importantly, I took his profound words to heart. It became one of my guiding principles in life.

That teacher is Mr. Rey Yumang.

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A TEACHER’S TRANSFORMATION

Sir Yumang (or Mama Rey as he was fondly called in the campus) received his degree in Economics from the University of the Philippines in Pampanga in 1989. He graduated Cum Laude. In 1993, he completed his master’s degree in Business Management, also in the same university.

Although teaching is in his blood –his father was a retired public school principal and his eldest sister was a teacher–, he did not heed the call right away. Fresh out of college, he worked for a year for the Department of Trade and Industry as part of a special project for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) beneficiaries in Pampanga. Then, stumbling upon a chance to give back to the Alma Mater that had been very good to him, he accepted the offer to teach in UP Pampanga as an Economics instructor. It was during his 3-year teaching stint there that he was able to take and finish his master’s degree. In April 1993, he started a promising and financially-rewarding banking career with the Bank of the Philippine Islands as an Operations Manager. He resigned after nine years, with the initial plan of studying abroad.

But Fate had another plan for him.

Their parish priest in Macabebe, Pampanga asked him to handle the high school department of their small archdiocesan school even for just a year. He agreed. Apparently, he found his true calling there because this is now his 14th year as the school principal and one of the teachers of the St. Nicholas Academy: CCEI.

A TEACHER’S CHALLENGES

Teachers in the Philippines –especially in private schools– might be among the most grossly underpaid, overworked and unappreciated professionals.

Each school year, Sir Yumang experiences firsthand the repercussions of our faulty educational system. They encounter incoming grade 7 students, for instance, who have difficulty reading or cannot read at all. Those are students who get promoted to the next grade level, year after year, without fully receiving the kind of education that is due them.

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Also, every year, they hire teacher applicants who are fresh graduates. They invest in them through various trainings and seminars. But the moment they pass the Licensure Exam for Teachers (LET), they transfer to the public schools where the pay is definitely better. The only way to prevent this annual exodus of teachers is to offer them competitive salaries and benefits but doing so could only be possible if they implement a tuition fee hike. This move, though, could mean losing some students – a grim possibility that they could not afford since the continued survival of any private school is dependent on the number of its enrolees.

Another constant challenge that teachers have to confront is how to make parents realize that they need to be the school’s fruitful and active partners in molding the minds and characters of their children. There are parents who still have this debilitating mentality that once they enroll their children and pay the fees, their obligation is done.

Sir Yumang is also aware that, as an openly gay principal of a small private school in a small community, all eyes are constantly trained on him. Sometimes, he even gets the feeling that people are just waiting for him to commit a blunder that will cost him his career.

A TEACHER’S REWARDS

However, despite all these challenges, coupled with the daily demands and pressures that being a teacher and principal entails, Sir Yumang has never been this happy and fulfilled in his entire life!

He manages to endear himself to his students by showing them his genuine concern — he listens to them especially with their worries and problems, he pushes them to achieve their goals, he helps them realize their mistakes, he imparts to them words of wisdom and pieces of advice, he gives them second chances, and he never fails to extend a helping hand to those who need it. For his students, he is not just a teacher. He is their mentor, friend and second parent rolled into one. And it brings Sir Yumang great joy when these students come to him –at the end of the day, at the end of the school year, or years after they left the school– to thank him for being the inspiring teacher that he had been to them.

Each school year, he happily welcomes new members to their big family — students whose minds they need to sharpen, whose excesses they have to prune, and whose potentials they must fully develop. At the same time, he says goodbye to their graduates whose lives they have touched in their own small ways. Both prospects –the hellos and the goodbyes—give Sir Yumang cause to celebrate and be thrilled. Like a real mother, he is excited for the new batch of young minds placed in his capable care. He can’t wait to discover the endless potentials, the seeds of knowledge that he is going to plant, and the dreams he is about to cultivate among those children. Similarly, he is excited for the graduating batch. He is anxious to see what they will eventually become. On their graduation day, he unleashes and encourages them to try on their newly developed wings; to fly and to soar armed with his most fervent prayers that the many lessons they learned in school will guide them in their chosen path.

