Tuesday, April 28, 2009

the speech that almost was.

I could have very well titled this entry “The Speech That NEVER Was,” and it would still be 100% accurate.

But on account of good ole Schultz philosophy, I chose not to.

Traditionally, the honor of delivering the valedictory speech in behalf of the entire graduating class goes to the undisputed summa cum laude. No one but the revered intellectual among intellectuals deserves such a privilege for finishing with the highest honors in the country’s premier school of hard knocks. It was an honor I had always dreamed of achieving, yet knew well enough that being in an especially formidable course puts the stakes at close to sheer impossibility.

But – surprise, surprise.

UP Manila has NO summa cum laude this year.

When I was informed by Ate Lucy last month that I was one of the four University magna cum laude chosen to vie for the title of valedictory speaker, my heart palpitated in leaps and bounds. The record for the College of Medicine last belonged to a certain Vince Faustino who made the cut way back in 1997, and since then the College has been suffering from a jinx for the longest time. If you were in my shoes, you’d be as giddy as Mary being showered heavenly tidings by the Archangel Gabriel.

I have been speaking before audiences with surefire gusto for as long as I can remember. I was the bibo kid eagerly clutching a microphone in kindergarten school, tasked with and happily giving the opening remarks, the closing remarks, or coaxed by a prodding teacher to host the program altogether. I was the precocious declaimer in grade school, the starry-eyed narrator and storyteller, the unwitting performer of various shows and productions that had me gripping the limelight even in its wake. High school refined the fringes of my presumably verbose future. I spoke before teachers, students, and fellow citizens as editor-in-chief of the school organ, as a CAT officer, as a youth city official, as a young leader awardee – minute-long instances that taught me about the workings of the world as much as I imparted my own thoughts to others.

Upon entering medical school, however, I found that the predominantly academic thrust somehow keeps you indefinitely holding your piece, save for the generic reports and case presentations that required more austere objectivity than artful eloquence and technique. Whenever I was tasked (or allowed) to speak, I felt “like a bird being finally freed from its cage,” and my classmates (particularly those in my own block) would readily attest to the palpable change in my stolid demeanor. Deep inside, I hungered for the sporadic opportunity to do non-scientific talk, once again.

Now my multi-awarded brother recently delivered three excellent speeches to three different audiences last month, all within a week’s time from each other. The constellations must have decided that my turn had come.

To cut the long story short, there was simply no blowing my chances away. I was determined to bring the honor back to the University’s oldest and perhaps most venerable College, to prove my mettle not only as a budding medical student but as one tendering a self-styled return into the realm of public speaking. I completed the page-long draft of my speech in just a couple of hours – on Black Saturday, to be exact – the sophisticated result of a premature burst of ideas that spontaneously fired like missiles the previous night. In stark contrast to many of my earlier, rawer, more heavyset speeches, this one was surprisingly light and humorous – even poking fun at a common and well-loved University emblem.

I had always believed that a good speech informs, entertains, and enlightens at the same time. It must have an impact, one subtle and substantial enough to leave the audience sufficiently satisfied, yet gut-wrenchingly wanting for more. At the slightest hint of boredom, the speaker understands that he teeters on the road to perdition. This philosophy guided me in the days that followed, as I constantly buzzed around improving my finished product – reading and rereading, editing, reconstructing sentences and paragraphs, reciting lines in the shower, practicing before a whole body mirror, making sure equal emphasis was placed on diction, clarity, projection, modulation, facial expressions, eye contact – just about the entire gamut of essentials said to comprise the perfect, foolproof, winner’s speech.

And then…it was time.

Barely a week into summer break, I soon found my way back to the big city, part-nervous and part-excited. Hopping on the first plane at the crack of dawn, I was up and about before the appointed time, fussing over and fumbling for a smart enough attire, rushing my way through the perpetual Taft traffic threatening to send my hopes down the drain. Only one thought raced through my mind that sweltering April day: Get yourself late, and there goes the promise of a good impression. I wasn’t about to gamble what could be a lifetime’s bet over something as trivial as a petty temporal malfunction.

