By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Saturday, October 4th, 2014
I was enrolled in Dr. Bien Lumbera’s comparative literature class at Ateneo Graduate School and was totally intimidated. Newly emancipated from sheltered years in a convent school where I read him in Antonio Manuud’s “Brown Heritage”—then the groundbreaking book on Philippine literature—and only half-understood what he wrote, I was in awe of his scholarship and his reputation. He was more than just your regular professor, for he was also a poet, scholar, and dramatist. He had just arrived from studies abroad, armed with a doctorate in comparative literature from Indiana University, so you can imagine his passion and energy on the classroom stage.
I wish I could lie and say I was one of his outstanding students, though I listened to every word he said. His lectures, delivered in his quiet, gentle and extremely articulate manner, were not to be missed. I left every class heady with titles of novels to read and critical theories to reflect on and analyze. I was breathless over the new challenges that the academic life offered.
But it was tough to compete with the likes of Soledad Reyes and Doreen Fernandez, who were both working on their doctoral programs. I have to confess I was far more engrossed in savoring life on campus, the social rather than the academic aspect of it, together with bosom college buddy and classmate, Cynthia “Shayne” Nograles, herself a graduate student.
If I had known then that my revered teacher himself did not like the idea of having to enter formal school and that his grandmother Eusebia had to brandish a tree branch to force him to attend first grade at Padre Valerio Malabanan Elementary School and was punished for mischief during that miserable first year, perhaps I would have been in less awe. But genius that he is, from second grade he clearly established his class standing.
And I was humble and happy enough to be learning at his feet. I was impressionable and he awakened in me the curiosity and the love for Philippine literature. He encouraged and inspired the class to explore the many facets of Philippine literary history awaiting discovery and popularizing. Sol went on to become a distinguished Macario Pineda scholar while Doreen immersed herself in the study of the Philippine drama and is remembered for her elegantly written essays on Philippine culinary history.
It was Bien who led me to the choice of my thesis topic: the short stories of one of the first Filipino writers in English, Casiano T. Calalang. Bien was my thesis mentor. But my babies came before my thesis, and my prolonged stay in Ateneo Graduate School I partially blame on him because during the days of the dictatorship, I lost my mentor who went underground and eventually was arrested as the military’s prize catch.
When he resurfaced and was a free man again, I knew him in a different light because he had married my dear friend Shayne. I was finally done with graduate school and the Calalang thesis that was Bien’s idea (I had earned the privilege of being on a first-name basis with him). He became my most willing and accessible subject as I was doing freelance journalism, always just a phone call away. And I loved quoting his always memorable sound bites for they added gravitas to my light and fluffy feature stories.
Bien continues to fascinate me, not just because of his depth of mind, but also because of his continuing political activism and concern for society. As his own intellectual life continues to flourish, so does he continue to be a mentor to all, by setting an example of a life that does not know what retirement is all about.
And what pop culture tastes he has. I was first introduced to Sting by Bien, who admires his art so much that when I was doing spring cleaning and found a cache of Sting memorabilia from a recent concert, unused and unappreciated at home, I knew for whom they were meant. At his 80th birthday dinner, a special surprise for him was Glock 9—and our table of senior citizens dared to ask: Who is he and how do you spell his name? Glock 9 said he himself was shocked when at one of his first concerts, among those in the long queue for autographs was this man whose name was all-too-familiar. Of course, it is clear that Sting and Glock 9 share his same poetry, his same politics.
Bien left us, his students, with a curiosity and a passion for lifelong learning, as well as a deep pride in who we are as a people. With all his laurels as Ramon Magsaysay awardee and Pambansang Alagad ng Sining, and now, with even his poetry inspiring designs for the Freeway fashion house, any other tribute is superfluous. Yet his role as teacher in and beyond the classroom deserves the highest commendation. Truly, Muy Bien!—as the UP community honored him as people’s teacher and artist.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( email@example.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.