I attended mass at the Loyola House last night. It was for my grade school principal. He had passed on to the other life last January 2. He was buried today, but since it’s not easy getting a leave after you’ve had so many, I decided to attend the last evening mass before the funeral rites.
Fr. Jorge Hofileña, SJ was the principal of Xavier University Grade School in Cagayan de Oro for the whole duration of my elementary education. And he would not just be my principal, but he would also be my mentor and my friend.
I first met Fr. Jorge when my mother brought me for admission at the grade school. By this time, I had already finished nursery and two years of kindergarten at the local public school. Since I was enrolled a year before the usual, I applied for first grade at Xavier when I was still 6 years old.
Back then, there was a practice of separating the ones old enough for first grade and those who need to repeat Kinder II. And it was asking the student to use his right hand to reach his left ear with the hand passing over his head. If the student has difficulty reaching it, he is asked to repeat kindergarten. If not, then he goes on to first grade.
When it was my turn to face Fr. Jorge, he asked me to do the same, and so I did. But being that I was actually still 6 when first graders are supposed to be 7, I could not reach my ear. And so he told me, “you need to repeat Kinder II.” And so I enrolled as a kindergarten student at Xavier and not as a first grader.
I don’t know if there’s a scientific reason behind the practice, but I just dismissed the practice afterwards. I would later learn to appreciate what Fr. Jorge did everytime I graduated from an academic level at the Ateneo. I always had an award I can count on because of his decision, since the loyalty awards at the grade school required seven years; the high school, eleven; and in college, at least fifteen.
Last night, I heard from former Assistant Principal Flerida Nery, that Fr. Jorge back then always told the grade school faculty and staff that they should never scold the students. And instead of getting angry everytime a student does something wrong, they are supposed to talk to them and explain what they have done.
And this brought back an incident back then in fifth grade. Being that ours was an all-boys school, we all had our mischievous sides. And one of those moments where mine would manifest was when we played around with the flagpole at the quadrangle.
The pole, which was about 80 to 100 feet long, would seem to wiggle from the middle everytime me and my classmates would give it a shake from the base where the lanyard is tied. And since it looked funny whenever it swayed, we took turns doing it. Suddenly the pole broke at the middle and the upper half crashed to the ground.
Our first reaction was to run and I think it was natural. But being that at this time, I was already very visible in the campus due to school activities, a lot of those in the quadrangle when the incident happened, knew me. And so, rather than have Fr. Jorge hear about it from others, I suggested to my classmates that we confess what we did. I felt that we had to, rather than have one of our teachers recommend us for penalties.
And so we went to Fr. Jorge’s office. We asked us to go in and we told him everything. We were all trembling with fear as to what he might impose upon us, being that we actually destroyed school property. But instead of getting angry with us, he talked to us about how we should learn to take responsibility for our actions. He told us that what we did by confessing to him was what he expected from Ateneans like us. Asked if we were to be given penalties, he said no. But he told us to carry the fallen half of the pole to the utilities workshop. And that was it.
I would say that Fr. Jorge was one of the kindest Jesuits you’d ever meet. He would go around Cagayan de Oro in his old custom-built, blue and white Chariot – something which looked like an 80s-style Ford Fiera. And whenever he would pass students from the grade school on his way to the campus, he would give those students a free ride . Other then the Chariot, he also drives around the city in a motorcycle.
Fr. Jorge also had a couple of yellow Labrador Retrievers – Miriam and Lablab, who always went around with him whenever he was at the grade school campus. And anyone who went through the grade school from the late 80s up, would be familiar with these dogs.
Aside from dogs, the grade school campus during Fr. Jorge’s time also had geese, turkeys and of course, the endemic flying lizards – which often caused students to cry whenever they land on students’ uniforms since they were so difficult to remove.
Collecting Gmelina seeds then was also a routine since there were plenty of Gmelina trees at the Macansandig campus. And things were so serious since there was a contest among all sections in all levels as to which class had gathered the most seeds in an academic year.
Fr. Jorge made us engage in these things, aside from academics, practical arts and sports, since he always believed in the concept of a Total Boy. He thought that male children should not only be taught subjects for the mind, but also arts and crafts for the hands, and most importantly passions for the heart.
And talking about passions, Fr. Jorge would, from time to time, visit our classrooms giving us some literary pieces which I would again encounter when I got to high school and college. And these pieces, he always taught us with gusto – which he also expected we do when we deliver them in front of the class.
From Fr. Jorge, I would learn, cherish and memorize up to this day, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Invictus, and of course, Oh Captain, My Captain. And I can still remember him telling us to give emphasis to Whitman’s lines, with which I shall also give tribute…
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
It is but fitting to call Fr. Jorge my Captain since to many among us Total Boys, he was. He loved basketball and aside from being the principal, he would also coach the grade school basketball varsity team and passarelle team. He would even officiate games when there are no student referees available. And he would eventually become my brother’s coach, when my younger sibling went through the grade school eight years after me.
Thank you very much Fr. Jorge! We owe much of what we have become to you. You have raised us as Total Boys, eventually becoming Men for Others. We will never forget you dear Captain.
Rest in peace Pads!