01 February 2017

Student Activism Reaches the Halls of La Salle Lipa


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By mid-1971, my classmates and I moved for the first time to the 200-wing as high school freshmen. There were not just a few strange faces because we were now joined by fellow freshmen who had graduated from public and other private elementary schools.

It was not just finally being in high school that was exciting. The evolving new decade, the colorful seventies, also was! It was a fabulous time to be a teenager. The music was vibrant; and we were a generation to whom lyrics struck deeply. The fashion was also colorful and even frivolous, marked almost by disdain for what used to be thought of as conventional.

The wave of student activism that started in the United States had also reached our shores. In Manila, students were restive and took to the streets often to express increasing disenchantment with the Ferdinand Marcos administration. It was an era of rebellion and raw emotions among the youth.

This was why there were a lot of very famous names in the enrollment list at La Salle High School in Lipa. Some of the prominent families in the capital, wary as they were of their children being caught in the wave of activism, preferred to transfer them to Batangas.

But we were high school freshmen to whom affairs of the nation mattered much less than the increasingly complicated formulae in Algebra. There was this one time, however, when we caught a glimpse of the power of collective youth action right inside the campus.

Most of if not all of these Manila boys, but naturally, went home for the weekend. Thus, they were not completely insulated against the anti-authority thinking among young people in the capital and likely brought these ideas back with them to Lipa when they returned for school.

Among the most contentious issues in school at the time was something so trivial, particularly in contrast to the frequent anti-government protests that the youths in Manila undertook. It was the issue of hair.

Part of the changing fashion among young men and boys was also the need to grow hair. Just a year or two previously, everyone came to school with hair neatly trimmed and groomed with pomade, as was the fad in the previous decade. Without, it has to be said, the Brothers even having to insist on it.

But suddenly, the Brothers were finding themselves having to enforce the regulation haircut. The Principal that year of the high school was Brother Crisanto Moreno, whom we learned from the grapevine used to be a military cadet. It was he, everyone whispered, who was likely behind the strict haircut policy that was being enforced.

I myself never really grew my hair longer than was prescribed for my entire four years in high school, so I wasn’t privy to how the Brothers dealt with those who insisted on growing their hair longer than was deemed acceptable. My guess is that the offenders were either sent home to get haircuts or the Brothers themselves snipped off their locks.

In the absence of a really significant political issue to rally around in Lipa, hair – or the need to grow it – became the overriding reason to challenge authority. One morning, the entire school suddenly burst into activity as the seniors and juniors staged a mass walkout from their classes to protest the haircut policy.

They were boisterous as they paraded around the campus, banging on classroom doors and encouraging students to join them in boycotting classes. The walkout was orchestrated, or so we heard, by the Student Council, the President of which was a Manila boy.

We watched them as they marched along the 300-wing, knowing that they would turn at the far end of the corridor and head to our own wing. Our subject at the time was Math; and our teacher was Brother Gregory Refuerzo, who was incidentally the School Director.

You have just got to admire how Brother Greg dealt with the crisis. He ordered that the doors of our classroom be closed and locked – and then actually tried to continue teaching. How cool was that! Not that there was a need to close the doors. I don’t believe we were old enough to understand what the big fuss was all about; and even if we did, A-sections to this day are typically square about matters like this and we were no different. We had grades to worry about.

When the marchers reached our classroom, they lingered outside, loudly banging on the doors trying to flush us out. Despite the fracas, Brother Greg was still actually teaching – or, at least, trying to. Unable to bear the distraction any longer, he walked the short distance from the middle of the room to the front door and opened it.

The marchers, all towering above him, were surprised at the sight of him suddenly standing in front of them and the decibels immediately died down. “You are disturbing my class!” Brother Greg, a soft-spoken man, said in what to him was the closest thing to a shout. He didn’t need to say anything else. The very sight of him was sufficient to unnerve the marchers, who moved on to the gym to continue their protest. Tires were even burned in the middle of the playing court.

Many years later, I heard it said by somebody – I just can’t recall who – that Brother Crisanto was actually more open minded about long hair than what was believed at the time. The strict haircut policy was supposed to be really due to Brother Greg’s conservatism, again or so I heard from somebody I can’t even recall. I suppose the Brothers did learn something from this incident because the haircut policy was relaxed for the rest of the seventies.

In fact, when I returned from college in 1982 to join the teaching force, long hair was not such the fad it used to be and students once again wore their hair neatly groomed without the Brothers needing to insist that they did so.

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