Tribute to a teacher

Note: This homily was delivered on 28 October 2001 for a birthday Mass and dinner in honor of Dr. Doreen Fernandez.  I’m posting it today, World Teachers’ Day, as I remember her and all my teachers, great and small, who have taught me everything I know.  May God bless you all, wherever you are!

Fr. Tito Caluag invited me to preach at this special Mass for Doreen Fernandez.  Now, it’s hard enough to say “no” to Tito Caluag, but let me tell you, it is impossible to say “no” when it comes to Doreen Fernandez.  For many of us, after all, Doreen is an all-time unforgettable teacher and an all-time favorite person.

Back in 1980 (that’s twenty one years ago), I was a college freshman at the Ateneo, and I had the good fortune to be in Doreen’s class for English 11.  This morning I dug up an old publication that our class produced as our culminating project that school year.  For that class book, we utilized that now almost unheard-of technology called mimeographing to compile our class compositions.  After the initial shock provided by pictures showing all the people in our class the way we were back in the 80’s—you know, more hair, less chin—I managed to read some of the stuff we had written for Doreen’s class, as well as our write-ups about one another.

Our write-up about Doreen pretty much sums up what we all felt about her:  “Doreen is our excuse to gush.”  You will excuse me, therefore, if I tell you that that’s exactly what I intend to do right now.  What you are about to hear is every liturgist’s nightmare:  A non-homily in the guise of one, it is unabashedly and unapologetically my tribute to a person I’ve been smitten from the very first sight.

I don’t have to tell you that Doreen is a good teacher.  In our freshman English class, she did everything an excellent English teacher was supposed to do:  She taught us the rules of grammar, as well as the different styles of writing.  She showed us how to appreciate good literature from the masters, but also good literature from among ourselves.  From our weekly writing assignments, she would pick out a handful, printed them to discuss in class.  She corrected our mistakes with that vintage Doreen Fernandez charm, and praised us sincerely and enthusiastically, thrilling at her students’ occasionally profound insights and clever turns of phrase.

Doreen had that rare and precious gift to bring out the best in her students—from the most outspoken Communications major to the most withdrawn Pre-Divinity student. Maybe that’s why we all seemed so smart and gifted.  She made us feel that way!  For my birthday that year, she gave me a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, on which she had scribbled something she must have forgotten by now, but believe me, I will never forget for the rest of my life.  She wrote:  “To someone whose works I enjoy as much as I enjoy the works of Hemingway!”  She probably wrote the same thing of every single one of my classmates, but I tell you, I slept with that book that night!

 

English 11-A class reunion years after college

 

Aside from being an excellent English teacher, she was also a truly caring mentor.  She really cared for each one of us, and seemed utterly convinced that hidden in every student was a promising writer just waiting to be coaxed out of a hiding place.  Even more fundamental than that, she also believed that hidden in every student was a whole inner universe worth discovering and worth exploring.  Doreen believed that each one of her students had something worthwhile, something precious, to say.  She read our compositions carefully and listened painstakingly to what our pieces said—us a class of awkward and naïve college freshmen!

Thanks to her, even those among us who had never conceived of ourselves as writers began seriously considering that possibility.  More importantly, because of Doreen’s interest in us and in our inner worlds, we took our cue from her and began looking inside of ourselves more deeply as well, wondering what it was about us that interested and awed her so much.  Because of her faith in us, many of us grew in self-confidence and began believing more in ourselves.

Doreen was certainly more than a teacher, more than a mentor; for many of her students, she has also become a friend and mother, taking us under her wings long after that first school year in the Ateneo.  A former classmate confided that every time he needed to make a major decision in his life, it always seemed to be Doreen he wrote to or called.  Some months ago, Doreen phoned me repeatedly and requested urgently that I return her call.  Since it was quite uncharacteristic of her to make such a persistent request, I phoned her back immediately, eager to do something for someone who rarely asked for anything for herself.  So what was that urgent matter that had prompted her to call me?  She wanted to make sure that I found time to listen to a troubled former classmate!  Again, it was not at all for her needs, but others’.

Doreen, thank you for teaching me how to write, especially for helping me find my voice as a writer.  Thank you for encouraging me to believe in myself at a time when believing in that self required a lot more imagination, optimism, and yes, love.   Most of all, thank you for giving me a glimpse of God’s wonderful goodness simply by being one of the most lovable, one of the most loving, and one of the loveliest persons I’ve met in my life.

Less than a year later, when Doreen died in June 2002, the Ateneo de Manila organized a tribute, where I was asked to speak.  Unable to find words, I put together this short presentation instead.  Watch the video.

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