A Tribute to Fr. Orlando Aceron OP, Principal of Science Oriented High School in 1981-85. I was inspired to do this piece after his Keynote Talk during the 1st General Alumni Homecoming of Aquinas University, held at the University Dome. He said that we should not forget our Dominican roots, the values imparted by St. Dominic and, if I remember it right, also Thomas Aquinas on whose patronage the university is named and dedicated. Picture: Fr. Aceron OP (seated), Fr. Jessie Yap OP (standing with me).
I was terrified of him. Fr. Orlando Aceron OP walked the corridors of my high school with a gripping icy presence. He was, after all, our principal. At the mere sight of his Dominican habit, everyone stood on guard, abandoned their impetuousness and behaved like angels. No one dared to disturb the order, or else you would land in his office. The most terrifying part was to wait for him to enter that room like a hapless victim about to face death. A minute is like a century. It would take just a few ticks from the hands of the clock in his office for you to piss on your pants from fear.
I know this first hand: I was brought to his office for being unruly and talkative.
30 December 2010: Twenty five years later, he would tell this story to alumni of Aquinas University in Legazpi City at a mass of the very first General Alumni Homecoming. He related my story, not with sternness, but with affection.
As I sat on one of the concelebrants’ chairs that day, I listened to him as he unraveled my story. I was glued to where I was, my ears were all tuned to the Dominican to whom I owed my Jesuit vocation. In that row of Dominican priests in their habits, I felt at home.
Circa 1981-85: We were only less than a hundred students per year. We occupied two classrooms. We were special students, so they said. We were the top 100 of those who applied for freshman year. Our teachers were from the college. We had extra units for Science, Math and English. I heard, after graduation, some of our lessons were also taught in college. At least, that was what our teachers claimed they imparted.
The sciences especially Biology were my favorite subjects. Biology earned me my first eyeglasses that looked like huge RayBans. But without regret. Biology placed me on the map of the high school, the first second year to win first in the Science Fair and Quiz. But to me, it was Fr. Aceron’s acknowledgement that made the greater difference. Together with my classmate Egypt Navera, we ate the nodules of the spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum variegata, a grass-like variegated ornamental plant. It was a no-no: experiments of edibility should begin with a chemical composition report first. However, in high school, reckless experimentation was one of the things we excelled from.
Before NatGeo put up its tagline, we already lived curious, especially in high school. We were never afraid to pursue what we wondered about. We were even encouraged to think more than what we thought we were capable of. It was an era of pushing boundaries. That believing there was more to the world than what we already knew, we were transported to hope. To a world of possibilities. On one hand, some people saw what they saw and asked, why? We, on the other hand, dreamt of more than just what was existing, and asked, why not?
Years later, Egypt Navera graduated at the University of Sto. Tomas with flying colors and serve the world in United Laboratories Inc (Unilab) as a researcher. Sent to the corridors of Xavier University High School, I encouraged my students to dream big and pursue these dreams as if they were all that mattered. What you needed to know you learned along the corridors of high school: To me, it was the corridors where that formidable priest would tread. He would never realize that experimentation, nonetheless reckless, needed a stable encouraging presence.
Many things began and developed from high school. Those that we first considered meaningless became meaningful as we aged. Fr. Aceron taught us Logic in third year. It was utter irrelevant to me. How can an A + B = C syllogism be applied to crushes? Love was illogical. The performing arts were to me done in abandon and freedom. When you dance in a disco bar with your classmates to the tune of Michael Jackson, Tears for Fears, or Madonna, you moved as you felt, as if drugged or possessed. Whatever inhibition you had would make you awkward and silly in front of everybody. You would never belong to the group if you lived by the rules of another like your parents. And so one day, thanks to our raging inattention to Logic, he walked out of the classroom.
In 1991, Fr. Joseph Galdon SJ entered my Juniorate classroom. We were fresh from professing our perpetual vows in the Jesuit Novitiate. He wrote on the blackboard: TS – Dev – TST. What was that? The outline of our compositions: Paragraph 1: Topic Sentence. Paragraph 2: Development. Paragraph 3: Conclusion, Topic Sentence with a Twist. We have to think logically: a structured homily, he said, is charity to the congregation. That year, I saw the blood-red marks on my paper: Fr. Galdon SJ murdered my compositions until I got the logic.
