This is a story of how an ex-convict helped me with a school project.
Tibong lived a few minutes’ walk from our house, near the entrance of the subdivision where I stayed with my grandparents. He loved to roam the barangay looking for streetside karaoke machines and finding enemies when he got drunk. He had two signature looks: wearing basketball jerseys, and going topless, with beer belly and forearm tattoos completing his look. His hair was often dyed blonde and one of his front teeth was missing. Once in a while, he would go missing, only to return months or years later after completing a jail term. And he adored my grandpa.
My grandpa arrived from the US when I was in 4th year high school. I soon discovered the wealth of stories he could tell, especially from his time as a soldier during World War II. Tibong enjoyed these, too, as well as tales of ‘life in America’. He’d stroll to our house, lean over the low white gate, and ask the household help to make grandpa step outside for a chat. My grandpa would also give him t-shirts or fruits from our santol trees. In my grandpa’s absence, Tibong would strike up a conversation with my older brother.
This was how I got to know Tibong. But even without that, he was hard to miss — especially during the daytime, when he’d sit outside his brother’s house waiting for odd jobs to come his way from his brother’s auto repair shop. Without a security guard in the subdivision, Tibong, in hindsight, appeared to be a sentinel, a figure always idling by the subdivision entrance, looking so threatening to outsiders that they wouldn’t dare enter his territory.
“I set out trying to find out about life behind bars, and knew just whom to ask.”
One day when I was in college, in the middle of the semester, our journalism teacher asked us to write a story featuring a social issue, trend, organization or person. My classmates and I all knew this day was coming, and now we finally had to have passable ideas — if not original topics, then at least fresh angles. Most daunting of all, we had to be able to convince a print publication to publish our work, or we wouldn’t be able to pass the class. Imagine a newspaper caring about your story enough to print it!
I don’t know how many story angles I researched and analyzed and proposed to my teacher, but finally I thought of convicts. For some reason, prison life has always fascinated me, and I set out trying to find out about life behind bars. The teacher approved the idea. I knew just whom to ask.
The day for my interview with Tibong arrived. I was nervous. No matter how many times I explained to him that this was for a class proejct and to be printed in a newspaper, he and his neighbors kept talking about how he was going to be on TV, and famous.
But that was the least of my worries. Here, after all, was a guy who had been in and out of jail for as long as I could remember. So it’s great that my brother happened to be at home on the day of the interview. Tibong and I sat on chairs outside my grandparents’ house, under the shade of the santol tree he was so familiar with.
“His latest arrest: Valentine’s Day. His crime: attempted homicide.”
As the interview went on, I learned more about Tibong and the crimes he had committed. His latest arrest: Valentine’s Day. His crime: attempted homicide. The scene: he and his friends were singing by a karaoke machine a couple of blocks from our subdivision. It was dawn, and he was drunk. A thug from a nearby neighborhood, also drunk, lost his temper and brandished a knife. Tibong — in his version of events — tried to calm the thug down with a joke, telling him to bring his bravado to Mindanao instead. The humor backfired, a fight ensued, and Tibong almost killed the guy.
I had my facts set for a first draft of the article and stood to thank Tibong for the interview, when he noticed a plant behind him. He said in Bisaya: “I really like My Heart Will Go On,” the song from the movie Titanic. “I can blow the tune on a leaf.”
He picked up a leaf, folded it, put it to his lips, and blew through the fold, emitting a hollow sound that vaguely resembled the chorus of Celine Dion’s song. After a few notes, he stopped. “It’s the wrong kind of leaf,” he said. He talked about how, “God willing,” one day he’ll have a good job and marry a pretty woman; he then said goodbye to return to the bench outside his brother’s home, where he would sit all day unless his brother had a job for him. That night, he was going to find his friends — a carefully chosen barkada, he said proudly — and sing karaoke.
The irony of the moment struck me — the glaring opposites of idleness and ambition, of murder and a love song — and I knew that here was a character interesting enough to write a personality profile about. So instead of writing about life in prison, I ended up writing about what life is like outside of jail for a man who has so often been inside it.
“I ended up writing about what life is like outside of jail for a man who has so often been inside it.”
A local newspaper published my article, and I passed my journalism class.
And the moral of this story is there is no limit to the amount of people who can help you with your homework… Just kidding. It was the first time I got published, and I was only a 2nd year college student. I never dreamed it possible. After that, I continued contributing stories. I looked at people and wondered what surprising stories they could tell. I wrote.
And I have not stopped.