02 February 2017

The "War" with Sir Cris Zarate


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Many of us couldn’t wait for our junior year because finally, we would have Biology under Mr. Crisanto Zarate, or Sir Cris as he wanted to be called. We had known him since we were in elementary because he used to teach high school classes near our classroom; and I had, of course, visited his home in Lucena when I was a freshman.

My older brother Ronaldo also used to entertain the entire family with stories of Sir Cris’ antics inside the classroom, so I for one couldn’t wait to become his student. Despite all the stories of hilarity, none of us was under any illusion that Biology would be a stroll in the park. We had heard from our brothers and upperclassmen that being under Sir Cris would also mean hours upon hours spent memorizing phyla and subphyla and classes and so on and so forth.

For the most part, Biology was fun and mostly because of the teacher’s personality. But we also had to do a few things that I would never have voluntarily done were we not required to do so as course requirements. For instance, the frog dissection was the yukkiest thing I had had to be part of in my life up to that point.

Being told to bring to school a bullfrog was bad enough. This was still the seventies when Lipa was still basically agrarian; so bullfrogs croaking at night after a downpour was like a concert of off-tune baritones. They were all over the place. There were certainly plenty in our own yard at home, but I have always had an aversion for cold-blooded thingies and would not be caught dead catching or, worse, holding onto one.

That was why, early on the day when the dissection experiment was to be performed, I joined a group of my classmates on a sortie to the garden of the Brothers’ House in search for frogs. My good friend and classmate Renato “Tats” Briones was my opposite and wasn’t squeamish at all about holding frogs. I left it to him to catch one for me. A good thing, too, that the dissection was to be performed by predetermined groups. I let my groupmates do the slicing and stayed back, instead, pretending to be observing when in all honesty, I was trying to suppress the urge to throw up all over the table.

In the third quarter of the school year, our class had a serious falling out with Sir Cris. To be perfectly fair to him, he did announce right on the first day of school that one of the maxims he managed his classes by was “kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat” (one’s fault was considered everyone’s fault). It seemed fairly innocuous at the time, but there was this one day when we were assigned group work.

I don’t now recall why, but for one reason or the other, the first row was exceedingly noisy doing the group work. The rest of the class certainly wasn’t so. Sir Cris was increasingly becoming irritable and after a couple of warnings went unheeded, he finally decided to impose his favorite form of punishment not just on the noisy first row but on the entire class.

We were sent out to the yard outside the classroom to pluck fifty makahiya (mimosa) plants each from the ground. He wanted each mimosa plucked out roots and all. How annoying was that? We were, but naturally, quarreling with classmates from the first row while we were out on the yard. But there was something else brewing. We were angry at Sir Cris about our being punished for something we were not guilty of. Suddenly, “kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat” wasn’t so amusing, after all.

This was the seventies. While Martial Law had already been declared, that it was had a lot to do with student activism. Students fought for what they thought was right; and many of us certainly felt that this was one occasion when collective action was required.

We all agreed that, starting with the next Biology class, the moment Sir Cris walked in, everyone would be sitting up straight with arms neatly folded atop our desks. Nobody would speak, and especially so when called up to recite. Anyone asked a question, it was agreed among us, would stand up respectfully but refuse to say a word. If Sir Cris gave a surprise quiz, we would all write our names and nothing else. We wanted to let him know that we were displeased and we certainly did.

Thus, the once-lively Biology class suddenly turned funereal. The silence was definitely unnatural and creepy. We all knew that taking collective action had its risks, and particularly so because we were an A-section. That said, it also somehow felt perversely good to be able to stand up to a figure of authority.

After a day or two of the silent treatment, Sir Cris couldn’t take it any longer, gave an impassioned speech and stormed off. Our class officers followed him to the Biology laboratory where they found him slouched over a table, they later told us, bawling his heart out. But the class, feeling injustice had been done to us, felt largely unrepentant.

The incident even reached the attention of the stand-in Principal, Brother Antonio “Bong” Narciso, who had to intervene and arrange a clear-the-air dialogue between us and Sir Cris. It was after this dialogue that the latter agreed to give us a project to help us make up for the empty quizzes that we submitted while we were, effectively, on strike.

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