That fateful afternoon, in the glaring sunlight, the hallowed interior of the UP Manila Board Room became a menacing microcosm of its magnified neighbor, the real life Supreme Court. Four “judges”, all smug and poker-faced, will decide the fate of four contenders in a miniscule audition now clearly reigning supreme over the current hit, hot American Idol season. Having arrived early, I took the prerogative to go second with the coy excuse of “a little jet lag”, retreating to the back room for a few uneasy minutes before a sharp knock on the door cut my introspective musings to a halt. As the first speaker wrapped up his stint, I silently took a breath, looked all four “judges” in the eye, and opened my mouth.

There is something almost romantic about the way you start the first word, or the first phrase, or the first sentence, for that matter. As the spotlight furtively moves into view, you are left alone to contemplate the veil of muted silence, a baptism of fire into the vicious verbal arena. I caught a hint of a smile quivering at the corners of the lips of one “judge” as I delivered my first two paragraphs, which had previously sent both my mom and my aunt in ROFL mode. The rest, however, remained attentively impassive. I turned the game a notch higher as I settled comfortably into gear, confidently going about the remainder of the speech, stressing main highlights, nimbly swinging the mood from serious to comical and somewhere in between, rolling slippery syllables with so much as a smooth, clarion lisp. At one point, I saw all four “judges” nodding, exchanging cognizant glances, and took it somewhat as a good sign. Three minutes is all I have to make it happen.

The following morning, Ate Lucy’s words were the first to greet me upon waking up.

As her voice cracked over the phone, my groggy disposition was in no state to probe what would happen next. And so when she awkwardly spilled out the disheartening words – “Nalulungkot ako”, “Better luck next time daw” – I rhythmically nodded, rubbing excess sleep off my eyes, and told her I understood. The conversation was over in less than one minute.

It was the longest one minute of my life.

What took place thereafter was a surreal pattern of events. The world around me seemed to spin as I stared into space, motionless. And then the full brunt of the realization hit me like cold, heartless iced water: I was well headed for Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s inevitable five stages – and mind you, it takes me a very, very long time and perhaps twice the amount of effort (plus thrice the amount of pain) to reach that last, definitive stage. It was hard slaving away four years of medical school; harder still, to have had ignited a hope so fervent and killed it just as instantly. Everything flashed before me in blinding reminiscence: The pursuit of the rare privilege to speak before the vast populace of the country’s flagship university; sacrificing a day of entertaining vacationing classmates; getting myself sick; spending thousands on promo airfares; sparing myself a week’s worth of extra appointments on the side. Suddenly, the little piece of paper that could remained a little piece of paper for good, tragically destined to become part of the dusty, yellowing family archive.

Like a neurologist localizing an organic lesion, I searched high and low for a possible gap in the master plan: What went amiss?

Theory # 1: I should have crafted a speech in Filipino.
(Theory debunked. The instructions read: You can deliver the speech in English OR Filipino. Since the issue comes down to giving your best, I naturally chose to draft one in my preferred métier.)

Theory # 2: I should have memorized the entire speech.
(Theory debunked. Oh yes, I did memorize my speech and can ruddy well measure up to the job if asked. But the thing is: I was asked to READ.)

Theory # 3: I should have delivered a more serious, more radical, more bombastic speech.
(Theory debunked. A speech is different from an oration. Julius Caesar can fire away all he wants, but that won’t cost him a seat in the Roman Forum if his speech is as vacuous as a wailing siren. Contemporary times call for contemporary measures.)

Theory # 4: I should have served the main dish, not just a sleazy appetizer.
(Theory debunked. From what I understood, we were asked to make “a speech”, not “THE speech”. And all in three minutes.)

Theory # 5: I should not have included Jesus Christ in the picture and committed undue sacrilege.
(Theory debunked. By all means and intentions, Jesus had been depicted in the best of light – as a noteworthy academic, as a forerunner of truth. This I swear by the Second Commandment.)

Theory # 6: It is time to give chance to others.
(Now this one I have yet to disprove.)

But back to Schultz and his ideals.