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Spending time with these young people on a daily basis proves to be a two-way learning process for Sir Yumang. He gets to share with them his knowledge and he learns something new from them every day. More than the top achievers and the contest winners who have trained under his wings, he is just as thankful for having been given the privilege to meet the so-called “others” of the spectrum – the delinquent, the bullies, the introvert and the “socially deviants” — who all have beautiful stories to share. They, too, have made Sir Yumang appreciate the essence of his profession. After listening to them, he learns that hope is not totally lost on these students. They just need someone who will make them realize their mistakes in a compassionate way.

Most of his UP students are now his very good friends and support system. Many years after UP, they still join hands in some worthy causes specially for UP Clark. They still engage in healthy debates on many issues — from Duterte to Kris Aquino and the many topics in between. But most importantly, he is immensely proud of how they have turned out as family men and women.

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Sir Yumang is proudest when he witnesses how his students are able to conquer their fears and shine on stage and when he sees them reap awards after enduring extremely tiring practices and trainings. More than the victories in many interschool academic, cultural and sports competitions, it is the fact that he has seen those students transform and grow into more confident individuals who now know their potentials that really matters to him.

He is also proud that NSA:CCEI holds the distinction of being a powerhouse in campus journalism. Their elementary journalists have clinched their 9th straight overall championship in the Macabebe East District this year, while their high school journalists copped their 12th straight overall championship in the South Zone-Cluster X.

For two years, Sir Yumang and his faculty, with the support of their administrators were able to work for the certification status of their school by the Fund for Assistance to Private Education. This is their third year as an ESC (Education Service Contracting)-participating school.

A TEACHER’S HOPES AND DREAMS

At this point in his career, there is nothing much that Sir Yumang aspires to achieve for himself but to be given a chance in the future to study again, to publish a book or to start a blog. He has a gamut of anecdotes and stories as an administrator, trainer-coach and classroom teacher that he wants to share, especially with the other teachers.

However, for the country’s educational system and for his beloved school, the St. Nicholas Academy: CCEI, his list is quite long.

He hopes that the government leaders and education planners will listen closely to what they, the front liners, have to say. After all, it is they who go through the many, real and enduring difficulties which our leaders need to address.

He hopes that the government will strengthen the public-private school partnership. There are many small private schools in the country that offer quality education, and they also need government support.

He hopes that there is more that he can do in terms of raising his teachers’ salaries and increasing their benefits so that they would no longer entertain the idea of transferring to other schools or, worse, of leaving the country to work as domestic helpers.

He also hopes to strengthen their Senior High School with more tracks and strands next school year.

Finally, he dreams for the SNA: CCEI to be the ultimate private school of choice in their town and in their district. That means a PAASCU accreditation status.

A TEACHER’S OTHER FACETS

The academe may be Sir Yumang’s first love, but outside of his beloved school, he wears many hats.

He is a loving and respectful son to his 90-year-old mother. (His late father was a retired public school principal – well respected, well-admired and well-loved in their community.)

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He is a supportive “bunso” to all his eight siblings. He assisted them in the education of his nieces and nephews. As an uncle and grand uncle, he is strict yet doting.

He is a loyal friend. He does not let one incident or one remark or petty things ruin years of carefully-nurtured friendships.

As a local television talk show host, he is fun and unpretentious. He shows genuine interest in their guests and lets them have their shining moments on the show.

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As an activist, he is realistic in the causes he fights for. He chooses his battles judiciously, and he knows when to stop fighting.

As a son of God, he is very prayerful and is constantly inspired by the never-ending goodness of the Lord. He considers himself a work in progress, though.

As a Filipino, he will always be pro-Philippines. Regardless of who the elected president may be, he will always stand for what is true, what is right and what is good for the country.

A TEACHER AS A HERO IN OUR MIDST

Considering the meager salary that teaching commands and the long hours it demands, one would think that only a fool would want to be a teacher. But for these men and women, grading papers, writing lesson plans, attending meetings, making educational aids and teaching materials, and knowing their students individually are just small parts of their bigger mission. For them, money isn’t everything. Empowering the children to change the world for the better is.

