Grade School Closing Ceremonies: Dr. John Burtkenley T. Ong’s (’86) Message to the Class of 2016

Photos by Ms. Josemarie Rose R. Salvador, GS Arts

The following message was delivered by guest speaker, Dr. John Burtkenley T. Ong (’86), during the Grade School Closing Ceremonies last 17 March 2016.

Fr. Aristotle Dy, Mrs. Jane Cacacho, Mrs. Flora Anne Alfonso, Ms. Joanne Clarissa Pusta, graduating boys who will soon be men, parents, faculty, staff, family and friends.

It’s good to be back at Xavier School and in the Philippines. Like you, I’ve also studied for an additional 7 years, working on my PhD in the US. I thank Fr. Ari for inviting me to attend OUR graduation. I call it OUR because, if you don’t mind, I’d like to join you in this celebration after completing my own additional studies.

This year, in January, I returned to Mindoro (an island south of Luzon) for the first time since I left. Typhoon Nona had ravaged through Mindoro in December, triggering massive landslides and floods. Years ago, I had spent quite some time with the Mangyans in the hinterlands of Mindoro. Although my January visit to Mindoro was spurred by the needs of the Mangyans who were badly affected by the typhoon, I was happy to meet old Mangyan friends and former students. In our kamustahan I enumerated the names of the Mangyans I remembered. I was sad to know many of them had died in recent years. Tupe Orfrecio was the first Mangyan I taught how to make 3D maps–a method where a technical contour map is transformed into a diorama of the mountains. These maps were used by the Mangyans to identify and manage their ancestral lands. Tupe died perhaps of a stroke in the bukid. Ana Galicia is an extremely intelligent, articulate, warm-hearted, and caring leader who helped her community claim the ancestral rights to their lands. I didn’t even have the opportunity to visit Ana’s grave since the floodwater washed away the cemetery. She died of tuberculosis.

As I sat in the boat headed back to Manila, I couldn’t help but think how unfair life is. Here I am, alive, while my contemporary Mangyan friends had died of curable diseases. I was asked before by a Mangyan how many Fil-Chi babies I knew who died as babies? I searched my memory but could only remember a few and actually none at that time; while in the Mangyan village, many babies and children die of measles. And how about education, which many times we take for granted and wish school were called off because of a typhoon? In my first exposure to the Manobo tribe in Bukidnon, a young un-schooled Manobo lady saw me with a thick Tagalog-Visayan dictionary, as I was learning Bisaya at that time. To this day, I remember what she asked me, “Puwede mo ba akong turuan ng Tagalog hanggang sa malaman ko ang lahat ng alam mo?” Never have I heard a person thirst so much for knowledge. Have you ever desired to know all the Chinese characters Wang Lao Shi knows?

Here at Xavier we’ve been blessed with many gifts: loving parents who worked hard to send us to school, competent and caring teachers, dedicated Jesuits, generous benefactors, numerous learning opportunities, updated facilities, technology, and more. How do I reconcile what I’ve seen and experienced in the world outside, as against what you and I have gone through within the walls of Xavier?

When I was still a Xavier student, my daily baon was one peso. Oh you might think that was miniscule. It was actually a modest amount because my cousins only received 10 centavos. And at that time, one peso could actually buy a lot more than what it can buy today. One afternoon, I bought a small pack of Chippy from the sari-sari store. As my four other siblings and I watched TV, I opened my Chippy, scooped a small amount and passed the pack to my other siblings. I didn’t reach three rounds before my chippy was gone. Holding the empty pack of chippy I told myself, “walang hiya, parang lugi ako ah. I used my own baon and had only two small portions of Chippy.” The following day, I bought another pack of chippy, went home, hid in my room and alone ate my Chippy. I clearly remember somehow I didn’t enjoy that pack of Chippy as much as I did the day before. I learned that I enjoyed something more when I share it. Compare this experience with what I witnessed when a group of Fil-Chi volunteers visited Mindoro. It was a season of famine and a volunteer gave a Mangyan boy a piece of bread. Instead of running to a corner and eating the bread alone (just as I did with my Chippy), the little boy broke the bread and gave half of it to another kid. Then that kid broke the bread and gave it to another kid. This went on until about a dozen kids had a morsel each before they ate the bread together. Poverty had taught them to feel for the other, to know what it is to hunger, and to be compassionate. Poverty had taught them to care.

What has affluence and the many gifts and opportunities we have received at Xavier taught us? I continue to ask myself, “Is life fair?” It won’t be fair if we don’t use our talents, if we don’t share them, or if we use them for selfish reasons. We hear the phrase “use-it-or-lose-it” applied to sports, studies, playing musical instruments, and languages. The same applies to our talents, gifts and lives: share-it-or-lose-it. For whoever wishes to harbor his talent will lose it but whoever shares his talent will enjoy a more meaning life.

Your next six years in high school will be a time of rapid physical and hormonal growth, of understanding your sexuality, and of being exposed to the fallacies and contradictions practiced in our culture and promoted in media. You will be challenged to hone yourselves to become men of prayer and character, to develop critical thinking, and to face up to a rapidly changing world, not just in terms of societal, cultural, economic, and political changes, but also changes in environment and climate, in technology, and in lifestyle. As you develop your talents, as you acquire more knowledge, as you strive for excellence, remember also to always share your skills, give without expecting, and look after the least, those left behind and forgotten.

My Mangyan friends, Tupe and Ana, died poor and yet were rich. They died young yet lived meaningful lives. May we learn from my dear friends. Thirst for knowledge like the young Manobo girl, and remember, “share-it-or-lose-it.”

Congratulations to our graduating Xaverians, parents, faculty, and staff.

Thank you for listening. Luceat lux!

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