Tribute to My Teacher: Onofre (Mr. Pagsi) Pagsanghan
A young high school graduate tells us how one teacher touched his life.
It was the first day of first year high school in Ateneo. The discomfort of having unfamiliar people around me in a totally unfamiliar place loomed. The silence bell rang. The Section A students moved to their seats. As a sign of what was to come in the next four years, the class failed to observe the bell. But we fell silent as an old man walked spiritedly into the class, black bag in hand. He greeted us in a voice that didn’t seem to belong to his small, old frame: “Hi, guys, good morning!”
He introduced himself as Mr. Pagsi. The Mr. Pagsi, I thought to myself, as I had heard many stories about him and his accomplishments from parents and friends alike. He said, “First things first,” and made us all stand up. He brought us to the chapel at the core of the high school campus, where he conducted his first lecture. It wasn’t at all about English, the subject he was supposed to teach. It was about God. He taught us, I remember, about Alpha and Omega and how that described the nature of God. Because to Mr. Pagsi, English was just the wrapper of a much bigger gift, something different for each of those who opens it.
Stories and Passages to Remember
I haven’t met a better storyteller than Mr. Pagsi. Many were the times when he’d sit in the middle of the classroom and we’d gather round him like little children listening to a pretty Grade School teacher tell us stories. He would capture the emotion, the subtext, the intent of a story by subtly changing his manner of speaking. His eloquence was such that he stimulated us to create vivid mental images of the stories he was telling. From the suspense of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” to the grace of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, he had us hooked. And of course, it helped that we had daily quizzes consisting mostly of fill-in-the-blanks questions such as, “What is essential is _______ to the ____.” That, of course, is from The Little Prince (and the answers are “invisible”and “eye”).
Mr. Pagsi also made us memorize MPs, or Memorable Passages. An example of an MP is a short poem that goes this way: “Though you have time but for a line, make that sublime; not failure, but low aim is crime.” The philosophy behind the MP? Mr. Pagsi said that he was filling our minds with beautiful things at an early age, not necessarily when we can relate with them. At the time in our lives when we actually can relate with the lines, we’ll remember them and turn out the better for it.
The Teacher’s Model
Mr. Pagsi often told us that he believed the patron saint of teachers should be St. John the Baptist. Why? Because St. John the Baptist was the model of what a true teacher should be like: someone who, when he taught, inspired his students not to look at him and admire him, but to look at Jesus. Mr. Pagsi was one such teacher, never forgetting to remind us that all we have is hiram, that we owe everything we have and are to God, who can so easily take it away from us the moment He wills it.
Mr. Pagsi often reminded me over the course of my four years in high school and in Dulaang Sibol (the Ateneo High School theatre group that he founded 51 years ago and which I was part of) that I was “breathing in.” As I was graduating, he asked, how will I “breathe out”? One way was by becoming a teacher for Sibol-Hesus, a tutoring program again founded by Mr. Pagsi where volunteers go to various public schools in Quezon City to teach English, math, music, and public speaking to the students willing to take part.
All Used Up
In one of our Sibol-Hesus meetings, we discussed whether or not to create a curriculum for our students. Technically speaking, Mr. Pagsi said, a curriculum is necessary, but it is by no means to be treated as Bible truth. The curriculum, he said, is in the eyes of each boy and girl you teach. One look into their eyes, and you will know what they truly need. If you love the students you teach, you will know exactly what to teach and how, and why.
This was coming from a man who has, for 80 years on June 12, 2007, been living out his ambition “to be like a used up toothpaste tube, all squeezed out, twisted whichever way, folded many times over, scraped clean of all the beautiful things God has given me for giving away.”
From a man who told us, “Love your calling with passion, it is the meaning of your life.”
At the end of the meeting, Mr. Pagsi said that the key to good teaching is simply this: to love your students, to love them into excellence. I couldn’t help but nod, because from him, I experienced exactly what he was speaking of.