Sir Yumang believes that a career becomes a job and an obligation when one is only in it for the money. However, it becomes a mission, a calling or even a vocation when one’s heart is into it. When this is the reason for one’s continued stay in an institution, fulfillment comes in very easily.

Following his heart led Sir Yumang to this humble profession, his little corner of the sky.

Looking for heroes?

We need not look far.

NELSER’S SWEET LIFE

“Baking is a passion.

You don’t bake to jump on the bandwagon. You bake because you love baking. And every time you bake, you create something that you can be proud of — that when people take a bite, they would feel your passion. Also, you don’t bake out of a cookbook. You create something that represents you.”

Growing up, Nelser had no exposure to baking as no one in her family knew how to bake. She just happened to stumble upon an old cookbook when she was in fourth grade and, on impulse and out of curiosity, she copied a recipe straight from that cookbook, invaded her mother’s kitchen, and proceeded to bake. Her first attempt at baking was a resounding success. Her family loved her spritz cookies.

With her parents’ support, she gained the confidence to dabble in baking other sweet goodies. The cookies soon became macaroons and, later on, brownies.

But, despite Nelser’s apparent passion and talent for baking, that parental support did not extend to allowing her to enroll in a culinary school or to pursue a degree in baking and pastry arts. Her parents wanted her to follow in the footsteps of her father who, at that time, was a lawyer. So, Nelser took a pre-law course in the University of the Philippines.

When she got married fourteen years ago and had kids soon after, she became preoccupied with nurturing her young family.

NELSER AS A PASTRY CHEF

It was only when her two boys got a little older that she found the time to revisit her beloved hobby. Initially, she would only bake for family, relatives and close friends. But as her reputation as an exemplary pastry chef circulated far and wide —and as more people requested to get a treat of her phenomenal generosity and a free taste of her sumptuous dessert offerings–, she eventually decided to make a business out of her hobby.

Her first “paying” customer was Ambassador Preciosa Soliven who ordered boxes of food for the gods which the kind ambassador gave as token to a royalty in the Middle East. In exchange, she gave Nelser walnuts and dates.

Today, armed with years of baking experience, Nelser already has a wide and impressive array of baked products that her loyal patrons and new customers can choose from. Although she only bakes on a per-order basis, she makes sure that the packaging of her products –everything comes in attractive boxes, tin cans, bottles, mugs, or plastic containers—is elegant, and her pricing competitive enough, to send the clear message that they are not the work of a mediocre baker, but of a pastry chef par excellence.

Her sweet concoctions used to bear the name “The Bakeshop by nelser”, but her business started to thrive only after she became actively involved in her parish church. So to honor the sole source of that blessing, she decided to change the name to “Bits of Heaven”. However, the name can also be easily construed to mean that a bite of any of Nelser’s treats is like having a taste of a bit of heaven.

Here are some of her to-die-for sweet treats. Be ready to drool!

1carrot-cake
Two-layered moist carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and generously sprinkled with walnuts

 

 

2chocolate-truffle-cake
Three-layered moist chocolate cake filled with hand-whipped bittersweet ganache and covered with rich chocolate icing

 

 

3caramel-carrot-choco-cakes
Caramel cake, carrot cake and chocolate cake. Decadent and buttery, the caramel cake is slathered with rich caramel icing

 

 

4ombre-cake
Ombre cake. 7-layered vanilla cake with caramel filling covered with creamy vanilla buttercream

 

 

5mango-walnut-torte
Mango walnut torte. Three layers of walnut meringue smothered with whipped cream and fresh mangoes

 

 

6dobos-torte
Dobos torte. A Hungarian sponge cake with 8 layers of chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel

 

 

7banoffee-pie
Banoffee pie. Banana cream pie smothered with homemade caramel sauce

 

 

8almond-cream-puffs
Cream puffs. Profiteroles filled with pastry cream, drizzled with caramel, and topped with almond slivers

 

 

