UNDERSTANDING MRS. CRUZ

No one in JASMS Batch 1987 can forget that indomitable figure that featured prominently in their lives. At least I haven’t. I can still vividly picture in my mind the expression, which is as inconstant as the weather when you step up close. It could be a smile across her bespectacled face on a sunny day or a scowl that put the fear of God right down to your toes on a dark cloudy day. She had nicknames, I learnt, depending on the generation that she faced. My generation lovingly christened her terminator – the movie was the movie during that era – behind her back, naturally.  But that’s how far my batch’s bravura went. The other names escape me but they were just as affectionate as affectionate can be. Did she mind if, at all, she learnt about those nicknames? I doubted; hers was a strong personality that didn’t suffer fools, recalcitrant colleagues and callow students.

I never understood her when I was in high school. To my mind she was someone you didn’t want to lock horns with unless you were suicidal. However, secretly, I was actually envious of one of my classmates who chatted with her with ease. It wasn’t like I was harbouring any furtive feelings of wanting to be her BFF but, you see, being schooled in JASMS meant one wasn’t scared stiff of authority, of talking to them. One approached them as one would, as others would put it, regular people – respectful and confident without being unctuous and overbearing. Our interaction: greeting her when I bumped into her in the corridor or when I entered her class.

But amidst the unsettling feeling she stirred in me I left high school with a few nuggets of wisdom that, I discovered, became part of my routine when I slipped into her shoes. I’m back again in teaching after about an eight-year absence and have experienced, surreal as they may seem, Mrs. Cruz moments.

It was in her Economics class that I was introduced to the Filipino author, academic and political analyst Walden Bello, who later became my professor at university, when she assigned his book Development Debacle and have us write a paper on it. She was a martinet and made it clear that late papers wouldn’t be accepted. Like I said, you didn’t want to lock horns with her so I was very diligent in reading the book from cover to cover, and writing the paper as well. I can’t remember now what I wrote in the paper but the scenario of placing the paper on her desk replays every now and then in my mind. So there we were, graduating class of 1987, seated in her classroom and waiting for her to arrive, which she did seconds after we plonked ourselves on the wooden chairs. True to character – sedate and serious – she had us, one by one, troop to her desk to hand in our paper. I was one of the three – or four – students who escaped the killer look and wrath of the aftermath of missing a deadline.

One student attempted to ask for a reprieve and I watched that scenario unfold with great interest because she had another side to her personality. I was stricken with curiosity. Would that other personality surface? The story was that she had a penchant for playing favourites, granting amnesty to transgressors every now and then much to the chagrin of those who weren’t in good standing with her. She met his request with an icy glare and an answer dripping with sarcasm. I suppose she was wondering which part of her sentence, late papers will not be accepted, was hard to comprehend.

It’s the same in my classes: a missed deadline is a missed deadline. Deadlines are meant to be met, not missed or ignored.

Mrs. Cruz didn’t tolerate tardiness either and you better have a very good excuse if you were more than a minute late to school or her class. Similarly, I don’t brook tardiness and late students usually end up sitting outside of the classroom. Jakarta’s traffic is not an unacceptable reason – traffic is a given situation in the city! But unlike Mrs. Cruz they are not allowed to enter my class until the next meeting with a letter of permission signed by their parents.

Silence was also something that was important to Mrs. Cruz too. Shouting and talking at the top of one’s lungs or absolute nonsense didn’t sit well with her. She would stop you in your tracks and let you have a piece of her mind – there was no arguing with her. I never fully understood why she was so hot and bothered by the ruckus outside of the faculty room during break time. She’d step out and silence the noise-maker with a word or two. She was, in our eyes, a killjoy. My understanding of her bugbear came in later – much later – when I was behind my own desk and marking papers. Like a mosquito hovering near my ear, the noise outside my office was annoying and headache-inducing. It wasn’t like the rowdy students were engaged in an enlightening debate, which would have been fine with me. They were simply fooling around. Then epiphany hit me: the noise was distracting when you’re working and which was why Mrs. Cruz was far from happy about the noise outside her office.

Being mindful of one’s language was also on top of Mrs. Cruz’s list of annoying things. The questions, “Why do you always have to say s***? What does it do for you?”, which she asked the students were difficult to answer. The whole class went quiet. Nowadays, the f-word is a permanent fixture of the lexicon of students who utter it flippantly and frequently. Like Mrs. Cruz, I’ve taken to asking her signature question, but end it with a terse warning of the consequence of uttering the word within my hearing distance or not (the teacher knows). I’ve been successful so far with that rule of mine.

Have I turned into Mrs. Cruz? I’ve come to understand a part of her and, admittedly, I’ve become martinetish. I maintain a certain degree of academic discipline and an avoidance of profanity in class. Chalking it up to age, I’m no longer the callow and naïve student I was way back in high school when I found the noise back amusing. Peace and quiet are what I constantly look for particularly when I’m working. When it comes to people and language, I get riled at the young punctuating their sentences with expletives, and dismayed at the audacity at their profanity as I expect them to be more civilised than that.

At the end of it all, another epiphany hit me on this journey of understanding the formidable Mrs. Cruz. The youth don’t really understand their folly until they’ve crossed the line to adulthood. Cheers Mrs. C!

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pia on July 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    You vividly brought her image to my mind. I remember walking to the PWU college building taking the covered pathway. She walked across the basketball court (with her slight hunch, in her brown dress and black pumps) and quickly passed me saying, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” A geometry and life lesson at the same time. I have used this statement several times before as a parent and teacher. I guess there’s a bit of Mrs. Cruz in all of us. Thank you, Rhissa.

    Reply

    • Posted by rgarcellano on July 31, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      That detail – her being a geometry teacher – completely escaped me. It’s maybe because I don’t like maths. Mrs. Cruz and her husband were really a formidable duo when it came to maths. One seldom sees the intention behind the stern facade but she meant well. Thanks for reading Pia. Cheers
      PS. Yes, there is really a little bit of Mrs. Cruz inside of us.

      Reply

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