Sunday, June 15, 2014

The People We Know and the Stories They Tell

Basic Speech No. 10
Gege Sugue

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship,” what we need the most in this world, according to author Philip Pullman, are stories.

I completely agree with him about the vital role stories play in our lives. That’s why reading novels and short stories gives me so much joy.

But for me, nothing beats the wonder, the pleasure, and the power of a real life story.  

And I’m not just talking about the real life stories of the rich and famous, the icons and the notorious. I’m not talking about extraordinary beings like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi.

I’m talking about the stories of people around us, people we know. People whose lives have intimately touched ours, moving us, shaping us.

For instance, just a few weeks ago, we heard the story of Danny.

I loved his story for three main reasons. Number one--it reminded me of somebody else’s story. But I’ll get to that later.

Second, I loved it because it surprised me. I have always seen Danny as somebody successful, quietly confident, rich, well-connected, powerful. And it never occurred to me that behind that face is a history of economic struggles, personal insecurities, and other difficulties.
Third, I loved his story because it inspired me. Not just in a generic way because it was a well-delivered, inspiring speech. But because it struck a raw nerve in me. You see as a communication trainer, I sometimes wonder whether we’re of any use. Whether we could really help people change. That when I advise learners to read and read and read to become better writers and speakers, that maybe I am just asking them to waste their time. That maybe change is just way too difficult or even impossible.

But then I heard Danny’s story, when he talked about being ridiculed for his accent and his grammar, and how he overcame all that by reading and practicing, by watching and listening, until he became better. Better than his old self, and even better than those who mocked him.

When I heard his story, I was inspired. And I started to believe once more in my role as a trainer and educator. I’ve even shared his story a couple of times in my workshops. Because his story inspired me, and I know it can inspire others.

That’s what stories do. They inspire us. They change something within us.

Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern describes beautifully:

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” 

Thank you for your gift, Danny.

So I encourage you all to tell your stories. Storytelling benefits both the storyteller and the listener.

Physician and Columbia College professor, Dr. Kirsti Dyer enumerates the many benefits of storytelling. She says that stories help us make sense of a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. Stories entertain. Stories heal.  Like Danny’s story, stories inspire and encourage. Stories leave legacies and honor the lives of others.

So let me share the story of Serafin. Serafin lived a long time ago. He was born in 1900. Serafin was poor and could not afford an education. He could have accepted his lot, which was to stay mired in poverty. But he did something to change his life. So he worked as a housekeeper for a rich Congressman in Malolos. And for this service, he did not get paid in money. He was what was called an aliping kanin. He worked for food, and not a lot of food at that. But fortunately, he was also sent to school. He only got far as his elementary years, which was as far as somebody from his situation could go.

But he did not allow his educational limitations to stifle him. He even became a teacher. It was as a teacher that he met his wife Euleteria. And together, they worked hard to build a life. Eventually, they had a house on a big land filled with mango trees plus a hectare for a rice field.

When World War Two disrupted normal life, Serafin became a guerilla captain fighting against the Japanese.  Their home, because it was made of cement, served as a safe house for guerillas and neighbors avoiding the skirmishes.

During the Liberation, the Americans appointed Serafin as military mayor of Guiguinto, Bulacan. And they urged him to run in the next election. He would have been unopposed. But his wife opposed his plans. She said that that he had already done enough for his country; it was time for him to focus on his family. And being the wise man that he was, he obeyed his wife. He went back to being a teacher.

But he was the kind of teacher who brought reforms, In his town in Pulong Gubat, the school only got as high as the fourth grade. Anybody who wanted further studies had to go to the bigger schools in Guiguinto. So, Serafin, took action, talked to education officials, collaborated with the principal who challenged him to build a classroom for grade 5 and grade 6 students.

Eventually he became the school principal.

Serafin came a long way from his beginnings. He accomplished much in his short life. Yes, short life. He died when he was 51 years old, of ulcers (possibly a result of being an aliping kanin) and asthma complications.

Obviously, I never met him. His story was shared with me by his son, Natoy. Serafin was the father of my father. And it gives me unspeakable joy knowing that I inherited his gene—the one that makes us delight in being an educator.

Remember earlier when I said that Danny’s story reminded me of another man’s story? In fact, when he was delivering his speech last week, I whispered to myself, Oh no! He stole my script!

Danny’s story reminded me of Natoy’s story. Natoy, my father, was born on April 17, 1938. That was an interesting time. The Americans occupied the Philippines, and the Japanese were about to invade the country. There were no roads, no electricity, yes, no internet! He studied in a school where the principal was his father—a strict, rigid, and even harsh disciplinarian. It’s also important to mention that Natoy was the fourth child of Serafin and Teria. But he was the first son. And that would be one of the most significant aspects of Natoy’s life. Because in our culture, when the father is absent, the eldest son automatically becomes the head of the family.