For all his life, the famed Snoopy creator advocated the idea of looking at the glass half-full, instead of half-empty. Upon reaching that unmistakable halfway mark in a marathon, one must consider the fact that the battle is already half-won and the race half-finished, instead of saying that the battle is MERELY half-won and the race ONLY half-finished. “To be happy,” my grandmother stressed, “is to look at the less fortunate.”

What could have happened had I not been offered the chance to formulate a speech, at all? Unlike Mikaela Fudolig, I am no 16-year old summa cum laude graduate of the State University. Unlike Patricia Evangelista, I am not an English-speaking world champion. Unlike my brother, I don’t have 11 gold medals in public speaking to my name.

After I sloppily remarked that they “now have one less reason to attend my graduation,” my mom reprovingly shook her head and replied, “Remember that we are attending for the sake that you will be graduating, and graduating with honors at that. The speech is just extra icing on top of the cake.” But for the proud, prodigious denizens of a record-smashing INTARMED class (at least for those who knew the real story), news of a fallen flag-bearer stirred a perceptibly more intense reception:

Reactor # 1: “Argh. Eh di sino ang napili?”

Reactor # 2: “Weh. Whatever. Sigurado akong luto yan.”

Reactor # 3: “Dapat si Greggy talaga ito. In our books, you’re still the speaker.”

I clearly remember that in one of his impromptu speaking conquests, my brother was adjudged the silver medal to everyone’s open-mouthed surprise. However, it was hardly the end of the story. The audience’s general dissatisfaction at the unexpected outcome bypassed the official verdict when he was given a rousing standing ovation during the awarding rites, far eclipsing the proclaimed champion’s meager applause (no audience factor here). True, he may not have gone home with the golden bacon dangling around his neck, but in the eyes of many, it rightfully belonged to him.

Fast forward to the big day where, clad in my black toga, I had just settled onto my seat after graciously shaking hands with UP President Emerlinda Roman. After basking for a few seconds onstage and receiving a glinting gold medal, after the numerous (and exhausting) smiles and photo-ops (some of which embarrassingly featured my beneath-the-toga matted hair resembling Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men and Drew Barrymore’s creepy stalker in Charlie’s Angels), it was time for my personal moment of truth.

The chosen student speaker took her place on the lectern and the reel rolled away before my senses.

Yes, her speech was in Filipino. But it was neither near bombastic, radical, or memorized. She took off with a short narrative about ceramics and clay pots, how these supposedly undergo thousand-degree centigrade transformations before emerging into the light as objects of high human intrinsic regard. “The same can be said of UP students…”

And then it hit me.

There are times in our lives when God wants us to listen, even when all we want to do is talk. There are times in our lives when He wants us to pause, even when our voices are screaming for unbridled momentum. And there are times in our lives when He wants us to look inside – when all we want to do is focus on the shady exterior. With the student speaker’s message, I realized that He was bringing me a message of my own. I was about to enter one of, if not the most challenging phase in a medical student’s life, one that brings along with it a multifaceted challenge: physical, mental, emotional, social, even spiritual – a key turning point in the long, arduous journey towards becoming a licensed healer. I was the clay pot, clerkship is the fire – no, inferno – that threatened to make or break me. The message couldn’t have been more apt and timely for one who is about to (and who dreaded to) be a clerk in, well, a little over a month’s time.

Ergo I wasn’t this year’s student speaker for the 100th Commencement Exercises of UP Manila, but I learned something else. Beyond clay pots and ceramics and the series of thousand-degree transformations awaiting me, I learned to be a little less afraid. The speech that never – or rather, that almost was – lived up to its job: It made all the difference.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

five lessons you learn in hell week.

Hell hath no fury than a week’s worth of exams scorned.

Several weeks prior, the whole of Class 2011 was already kept on a tightrope. When you consider the prospect of four final exams, a grand practical exam, and an all out, year-ender comprehensive exam zeroing in on you faster than the speed of sound, it wasn’t uplifting in the remotest sense. There were bouts and relapses of insomnia, nausea, anorexia, amnesia – even mild paroxysms of seizure-like attacks. It was doubly hard for me as I would be coming from Community Medicine – a rotation notorious for late dismissals, stacks of paper requirements, and pockets reduced to bareness from paying a daily sequence of tricycle fares, jeep rides, and LRT passes. It didn’t help, too, that the weekend prior was my brother’s high school graduation, which meant having to traverse the 280 miles bridging school and home, by hook or by crook. Time ever fleeting, I soon found myself back in Manila Sunday afternoon, frantic and in panic, eager to stuff whatever I can into my stressed mentation, equally frustrated at having to miss the very successful congratulatory bash Sunday night. 