9food-for-the-gods
Food for the gods. Moist and chewy and generously peppered with walnuts and dates, this is perfect for gifts  this coming holiday season

 

 

10banana-nutella-muffins
Muffins. Moist banana muffins with Nutella filling

 

 

11chocolate-chip-cookies-dark-chocolate-macadamia-cookies-and-oatmeal-walnut-cookies
Chewy and old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies

 

 

12cinnamon-cookies
Snickerdoodles (cinnamon cookies). Butter cookies rolled in cinnamon, they are mostly popular during the Christmas season probably because they fill the kitchen with that wonderful cinnamon scent when they are baked

 

 

butterscotch-blondies
Butterscotch blondie bars. Dense and sweet, they resemble the brownies less the cocoa

 

 

13brownie-cupcakes
Perfectly moist and chewy brownie cupcakes packed in tin cans to seal in their freshness

 

 

14blueberry-cheesecake-cupcakes
Blueberry cheesecake cupcakes. Baked cheesecake topped with blueberry filling

 

 

15caramel-cupcakes
Caramel  cupcakes

 

 

16devils-food-cupcake-w-marshmallow-icing
Devil’s food cupcakes

 

 

17red-velvet-cupcakes
Red velvet cupcakes

 

 

capt-america-cupcakes
Themed cupcakes. Aside from these, other themed cupcakes that Nelser already tried include butterflies, Spidey, Ferrero, minions, balls, Legos, Avengers, Dora, Angry Birds, cars, Wimpy kid, Mr. Bean, etc.

 

 

rotary-cupcakes
Nelser also bakes for various occasions. Aside from these, she already did oblation-inspired cups for the UP Pamp homecoming, egg-designed cups for the Easter Sunday, heart-decorated cups for Valentine, green-and-red  jolly cups for Christmas, etc.

 

 

NELSER AS A MOTHER HEN

Baking might be something that Nelser immensely enjoys doing (and it is proving to be a lucrative and reliable source of income to boot), but she has never allowed it to mess with her priorities.

As a consummate homemaker, she considers her family her utmost priority. She ensures that their house is a beautiful, spotlessly clean and welcoming haven that her husband and sons would always want to go home to after a particularly long and exhausting day. Her kitchen is constantly filled with the tantalizing aromas of all the food she is weaving her magic on for her family. And their dining table? It always looks as if Nelser is presenting her gastronomic feast for Chef Gordon Ramsay’s scrutiny! She could even turn the simplest culinary spread into a visual extravaganza, an ordinary meal into an extraordinary Instragram-worthy moment, and seemingly unpleasant leftovers into delectable dishes through her impeccable food presentation. (It’s actually one of the valuable lessons she learned from her mother — that it’s not so much the food one serves, but the way it is presented, that makes a big difference.)

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Aside from being a kitchen magician, Nelser is also a devoted and dutiful wife to her husband, and a nurturing and protective mother to their two boys, Cole and Chesco. She is her sons’ personal driver, strict tutor, and constant date.

Nelser is also quite well-known among her boys’ teachers, classmates and co-parents because of the yummy, varied, well-thought-of and nicely presented lunch and snacks that she packs for Cole and Chesco each school day.

 

NELSER AS A SERVANT OF GOD

Believing that the best way to show one’s gratitude for all the blessings one receives is by serving the Lord with a joyful heart, Nelser is an active parishioner of the Our Lady of Sorrows parish. She is a member of Leccom and of the Parish Pastoral Council, and an officer of the Apostolado ng Panalangin. Also, despite her husband’s erratic and hectic schedule (Dax is a doctor), she makes sure that they fulfill their Christian duty of hearing mass at least once a week as a family. Cole and Chesco, both prepared for Christian service at a young age, are members of the Knights of the Blessed Sacrament of the same parish.

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Another way of showing her gratitude is by living a life of charity. The recipient of the family’s philanthropy is the Casa Miani, an orphanage in Lubao operated by Somascan priests. Doc Dax provides his medical services for the children there, free of charge.

Additionally, there are two “parking boys” from their parish that Nelser helped send to school.