Thirteen years later, I would work with dancers and musicians as chaplain of UP Diliman. The performing arts were disciplines, with structure and logic. I didn’t know that Michael Jackson’s breakdancing had a definite style and form. If you danced with sheer abandon, you were foolhardy. Fr. Aceron taught us to be wise: the only legitimate foolishness, he said, was to be a fool for Christ. Unfortunately, I realized that when it was too late. When the very blackboard where that syllogism was written had been destroyed by storms and volcanic debris. Nevertheless, Fr. Aceron’s late bloomers learned. At that time, he just hoped we would learn, no matter if that would take forever.
I had a vivid memory of defiance. A storm just devastated Albay. It was a few weeks before our prom. We wanted it at La Trinidad Hotel. Everything had been set. But to our disbelief, Fr. Aceron would announce that he would not have it there in deference to calamity victims. To have it in Daragang Magayon Hall, the topmost floor of Aquinas University would be a better way to “witness” to the Gospel. We were outraged. We cut class. We planned a walk-out. He suspended the batch. He threatened to withhold graduation. But he didn’t budge. He was firm. To him, there were values we should not compromise to public demand.
Years later as a priest, I would face an analogous experience. I remembered him and so, our prom was held at the high school covered courts. Who cared whether Ateneans were from the upper crust? But I was luckier than Fr. Aceron: my fellow Jesuits and many of the administration and faculty were for ‘witnessing value.’ If you asked me in high school what witnessing was, I could have answered, “Huh? What’s that? Food?”
In those days, our scattered selves were gathered at prayer. There was a little chapel in the middle corridor of a building beside the high school. Fr. Aceron would put our restless spirits into order as we recited the rosary or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Office was like a breviary. We would pray distracted, but what was important? We were there.
Two of us would play an old harmonium organ. In that little chapel of unruly boys and girls were to develop vocations to the priesthood. My fellow organist, Paulo Saret would enter the seminary but would eventually leave to become a lawyer and a consul. Raymundo Salazar entered the Jesuit prenovitiate with me, but would discover a new path. The same was true to Ricardo Padilla who became a Claretian prenovice but eventually married his high school love, Egypt Navera.
But three of us would become priests. Fr. Stephen Redillas OP became a Dominican, and one of our bad boys, Fr. Ricky Bermas would make a radical turn and become a Diocesan now serving the town of Lidong in Polangui, Albay. Who would think that three of us in that little chapel would likewise do the same as our principal? Gathering people at prayer was something we experienced in high school. Theology has it today that priests are taken from the community so that they know the very dreams and prayers of the people whom they are to bring to the Lord.
Enough said. As St. John would say, the annals of the world will not be sufficient for all the stories about Jesus. I dare say, so it is for Fr. Orlando Aceron OP.
But one question remains: If I were inspired by a Dominican, why did I decide to become a Jesuit? St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was a soldier. When hit by a canon ball, he spent time reading the books of the saints. Two saints inspired him to reconsider his life: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic de Guzman, the founder of the Dominicans. I grew up in a Franciscan parish in Camalig, Albay. Do the math: A (St. Francis) + B (St. Dominic) = C (St. Ignatius). You know who taught me that.
In one of the religious assemblies in Araneta Coliseum, Cubao, I saw Fr. Aceron after several years since high school graduation. I was in my Jesuit habit. I had to introduce myself. What amused him, he said at the General Assembly, was a remark I made: “Father, I survived the 30-Day retreat without talking!” He said, he was happy for me. Yes, silence was one thing I learned, not from the Dominicans, but the Jesuits. But that is another story.
The stories we weave in our lives strengthen our bonds of love. To Batch 85 of Science Oriented High School, our common memory will have the Dominicans embedded deep into the fabric of our lives. Thus, in its truest form, I am a Dominican at heart: nothing will ever be forgotten.
I know my classmates will have more stories to tell over and over again. Their memories are as vivid as the light of day.
Those who would be reading this and complain that their names are not mentioned, this I have to say: for you to add your own. Because I know you have more. I know those who have been sent to his office too. Perhaps, several times more than me. I know some have become his close friends after high school. Who would think that he who terrified us will eventually show his humanity by enjoying wine and cheese with his former students in a terrace at Letran College in Manila?
If you tell him now that you were terrified of him, he will laugh it off. Of course, even the kindest of hearts when given a job by the Lord, has to do his role. Rightfully so. To us, we needed that twenty-five years ago.
But not anymore today.