Growing up, I often couldn’t understand why my siblings and I always had to do things the hard way in order to be “taught a lesson.” Why did I, since I was 8, have to brave Manila’s dangerous and dusty streets, and for a good part of the year, deluged by typhoons, risking life and limb on a daily basis -– by taking public transportation to school, even if we had a car?
Why did we have to be the last kids in school to have the latest TV show-inspired lunch boxes or cartoon-character-themed pencil cases, if at all? Why did we have to study during the summer when all the kids around us were flying kites, playing patintero -- having childhoods? Why did our parents’ expectations of us always seem unreasonable, no matter how hard we tried?
Our appreciation for these “lessons” came only later in life, when our worlds expanded and we met all kinds of people, some of whom we realized were not as fortunate as we were to have learned about life the hard way. In the end, more than handing us the latest gizmos or letting us sport the latest fads so we could look cool and “belong,” Papa looked much further -- and gave us the gifts of strength, resilience, integrity, and drive.
1. Get off your ass and work harder than everyone else. To this day, being idle is an alien concept to me, even if sometimes already warranted (i.e. while on vacation), given my workaholic tendencies. A few weeks ago, I asked my niece Gabby about her Saturday morning piano lessons. Ever since she started taking lessons at age 4, she’s gotten very good at playing the piano, but she just shrugs when praised. She said, “I wish I didn’t have to study piano. Because on weekends I just want to relax!” Now that’s a word I still have difficulty comprehending. I was astounded that someone from our family knew the concept of relaxation. “Where did she learn that dirty word?” I joked to my husband Andrej. I have no recollection of the word ever having been uttered at home, nor have I really learned its meaning, sometimes to the detriment of my health and sanity.
Although piano lessons were not part of the roster, my siblings and I were subjected to a barrage of every sort of course and class, just so our summers would be productive instead of idle. There was always some skill to be learned: swimming and karate (for survival); typing, photography and computer programming (essential school and job skills), or even -- but obviously a concession to our ex-folk dancer mother -- ballet and hula dancing lessons for, er, grace and good posture (they only worked on my sister Aya). When we were older, we had to get summer jobs. I wrote synopses for pocketbooks for the Booksale catalog, Aya tutored Ramses and Kia, Ramses was a kargador in the warehouse, Kia was a saleslady.
To this day, even after 25 years of working, I’m still the earliest one at work. I fret when people are not as productive as they could be, and when they’re making bandying instead of getting things done. You could say I learned this lesson well.
2. Be excellent in whatever you do. Even if it’s just shining shoes. We loved to watch Papa immersed in his regular ritual of shining shoes. Every so often after dinner, he’d sit spread-eagled on the living room floor with all his shoes laid out in front of him along with an old shoebox housing his tools of the trade: tins of polish in black and brown, a shoe brush, a shine brush, an old toothbrush, a shoe horn, and a polishing cloth. He’d scrub, polish and shine until his fingernails were black and all his shoes looked perfectly brand new.
He’d let us have a go at it once in a while, making sure we got everything just right. There was a definite art and science to it, something he mastered as a shoeshine boy in Pangasinan helping his family make ends meet. The effort, discipline and dedication he gave to any task at hand was definitely awe-inspiring, and watching him hard at work, whether on shoes, an ad campaign, or his latest business venture planted the early seeds of perfectionism in all of us.
He demanded from his children the kind of perfectionism he instilled in himself. “Was this the best you could do?” he’d ask (or perhaps just insinuate, I don’t recall) every time we came home with grades not up to par with his expectations, no matter how high they were. Receiving more pressure than praise may have hurt sometimes, but in the long run it certainly taught us to set and strive to meet the highest standards for ourselves. Later on, even if he stopped asking, we learned to ask it of ourselves, and much later on in my case -- unfortunately for them -- the people who have worked under me.
3. Let them laugh. You’re different, so what? There were many ways my siblings and I felt we were different from other kids. We went to a non-traditional Montessori school which encouraged creativity, free thinking, independence and non-conformity. We had no uniforms, homework, or religious instruction. I remember, at age 9 or 10, being made fun of by some cousins for not knowing how to recite the Hail Mary by heart, and for not having a First Communion photo on top of the family piano (we had none) like everyone else.
Even at our school we felt we were different. Although Papa and Mama were still struggling financially when we were growing up, they invested their hard-earned money in our very expensive school because they believed in its non-traditional learning methods. We couldn’t really wear or buy the latest kiddie fads and had to make our school supplies last longer than the other kids’. An oft-repeated story: “When I was a boy in Lingayen, each child was given one pencil and we had to make it last forever. If it broke, bahala ka sa buhay mo!”
We may have hated not blending in at times, but having to grapple with it taught us to be non-conformists, to think out of the box and not always be “de kahon.” We learned to innovate, evolve, and eventually, revel in being different, because it is only when you are that you will stand out in a crowd.
4. Learn to stand on your own two feet. Don’t be a "PAL". I stopped asking for money for anything when I was 12, even for my own clothes. I think I got tired of being rejected when my parents thought something I fancied was a non-essential (even clothes), which was pretty much all the time. Being taught to save money at an early age as well as to find our own little sidelines empowered me to know early in life that I ultimately had the power to get anything I wanted, I just had to find the means to do it on my own merit. This belief, coupled with frequent dinner admonitions about not being a "PAL" (palamunin) replete with real-life examples, laid the groundwork for a future of independence, financial or otherwise. At age 20, I decided to move out of our house after squirreling away a year’s salary at SGV & Co. (P2,200 a month!). I announced to my tearful (I’d like to think) mother, “I’m moving out and I’m taking your electric fan. May I borrow the car?” I think that although Papa was worried, he was secretly proud.
5. Nothing is impossible. Never be afraid to try. There was no shortage of this lesson being dispensed at the Manny Sison household. How could there be, when this was the man who was born beating the odds of everything from polio to poverty at every turn of his life? One might say he’s always had an axe to grind about everything, but what a sharp and powerful axe it was, cutting through anything that was in his way until he made his wildest dreams come true. He not only instilled this belief in us; he also often pushed for what he wanted us to achieve, even if we sometimes didn’t want to -- or, in retrospect, didn’t know we wanted to at the time. He forced us to join competition after competition, to try out for scholarship after scholarship. Even if we often didn’t believe it ourselves, so strong was the indoctrination (“You are a winner!”) he imposed upon us that we eventually (often fearfully) psychologized ourselves into rising up to each competitive occasion and simply tried our best. He pushed each of us to always try to achieve the impossible, just as he did, in the tireless way he shined his shoes until they gleamed and sparkled.
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This piece was part of Manolo In His Children's Eyes, a book created by the author and her siblings for their Dad's 70th birthday.