 

NELSER AS AN ALL-AROUND GIRL NEXT DOOR

As if her life is not busy enough, Nelser still finds the time to do tutorial service. She has three students she diligently tutors every afternoon. And the ever-dependable Nelser is the usual go-to person when any one of her relatives, friends, colleagues or co-parents needs an extra hand. She might be a little loud (She is, after all, Kapampangan!) and may whine from time to time, but people can count on her to get the job done. Always.

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Oh, by the way, have I mentioned that Nelser has no house help? Yup, she is your Wonder Wo-mom in the flesh!

 

NELSER ON DE-STRESSING

Even superheroes get tired and worn-out. They need occasional breaks from the hassle and bustle of the daily grind. They require time to recharge to restore their sagging spirits, spent strength, and depleted energy before they could don their capes once again.

So, how does Super Nelser go about this?

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She allows her residual artistic juices to flow freely by sketching, by coloring and by honing her talent in calligraphy. She also enjoys decorating and re-decorating their home, and looking at her vast collection of Starbucks coffee mugs. Meeting friends and taking trips with her family don’t fail to provide welcome respite, too. And never underestimate the power of social media! Nelser is fond of taking pictures of almost anything that catches her fancy and sharing these with her social media friends. The likes and online conversations they manage to elicit are enough to put a smile to this supermom’s face.

 

NELSER’S DREAM

With all the things that she has so far accomplished and everything that she is capable of doing singlehandedly –considering the limited time and energy that we, lesser mortals, are usually restricted by–, one would be inclined to think that Nelser is already content with her lot. After all, she’s one girl that’s very easy to please.  Seeing people’s happy faces when eating the food she serves, receiving messages of gratitude and compliment from satisfied customers, knowing that her kids refuse to eat other cakes and cookies because “they are not as good as hers”, and watching her family finish everything on the table in one sitting with lots of ooohs and aaahs — all these have the power to take her to Cloud 9 in an instant.

But, no, Nelser has no plans of hanging her cape anytime yet. She still has one dream that she is now furiously working on. She wants to have her very own quaint country coffee shop soon.

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And all of us who are familiar with her inherent determination know for certain that that dream would become a reality. Sooner than later.

SHE DREAMED A DREAM

Most of us dream of seeing as much of the world as we possibly can. This girl is now doing just that — while balancing her life as a college student.

Here is her inspiring story.

 

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CHILDHOOD

Airom Camua was born and raised in Bulacan by simple, devoutly Catholic parents. Both have degrees in Civil Engineering, but her mother opted to quit her job to personally care for her three little girls.

Airom’s grandparents were musically inclined (her paternal grandfather was a band member playing the trombone, while her maternal grandparents used to sing in front of their children while playing the guitar and keyboard), so even if the girls were not very exposed to music growing up, their genes alone made sure that music would play a major role in their lives.

Camua Family
The Camuas – Papa Ricardo, Mama Miraflor, Airom, Airica & Aira (right to left)

 

During the early part of her grade school years, Airom was already a familiar face in singing competitions and various programs in school. But it was only when she was 9, and her other sisters 8 and 5, that they each received their very first guitars from their supportive parents. From then on, the music of the Camuas’ instant three-girl band had become an entertaining sound that constantly pierced through their once-quiet street. Family occasions and gatherings also became more fun and colorful because of the trio’s performances. On the summer school break after her grade school graduation, her parents hired a piano teacher for Airom. Her mother wanted her to play for their parochial church’s daily mass.

Soon enough, Airom became an active member of the Sta. Isabel Parish Choir. She also became part of the Barasoain Camerata Philippines Chorale.

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Airom with the Sta. Isabel Parish Choir

 

However, it was not until she became one of the powerful voices of her high school’s Koro del Pilar that she experienced joining—and winning—in serious competitions. Noticing Airom’s inherent musical prowess and immense dedication to her craft, their choral conductor, Sir Radie Santiago, appointed her Choir Master. According to the prophetic mentor, aside from having an ear for music, Airom also had what musicians call a “perfect pitch.” It was also from Sir Radie, whom Airom considered her greatest influence to seriously pursue music, that she first heard about UPCC.