So my account of Natoy’s story starts where Serafin’s ends. When my grandfather passed away, Natoy was only fourteen. Still a boy. A boy who fancied himself to be a combanchero, a minstrel. His only ambition was to have a transistor radio. And now, with his father’s death, he had to forego the rest of his childhood, forget about being a teenager, and be the father of seven siblings. Nobody would let him forget it. Ikaw na ngayon ang ama. Mag-aral ka nang mabuti. Magtrabaho ka para sa pamilya mo. He helped his mother to sustain their big family. He helped her gather dayami (hay) to use to smoke their mango trees. My Lola Teria, formerly a housewife, had to find other means to keep her family alive. She would buy retasos (fabric scraps) from Divisoria to sell them in Bulacan. My father sold calamansi and ice drop at the train station. When my lola suffered a mild stroke, Natoy and his uncle would go to Blumentritt to sell mangoes.

Fortunately, his family believed in education for Fortunato. And even though they could not afford it, they found ways. His Uncle Luis, who was grateful to them for protecting him in their safe house during the war, invited him to stay in their tiny home in Lecheros, Tondo.

In Manila, he went to a public school, Torres High School. In college, he took up Commerce at the University of the East. With an allowance of one peso a week and shoes torn at the soles, he scraped by to complete his education. He said he was not an exceptional student; it was challenging because he was a working student. He worked for a company called American Mercantile, which was where he met my mother, the beautiful Milagros.

For somebody who only aspired for a salary of three hundred pesos and a long-sleeved Oxford shirt, Natoy got far in his career after college. He worked for Joaquin Cunanan, the Manila office of Price Waterhouse. In his words, mabilis siyang umasenso. His superiors saw the brilliance and the diligence. He became a junior manager, was sent to New York for training, and came back to be promoted to partner position. Along with his rapid ascent came intrigue, envy, and questions like, sino ba siya. He realized eventually that even though he was respected, he was not well liked nor well known.

As my father told me that part of his story, I was surprised. Because when I was growing up, I was in awe of my father’s popularity. Everywhere he went, whether we were in a restaurant, a posh party, in church, in the palengke (market), in far-flung province, someone would shout, Fortune! He seemed to know everyone, and they seemed so happy to see him.

With the realization that he was not popular, Natoy moved. Like Danny and Serafin, my father believed in improving himself. He joined the Rotary, the Jaycees. He became the President of PICPA, the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants. He built up his network, solidified a career in Management Consulting. Accomplishing all these while raising a family of seven children.

There is still much to tell about Natoy’s story. But we don’t have time. I asked my father to share with me four words to summarize his personal journey. His first word is Need. Not lofty aspirations, but the basic desire to survive against all odds, drove him to work hard.

His second word, a big word—Responsibility—pushed him to go beyond what was comfortable and easy. To this day, he still takes his responsibilities as husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather seriously. He has always been an ever-present father, protecting us and providing for our needs. 

His third word is Gratitude. He recognizes that his successes would not have been possible if not for the help of many people—his family. Relatives who helped him. People who believed in him. Let me also add that there have been many people who view him with gratitude. Countless people he has helped. An aunt of his, in her deathbed, looked for Natoy. “Saan si Natoy? Siya lang ang nagbibigay sakin lagi ng bente pesos.”

His last word is Faith. Natoy has overcome a lot. He has accomplished a lot. I have seen him struggle. I have seen him break down at great losses. I have seen him cry. But I have also seen him many times bent on his knees calling out to Jesus for help.

Let me add a fifth word—Integrity. I have always been proud of my father because he has achieved success while maintaining his integrity. He has always chosen what was moral, legal, and ethical. When he became a commissioner of the PRC (Philippine Regulations Commission), news of a leak in the Accountancy Board exams broke out. Even though he was not at fault, he decided to resign to ensure that the investigation happened independently. He was a man of delicadeza, something very rare then and now. We all know that most of our leaders would not resign even with the most glaring of faults or crimes. I try my best to mirror my father’s values. I may not always succeed, but in any decision point, when one of the options means I have to disregard what is moral, legal, or ethical, I try to choose the other options. Because I believe that my life story is merely a continuation of my father’s story. In the same way, that Natoy’s story was a continuation of Serafin’s.

Natoy’s story continues. Because life is not about happy endings and prince charmings. Lives are stories about need, responsibility, gratitude, faith. Life is about values like integrity and commitment.

Stories. Author Jeff Dixon says: “That is the power of a good story. It can encourage you, it can make you laugh, it can bring you joy. It will make you think, it will tap into your hidden emotions, and it can make you cry. The power of a story can also bring about healing, give you peace, and change your life!"

My friends, you are in a community where stories are told every time we meet. Where stories are valued. Stories are vital. Tell them. Listen to them. Relish them.

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