02 February 2017

Bisugo and Vuko: The Namecalling Adolescents Are so Fond of


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“Bisugo” is the Tagalog name for this pinkish scaly fish called the threadfin bream in English. It was also the mindless moniker given by somebody in my class to Mr. Alberto Platon, the Filipino teacher among the school’s pioneers. He was this father figure on campus who was generally well-respected, but some insolent fool among my classmates – I don’t recall who – thought his eyes looked somewhat like that of, well, a bisugo.

Personally, I couldn’t see the resemblance; but boys being boys, the nickname soon caught on. It wasn’t just the sort of moniker one called a teacher by behind his back. Cries of “Bisugo!” could be heard every once in a while along the corridors, at the gym or at the outside courts whenever Mr. Platon was present or passing through. Even during Filipino class, the brazen would for no apparent reason just blurt out bisugo.

Mr. Platon generally just ignored these obviously mindless adolescent cries. But there was this one afternoon when I was at the library with my classmates Tats Briones and Sebastian “Baste” Luistro. We must have been researching an assignment for one subject or another. We saw Mr. Platon enter the library but paid him no attention because we were enrapt in our work. We also saw him heading straight to our table, which was nothing unusual because he was our teacher and he just probably wanted to say hello.

But he caught all three of us off-guard when, once he was standing next to our table, he asked, “Boys, what is this bisugo that I keep hearing during class?”

Awkward…

Why-oh-why did he have to ask us, of all people? We weren’t among those who loved to call out the fish’s name, but in hindsight that was probably why he asked us. For a moment, all Baste, Tats and I could do was look uncomfortably at each other, until someone gave this totally lame story about the bisugo being a moniker of one of our own classmates.

I didn’t for one moment think that he bought the story we tried to sell him, but he didn’t press us and that was certainly a relief.

Many years later, when I was Year Level Moderator and he attended the graduation of his daughter at the Brother Henry Virgil Gymnasium, I caught sight of him at the front lobby when he was about to leave, I suppose, with his family. “Mr. Platon!” I called out to him, happy to see one of the old guard. He turned around, looked at me for a moment and uttered, “Torrecampo.” Then he turned around and started down the stairs.

That was odd. I would have been happy to chat. If I am being honest, when I came to think about it, yeah well, I did give him reason to hold a grudge. This had nothing to do with the bisugo incidents at all.

I had known him since I was a freshman in high school, and on many occasions since he had asked me to train under him so I could represent the school in oratorical and declamatory interscholastic competitions. The reason, he always said, was that unlike my classmates, I spoke Tagalog neutrally or without the trademark Batangueño accent.

I didn’t think that at all. What he probably meant was that I spoke with less of the accent than my classmates. After all, I grew up inside the air base where Batangueños were a minority and probably still are to the present day. Besides, my Dad was Ilonggo and my Mom was from Nasugbu, so whatever influence the local accent in Lipa had over me was likely counterbalanced by that which I was used to at home.

In truth, however, I was averse to memorizing lengthy Tagalog pieces for those interscholastic contests. That was why, albeit he was persistent, I declined each time he asked. I can’t explain it rationally, but while I have always found conversational Tagalog effortless, memorizing formal Filipino has always been difficult.

There was this one time in my senior year when I represented my class in an inter-year level English oratorical contest. I won with a piece that I myself had written. After the contest, as I made my way back to my classroom, Mr. Platon fell in step with me and mildly said to me, “Why is it that when the contest is in English, you participate?”

What was I to say to that? Of course, I felt guilty. The accusatory tone was unmistakable, and it made me feel bad for him. That said, I have always been headstrong. Despite my guilt, I continued to decline participating in Filipino contests.


I used to have classmate whose name was Wilfredo Maraña. He was from either Taal or Lemery. His middle initial was “V.” Nobody knew what it stood for; and nobody for one moment thought that all one had to do was to actually ask him. One day, somebody conjectured that the “V” perhaps stood for Vuko, a deliberately misspelled version of the Tagalog word for the coconut fruit. It was just the sort of mindless humor that adolescents everywhere are capable of, but from that day onwards, Willie, as this classmate really was known, started to be called Vuko. With a “V.”

Willie was a good sport and never lost his cool even when the Vuko thing got out of hand. There was this one time during PE class when somebody must have sneaked back into the classroom. With a piece of chalk, whoever it was wrote in capital letters on all four corners of anything that had four corners the famous letters V-U-K-O. The letters were on the four corners of the front and rear doors, the corners of the front and back blackboards, the bulletin board and likely even the teacher’s table.

When we all returned from the playing courts, it was instant pandemonium. We just couldn’t stop laughing!

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