Sir Radie
Airom with Sir Radie and the Koro del Pilar

 

Airom’s vast exposure to musical competitions through the Koro del Pilar served as a pivotal stage in her young life. It was since she started competing that she began to harbor a blazing dream to travel the world using her voice and God-given talent. In fact, whenever her mom would be asked why her daughter should decide to pursue a music career, she would always say, “Gusto n’yang malibot ang mundo nang kumakanta.”

 

COLLEGE AND THE U.P. CONCERT CHORUS (UPCC)

With God’s grace, Airom was able to conquer the extremely competitive UP College Admission Test (UPCAT). And after passing her chosen college’s talent test with flying colors, Airom started her life as a UP College of Music freshman in 2012. She is now in her final year of taking up Bachelor of Music, Major in Music Education.

There was a wide array of performing art groups in UP Diliman to choose from, but Airom’s eyes were solely focused on one organization. The UPCC.

Music students are not normally advised to join that particular students’ organization because of the versatile singing and exploratory placement it espouses. But Airom, with her intrinsic independence, curiosity and risk-taking personality, couldn’t be swayed. So, along with a handful of her other batch mates, she submitted her membership application form to UPCC and subjected herself to an extremely rigorous and demanding training. (Before they could be inducted into the organization, they had to successfully stage 10 mini performances and 2 major concerts!)

But, indeed, nothing is sweeter that a feat accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and adversities.

After four months of long hours of brainstorming sessions, back-breaking and vocal range-stretching rehearsals, and emotionally-draining pressure, coupled with the difficult task of scouting for sponsors and, of course, the inevitable jitters before every performance, Airom was finally inducted on December 11, 2013.

upcc (1)
Airom with the UP Concert Chorus (UPCC)

 

AIROM’S TRIPS

As a prestigious student organization in UP, an icon of stage performance, and an internationally-competitive and renowned performing group, UPCC is regularly invited to perform in various events and venues, for various companies and institutions, to grace various celebrations, to support various causes and, sometimes, to collaborate with various musicians — both here and abroad.

In the same month that she was inducted into the UPCC, Airom was already part of the team that flew to US for a month-long winter concert tour. They performed around Washington and California. That was Airom’s first out-of-the-country trip.

In May 2015, UPCC went on a three-month international concert tour. They traveled around Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Andorra, France, Spain and Austria) and US (New York, New Jersey, Texas and Hawaii). That was an eventful trip for the team, particularly because it was during that tour that they won the Grand Prix in the 6th International Krakow Choir Festival in Poland, where they were the only Asian choir among 24 competing choirs.

In December of the same year, they staged another month-long concert tour in California, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. It was Airom’s second time to spend Christmas and New Year away from her family.

Just recently, UPCC concluded their two-and-a-half-month summer concert tour in Canada, Ecuador, Colombia and USA (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Kentucky, Florida and Alabama).

When asked what her most memorable experiences with UPCC are, Airom’s eyes lit up like neon lights as she started to count on her fingers. Of course, winning the Grand Prix in Krakow, Poland topped the list. Others on her list were joining the choral festivals in Poland, Ecuador and Colombia; being in remarkable cities like Rome, Milan, Venice, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto; seeing the Vatican, Al Duomo, the gondolas, Iglesia de Sagrada Familia, the Berlin Wall, Times Square, the Bellagio, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and the Niagara Falls; experiencing winter and snow; the numerous TV guestings here and abroad; the food adventures (she had once tried the asado roasted “Cuy” Guinea Pig, a delicacy in the south of Colombia); immersion in other cultures; and knowing, living with, and learning from the many host families in different countries that generously welcomed them into their homes.

But, of course, being part of UPCC is not just all about the perks. It entails enormous sacrifices and hard work, especially for someone like Airom who had since held many critical positions in the organization. However, she is never one to buckle under pressure or heavy burden. Her dreams are already within her reach. She just needs to work a little harder to prove to everyone and to herself that she deserves every break and blessing that she receives.