Hell week came, hell week went, and now only the calm remained. In true Mitch Albom fashion, here are the five best lessons I learned from my trip to hell and back:

1. Some things in life aren’t worth missing.
A sibling gets to graduate from high school only once in his lifetime. In contrast, you get to take piles and piles of exams as a medical student, as a resident, and even as a consultant. I was reassured time and again: “You went home for a good reason.” Even if it meant not having enough time which resulted to my first ever truly difficult Neurology exam and not knowing whether I did enough to merit a passing score (I soon found out it was a general class sentiment, but no less distressing for someone who got away with 1.0 in LU 3 and 1.25 plus topping all three exams in LU 4…and LU 5?) I guess there has to be a first time for everything. But this I can readily say: I gave my best, studied what I can, and as for going home – definitely no regrets. There will be blogging evidence for the latter.

2. Never say die.
Alternatively, the euphemism is “Faith moves mountains.” In dire times like this, there’s only forward to go and no turning back. I initially felt like one of the 300 stuck at Thermopylae with no hope of conquering the massive Persian army, but gradually gathered enough nerve to become like Caesar in one of his conquests, ill-equipped but still possessing the gall to declare that “the die is cast”. But I had the one thing they both lack: faith to keep me company. Barely flipping through Pharmacology as my brother’s batchmates received their diplomas, the light of divine providence shone through when I found myself uncannily topping the finals with a good score, and a good number of points ahead! God works wonders in His own time, indeed.  

3. Making a mistake doesn’t mean you don’t know.
If you forgot to mention the mobility of a breast mass, ergo you didn’t know whether it’s mobile or fixed? If you casually stated without so much as a second thought that “Hepatitis B is a live attenuated vaccine”, ergo you have no idea that it’s actually an inactivated vaccine? (Seems kinda obvious that I’m enumerating my own silly blunders, hehe) The crazy individuals that we are, our brains sometimes overshoot their usual workings and go haywire without any apparent reason, making it illegal for someone to label you downright ignorant with a single encounter. Through the years, I have discovered something else about the “art” of making mistakes: I learn better from them. Heck, I can even remember some of the ones I made way back in high school.

4. A little sleep lost won’t hurt.
Hell week drastically slashed my sleeping time from the usual 7-8 hours to a ghastly 4-4.5 hours. Consecutive nights of sleeping at 2-2:30 am physically pushed me to nocturnal limits with trying to combat grogginess and concentrate on the emergent task at the same time. Of course, the worst part was waking up in the mornings with über gritty eyes and an altered consciousness, floating somewhere in pseudo-reality (This made me see the potential wonders of coffee in a different light.) With my sleep record utterly shattered, perhaps I can now say I had been a “real” med student, with suitably-sized eyebags for ample proof. Now I know there’s hope in surviving clerkship without a mydriatic.

5. All storms blow over.
That’s why Hell Week is a misnomer; I actually think “Purgatory Week” is the more appropriate term. Unlike hell which dooms you to eternity, “purgatory” week somehow thrusts you into the fire with the promise of heaven after a taste of hell. The sickening hype of terror and anxiety builds up in an exaggerated manner as the apocryphal event approaches like an impending typhoon, only to have everything go back just as before in its wake. How did it go? Some classmates attested that “it wasn’t so bad.” The dreaded quadruple finals series “purged” our knowledge on their respective fields; the leviathan OSCE refreshed our PE skills; and even the ultimate comprehensive exam provided a bit of last-minute enlightenment. Yes, purgatory exists for a purpose.

On a wider scale, such a week may have only served as a timely primer to the bigger, more fearsome world of clerkship – with its own unique collection of tragic horror stories. However, it also taught us to be more confident of ourselves and to believe in our capabilities. The devil may wear Prada, but he definitely doesn’t wear a sablay.