The following is in response to today’s Daily Prompt: Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?
I only remember him by what he told us to address him. Mr. Paman. He was my Gross Anatomy professor. He taught at the Ateneo de Manila University for only a year. My biology major class was his first exposure to Ateneans. He taught his lecture series for three one-hour sessions and two four-hour laboratory classes per week for the entire first semester of my sophomore year. We were allowed to work in the lab as often and as long as we wanted to or needed to on other days, except Sunday, when the entire college was pretty much closed.
I remember his slight frame, the sallow pasty complexion, the sharp piercing eyes, the Jose Rizal hairline, the characteristic mannerism of delicately adjusting the hair on his forehead as he paced deliberately back and forth in front of us. Then, he would abruptly stop, turn towards us and pepper us with questions, most of which had answers that would have to be found in publications other than the prescribed Anatomy textbooks.
He was not what you would consider pleasant. Acerbic or scathing would be more descriptive. He made crystal clear from the first day of class his unabashed disdain for our kind. It appeared that attending college at the Ateneo implied having been born with a silver spoon in our mouths. That we were all from a privileged class and it was not right that undeserving mortals such as we would have any rights to a good, if not excellent, college education.
During the lecture classes, he would routinely single out a student, comment on his/her appearance and/or activity with obvious efforts to shame and intimidate. No one was spared. Not even me.
Sometime during the third week, he called upon me to answer a question. I was only able to answer the loaded question partially. He then proceeded with pronouncements of me with such labels as “social butterfly, a party girl, concerned only about looks and appearances, but with not much between my ears. What am I doing in Biology? I should be pursuing a less challenging course.”
I looked at him. I followed him with my eyes. I did not respond. I felt frozen by my anger. The rest of the class laughed nervously, if not sheepishly. They stole sideways glances at me. Some coughed. Others looked down, sweating. They could be next, they thought, to be so bluntly eviscerated. I watched the second hand on the wall clock above the blackboard, move from one point to the next around its circular face.
The bell rang, and we all rose from our desks, collected our belongings, and walked out of the lecture hall. I was still seething. I must have been shaking. My friends looked sympathetically. We walked to our next class.
I never forgot that day. I have not forgotten Mr. Paman, no matter how brief our encounter has been compared to many other teachers. But after that day, I thought about the entire incident. I have encountered many difficult, strict, or tough teachers through school. But I had never met anyone who would seem so truculent. I told myself that there will be more of them with their own perverse issues. I just happened to be captive audience for this one to unleash whatever venom, dysfunction, or sordid internal nightmare he may have been suffering from.
I decided that I would not let someone like this lead me to lose sight of my long-range goal to be a physician. In fact, I promised I would do so well in his class, not necessarily to impress him because I did not need to, but rather, at the end of that semester, he would give me no less than an “A” grade and he would respect me. I did not need for him to like me.
In the ensuing weeks, he would show up at the lab when he was aware that some of us would be there to augment our study of the cat’s anatomy. I had named my cat, Horatio. He was a stray caught by one of the department custodians.
On one occasion, I was dissecting my cat’s upper limbs to isolate muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. He walked by, looked in on what my partner and I were doing. He quietly asked me for my scalpel and forceps. Then, he proceeded to isolate every single vital part of the upper limb with such clean sweeps of the scalpel. No nicks. No unnecessary cuts. Just simple precise skillful execution with both hands. I can’t remember if my jaw dropped. But my partner was quite obviously in awe. He smiled at us, quietly told us to carry on, and moved to the next table.
At the end of the semester, I did get my “A.” I was sitting by myself one afternoon at the Biology Department lounge. He walked in. He congratulated me on my grade. He informed me that only one other person in my class earned the grade too. He asked me why I wanted to be a doctor. Then, he wished me luck. I thanked him politely. I never saw him again after that.
Over the years, I look back at all the people I have encountered so far. I have met many Mr. Pamans. My attitude has always been quite Nietzschean from that experience: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
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