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Always on the go

 

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Dead-tired after a long trip, a rehearsal or a performance

 

LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY

Since childhood, Airom and her siblings had been taught to faithfully serve the Lord. The three girls, with their parents, hear the Sunday mass religiously. They were also trained to develop and enhance their God-given talents and share those with the world with all the humility and gratitude that they could muster. Giving utmost importance to education is another value that had been deeply ingrained in the Camua girls — so much so that, despite her hectic schedule, Airom still tries to maintain her Cum Laude academic standing.

Growing up, Airom learned to dream big dreams. She realized that, when weaving our dreams, we should not limit ourselves. We should aim for the highest, the biggest and the grandest of dreams. But we should not just follow them. We have to chase them, we have to pursue them relentlessly, and we have to work earnestly to achieve them. We should not be disheartened by the many obstacles that we may meet along the way. Instead, we must consider them as challenges through which we can prove how strong and determined we can really be. Finally, when we fulfill our dreams, we should tightly hold on to them with both hands. We nurture them, we grow with them, we inspire with them, we believe in their beauty. Never, at any point, should we let go of our dreams.

Music is a gift that could unite people of different origins, tongues and cultures. Airom may just be one voice, but hers could be a powerful one that can soar and harmonize. With every note and every tune, with every chord and every melody, with every concert and every performance, she may just inspire the world to change for the better. One spectator at a time.

That is her ultimate dream.

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MY SON ….. MY HERO!

In his desire to honor our son’s ultimate sacrifice for him, my husband Roel decided to join this contest (sponsored by Champion Detergent and Fox International Channels) a few months back. His was among the three entries that made it to the final round.

In celebration of the World Kidney Day, I am now sharing this with all of you.

You might also want to read this, another article I wrote about my personal battle during that critical time when our family was struggling against the dreaded Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD).

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MY CHAMPION HERO

By Roel M. Aquino

 

When I first became a father at the young age of 21, I vowed that I will always love, support and protect my children. Little did I know then that a time will come when it would be I who would need those things from my kids.

It was September of last year when I learned that I had Stage 5 Chronic Kidney Disease. I immediately had to undergo a thrice-a-week hemodialysis treatment while my wife and I were still in the process of pooling all our financial resources, both for the costly kidney transplant operation AND for the search for a possible kidney donor, whose kidney would hopefully be a good match with mine. Those tasks proved to be challenging, tedious, emotionally taxing and, to an extent, frustrating.

When our children (aged 19, 18 and 16) learned that they, as my own flesh and blood, could be the ideal candidates for kidney donation, they readily volunteered themselves for testing. However, it was my eldest child’s gesture that really touched me. He approached me and casually said, “Daddy, I want to be your donor.” Just like that. No drama. No funfare. No theatrics. But that one statement (and the three children’s quick and candid offer), in all its simplicity, sincerity and spontaneity, struck a parental chord in me. Hard. Because I knew that behind those words were a child’s deep emotions for his father – respect, trust, compassion, gratitude and love.

Today, three months after a successful kidney transplant operation, my very own Superhero – my son, Emar – is fully recovered and is back to his old, active and busy self. He is a Chemical Engineering junior at the University of the Philippines, diligently maintaining a magna cum laude status. He is a productive member of his school organization, the UP Chemical Engineering Society, Inc. After his classes each day, he proceeds to Headcoach, a tutorial center along Katipunan Ave., for a two-hour Math-teaching job. During weekends, he, along with his siblings, does his share of household chores. In his free time, he may be found playing his guitar with his campus friends, sharpening his video game skills with his little brother, watching movies with our family, or training our dogs to play fetch.

Emar may be wearing a lot of hats, but for me, the best one that he wears is that of a son’s. My son. He has already proved how immeasurable – hindi matatawaran at tapat – his love for me is. All his other achievements and accolades are mere bonuses.

Finally, because of my son’s selfless and ultimate act of sacrifice, I have become more inspired than I have ever been before to take utmost care of my health. After all, it is no longer just my body that I am supposed to be nurturing now. An essential part of me is also on the line. My son’s kidney.