Monday, February 25, 2008

the leaves in our midst.

(The following article was written for and appeared in the very first issue of the ICCHS Alumni Newsletter, launched at about the same time as the 96th Founding Anniversary of the school.)

A tree shedding leaves is arguably one of the most enchanting rituals of nature. From the largest branch to the tiniest twig, the sight of a fragile leaf drifting off these wooden appendages to join a thousand others on the ground evokes an unflinching sense of wonder and curiosity in the bystander. Of course, biology has its own scientific way of explaining this phenomenon; but I prefer to look at it differently, from a perspective angled beneath mere logic and reason.

For one, it amazes me how these falling leaves – no matter how dry or shriveled – can always make themselves useful. Pressed between pages, they make fantastic decorations for artwork. Campfires and compost pits count them an indispensable component. And if you watch closely enough, you might even espy some animal stealthily coming around to gather the leaves as materials for a nest, or simply to feed.

But what fascinates me most is how these fallen leaves never stray too far from home. Except under extreme conditions, they are just within the vicinity, ubiquitous leaves in our midst, crowding around the parent tree and surrounding its roots, as if somehow implying a gesture of return.

In her poignant autobiography, “Falling Leaves Return to their Roots”, Adeline Yen Mah immortalized these leaves coming full circle. She wrote: “All people have roots that reach far back in time that contribute to the legacy that makes up one’s life in the present. As we get older, we tend to go back to our beginnings.”

It almost seems uncanny how Hwa Siong alumni can share these same hazy beginnings. We are certainly a diverse lot, the native Ilonggo finding himself joined by a hodgepodge of personalities pouring in from all over the country and beyond. Our student lives took shape in the form of reluctant leaves huddled on the branches of a tree: thick, thin, frail, faint-colored and even underdeveloped leaves, all receiving protection and nourishment from the tree’s roots. In time we grew, sharing the same hardships and impatiently looking forward to that moment when we would be finally shed off into the outside world. The ultimate goal was to get a diploma, take a bow, and become full-fledged Hwa Siong alumni.

There are people who say you aren’t really a bona fide alumnus until you have attended your first major class reunion. Imagine the endless stories flowing their way around, adding spice to the occasion – of life in college, of newfound friends, of falling in love for the first time. Or if the reunion took place much later – of new jobs, of changing values and priorities, of our plans for the future slowly unfolding into place. It is intriguing to know that these stories will eventually wind up into a single path. The last giddy hours will find us thriving on common soil, digging common plots and tackling common themes, nostalgic voices echoing the same shared sentiments.

How we routinely sang the Alma Mater song with improvised lyrics. How an inspiring teacher taught us the real meaning of education. How our well-crafted misdemeanors took hilarious wrong turns. How we resolved to make “Diligence, Sincerity, Loyalty, Courage” our credo for life.

Like falling leaves, we too, ended up returning to our Hwa Siong roots.

Incredibly, one such return to my grade school days reminded me of how choosing which leaves to use in art class could spell a subtle difference. Not all leaves produce the desired effects; some decay quickly into indistinguishable forms even before you finish handling them. Moreover, there are leaves endowed with a more combustible composition, allowing them to burn better in the fire. And needless to say, animals prefer sturdier, more waterproof leaves for a home.

These instances all drove to a single point: Leaves reflect the identity of their source. In the same way, alumni also reflect the identity of their Alma Mater. The coconut is known for its ever-reliable leaves; the Hwa Siong graduate is known for his fluency of the Chinese language, expertise in math and firm set of values. But good impressions can only do so much. Our crucial roles stretch beyond cheap talk and fond memories, requiring us to harness mind, body and soul in unselfishly contributing to an exponential pattern of growth and advancement. We are the most effective and valuable resource Hwa Siong will ever have.

The Great Fire of 1966 goes down as an enduring witness to this undoubted fact. My grandfather, himself a former president of the Alumni Association, used to recall how the whole school was literally razed to the ground, along with it the hopes and dreams of its students. The prospect was depressing. Everyone was fast losing heart, and suddenly the alumni became the last shining beacon of light to those who needed it most – working with tireless zeal to rebuild the school, soliciting funds from the Ilonggo community, seeking temporary shelter for dormitorians, some going as far as to voluntarily take in a few students per household for the meantime (our modest dwelling one of them.) Their remarkable efforts showed to the world once and for all that they were no ordinary leaves. They were leaves of the highest caliber.

Times have changed. For the last forty years, we were lucky enough to have had eluded catastrophes of similar destructive magnitude. But in a world slick with modernity, another challenge rises to the helm: that of keeping up with the bizarre pace of life, with the arbitrary, sometimes erratic, compromises of society. Whoever it was who said that alumni are the antennae of the school aptly captured the heart of the matter. We are the ones who traverse the floors of academes, banks, offices, hospitals, courtrooms, even the silver screen – trying to keep abreast of change. We are the leaves that stayed on the ground long enough to sense when lightning threatens to strike the tree, or when an earthquake lurks underneath to shake its very foundations.

Yes, being an outstanding leaf isn’t easy. The risks far outnumber the rewards. We are under constant attack from the harsh elements of nature, subject to the whims of controlling forces, capricious weathers and cruel pairs of feet only too mindful to reach their respective destinations. But we are also fueled by the uplifting thought that the more we stick to our Hwa Siong roots, the more we realize that though we came from different walks of life and parted on different ways, we were all watered by the same substance that runs deep in the tree. And this affirmed oneness, borne on a shared passion to conquer greater heights, is what will steer our common goals for Hwa Siong to fruition. After all, no single leaf can make a bonfire. One leaf will not create a nest, or a meal, or a stunning finished work of art.

Today we are roused by the same clarion call to summon the “falling leaf” spirit in us and bring what we do to the highest possible level. Whether Ilonggo, Tagalog, Cebuano, Negrense, Mindanaoan, mainland Chinese, Japanese or Korean, let us all prove ourselves that we are the same exemplary leaves in everybody’s midst, the same priceless pieces of a grand old tree best known for her unending cycle of selflessly nurturing and then tenderly releasing quality leaves into the world.

Then, and only then, can we truly say that we have indeed come full circle and triumphantly returned to her roots – by heart.