When I Left That School (1)
(1st of 5 parts)
One of my favorite poems is W.E. Henley’s “Invictus.” The part I love the most are the last two lines – “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” It taught me one very simple yet strong guiding principle in life – that I am in-charge of my own destiny. It influenced me to subscribe strongly to the notion that “man’s destiny is the sum total of all the decisions he makes.” Thus, I never decide hastily.
Just like when I made a very important career decision. For the skeptics among my loved ones and friends, it was a very unpopular move. For me, it was something that I ought to do, something carefully planned. It seemed to be a leap of faith. The outcome, however, is something that I did not consider as unknown but anything – except failure.
“Why turn your back from a tenured position and a good salary?”
That was the common question my colleagues, friends, and loved ones asked me after hinting that I wanted to leave an institution ran by one of the country’s largest religious congregations. They didn’t seem able to tell me directly to my face that I was a fool. My wife did not disappoint me however. “You’re out of your mind.” Those were her exact words. “Why not wait another year so you can get the school’s share of the retirement fund?” she suggested.
I knew where my wife was coming from. She’s a very practical person. I was nearing the end of my ninth year in a Catholic institution at that time. Leaving the school without completing at least ten years would entitle me only to a refund of the total amount deducted from my salary over the years I had stayed there with nothing from the organization.
On top of that, travel time from our house to the workplace was only less than 20 minutes. That convenience I may be giving up should I leave and not find a work in the same area.
She told me, “Just for once put aside your pride.” My response was, “NO! This has nothing to do with pride.” Then we had a lengthy debate about the financial ramifications of my decision and the corresponding uncertainties it would bring. I had a full understanding of the decision I was about to make and what the consequences would be. At that moment there was something I valued more than convenience and money – my dignity as a person and my role as a professional in my chosen field as an educator.
What exactly brought me to the precipice of this major decision?
I had a lot of issues with none other than the head – the Sister President – of the congregation school where I thought I would be staying until my retirement age. It’s a conflict between the religious and the “not-so-religious” me.
As a I was leaving the Cashier’s Office one morning our paths crossed. “Good morning, Sister. I greeted her warmly. “What’s good in the morning!” She answered grouchily. You see! You might say that it’s just a minor incident. Maybe I got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, or maybe it was that this slight was just the last in a long line. Her response and attitude irked me. It confirmed what I thought were just hearsays about her shrewish tendencies. Images from History class about the abusive clergy during the Spanish occupation flickered through my mind – so long gone, or so I thought. She had hit me hard where it hurts.
That response was cliche for me. I had read it in stories and even heard it said many times. I never thought somebody would actually blurt it out right in my face. Those words were delivered not jokingly. At that moment she was like a boxer swinging a mean uppercut to my unsuspecting jaw with the intention of knocking the living daylights out of me. She almost succeeded. It was not quite a knock-out-punch. I didn’t crumble to the ground but rather stood there momentarily stunned at how rude a woman wearing a habit could be. By the time all of this transpired she was already a meter or so past me. Before the referee could finish the standing eight count, I regained my composure and some small shred of my pride. I was deemed fit to continue to fight. I followed the Sister to her office.
The secretary tried to stop me from entering the President’s office for protocol requires that I should have a prior appointment before I could see the head of the institution. That day nobody could prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. I ignored her and went straight inside. The Sister President was seemingly surprised to see me standing in front of her. We entered into a tepid discourse.
I refused when she asked me to sit down. “What’s the problem, sister?” I asked calmly but emphatically. “Why did you respond to me that way in the hallway earlier?”
“Sir,” her use of the honorific successfully retained the ambient temperature of our conversation, “I was just trying to discourage you from discussing any matter earlier. You’re holding a stack of paper so I thought you would talk to me.” I responded by saying that common sense dictates to me that I should not discuss any matter with persons in authority in the middle of nowhere unless they otherwise ask me to do so.
When she told me I was so sensitive, I said, “I am Sister. Please don’t do that to me again.” That was my own version of a mean uppercut and I added the following as if delivering an overhand punch for a coup de grace, “I’ve got job to do. I must go. Thanks for your time Sister.”
I saw how her face turned crimson as I delivered those parting shots.
I knew I had just voluntarily written my name on her list of endangered species – that I had become a marked man, but I had to do what I ought.
Our encounter that day became news all over the campus. Somebody told somebody who told somebody else. It wasn’t me. It was either her or the secretary… or perhaps there was a hidden CCTV camera that caught the action and beamed the drama live all over the campus.
Later, one of my colleagues gave me an unsolicited advice, “Bear in mind that the sisters don’t stay in a particular school forever. Sooner or later they will be transferred to other schools within their congregation. Just learn to co-exist with that sister until such time she leaves.”
That I know. She may be transferred to another school – or get an extension of another three years (and maybe a bonus of an extra year) just like her predecessor, whom I wished had not been replaced.
I found myself responding, “I can’t bear another year with her. What if she gets a term extension of three years?” For me, that would be like an eternity.
I felt like I stopped growing personally and professionally since she took over as head of the institution. Her leadership style and interpersonal skills, for me, was plain awful and downright unacceptable. I could not stay longer and expect to be productive and effective in the performance of my job. I kept questioning her policies and her moral ascendancy to lead. So, one of us ought to go. And of course, it wasn’t her.
NEXT: “Where do you go from here?”