In the strictest sense

Class picture of Grade II-St. Agnes, Our Lady of Grace Academy, School year 1984-1985 (thanks to Ria Romulo for posting this on Facebook). That's Miss Bigaw at the center. I am at the last row, second from left.

published October 3, 2012, page A5, MST

In our eight-year-old minds, our class adviser and mathematics teacher Miss Erlinda Bigaw was a figure that loomed large. What she said was law. We girls had to memorize the multiplication table. We had to come to school with fingernails trimmed. We had to be combed and powdered—cologned, if possible. We had to make sure our class did well in the Mission Drive. We had to sway our hips well for the Abaruray dance we were performing for the field demonstration.

Otherwise, her stern countenance—and the threat posed by the wooden ruler she always carried—would be upon us.

Miss Bigaw did not fit the stereotyope of the strict schoolteacher. She was just out of college in ‘84, slim-waisted and sporting vivacious red lipstick. She was friends with many of her co-teachers even though she was just new to the school.  She even got along with her students’ parents and guardians.

And that was why our conversation over our lunch of baked ziti and white cheese pizza last Friday—our reunion after at least 10 years—hit a sad note. Miss Bigaw remembered my family well, and was shocked that all of them are now gone: My mom, who was always a headturner during recognition ceremonies (a cross between Vilma and Lorna, the other parents would say), my uncle Edwin, on whom the titas and the teachers had a crush (he was not openly gay at the time), and my grandmother who was always there to explain why a fat, bespectacled, bookish girl could sometimes just look out the window and stare into the trees, like she was not the least bit interested in the math lesson.

“But even if you were not looking, you were always able to answer my exercises,” she told me. (I do not now remember being particularly good at math—this was why I majored in literature and journalism—but I took her word for it.) “That was why I took a special interest in you.”

My life, even then, indeed seemed interesting. The summer before second grade, I was prevailed upon by my mother to join a beauty pageant for little girls in a noontime show that aired from Aparri to Jolo. One of the hosts is now a controversial senator. I was also a bit player in an action flick about a thief who took money from the rich to give to the poor. The lead actor is also now a senator, a conspicuously silent one. I did not relish these extra-curricular activities— in fact I was embarrassed by them—but I enjoyed being class president, did well in my subjects and discovered I could write. Alas, 1984 was also the last year I would believe in Santa Claus.

My classmates and I moved on to the next grade level and before we knew it, we were in high school.  Miss Bigaw and I lost touch.  Oh, she and I still went to the same school, but I had a lot on my mind and she had started her TAGIM class—Talented And Gifted In Math, a special group of students whom she mentored all the way to the international levels of math competitions.

It was only sometime in 2000-2001 that I reconnected with Miss Bigaw, who had at that time had become mathematics coordinator. I think it started when I was invited by the school to give a talk on Career Day. I visited her in her office at the top landing of the grade school building, and I filled her in on what I had been up to in the intervening years.

She was still stern, scolding me—good naturedly, if there was such a thing—for doing this, not doing that. Her eyebrow still shot up and she still pressed her lips tight together. As a young adult, I welcomed it.

She did open up about her own affairs —her pursuit of advanced degrees, her personal relationships. This was a side of her I never knew before. We became such good friends that she agreed to be the godmother of my son, Elmo.

And then I disappeared again.

When Miss Bigaw and I reconnected over the weekend, she teased me about that disappearance and I said I was then dealing with many things—again. But that now I was fine. She nodded and said I looked happy and relaxed. I beamed.

And then she added, her forehead creased, that I needed to lose more weight. She then launched into a talk on getting my priorities straight.

“Wala kayong kupas (You have not lost your luster),” I told her, laughing. Secretly, I was touched big time.

Her inaanak is now 10 and Miss Bigaw has recently retired from the school. At 52, she feels she has to try new things instead of sticking to what have been her familiar surroundings all her adult life.She insists she has mellowed. Dealing with college students, after all, is a lot different from managing grade schoolers.

She is also busy taking care of her nephew. Having no family of her own, she has taken it upon herself to help out in sending one child of every sibling to school. “This is the last one,” she says, and tells me that all her wards have turned out well. I am not surprised.

Our next date will be at my townhouse, where she will meet Elmo for the first time. I told her I would cook for her. “Good,” she remarked in a way only teachers can. She also reminded me, a bit sternly, to invite Bates, one of my best friends from grade school and to whom—and to whose family, in fact—she was also close.

I think I will dust and sweep and cook extra hard that day. But I am looking forward to it.