The Sunny Professor

18 May

Our first assignment for Journalism 102 (News Reporting) class under Professor Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan was to write a lead on the walkouts staged against the budget cut for SUCs. She returned our works the following week and did so with a disclaimer: “I have here your papers. Please don’t be discouraged.”

Naturally, we were.

As terror slowly crept into our faces, she added with a smile: “You still have a long way to go, but you’ll improve.” That was something we held on to throughout the semester.

Ma’am put a premium on working with what was given — no more, no less — while gleaning the relevance and repercussions of each news event. “There are no small beats — only small reporters,” she once said.

She liked to challenge students to become better versions of themselves, both inside and outside the classroom. Mid-January this year, I contemplated on running as an independent candidate in the college student council. The idea of running without a party seemed daunting, and I decided to wait it out instead and try my luck next voting season instead.

On January 18, the point of discussion turned to the upcoming council elections and Ma’am asked if any of us were participating. No one raised their hand. She told our class then, “Oh, you should run. It’s a memorable experience.”

I would later find out that the deadline for filing certificates of candidacy was moved to the following day, January 19. After much deliberation and somewhat scurried preparation, I trooped to the admin office that afternoon and submitted my COC.

It was in J102 that I delivered my first room-to-room speech. I hadn’t gotten the hang of my spiel yet, and I struggled with some parts of it. Ma’am and I were seated at opposite ends of the conference table, so whenever I looked ahead, I would see her looking right back, listening, eyes darting only when she glanced at the pamphlet I had distributed.

She was as much a storyteller as she was a journalist. Our sessions were filled with her lively anecdotes, observations and indispensable instructions. Despite her propensity for sharing, Ma’am valued tuning in to the stories of others’ as much as her own. One of her pieces of advice for us was to talk to people who are usually ignored, because beneath their unassuming silence lay a trove of valuable first-hand information.

Ma’am Simbulan was among the most patient professors I have ever had. On days when we had an article due, it was almost inevitable for some of us students to be tardy or absent. She never chided anyone in front of the class, even those who crept in a good 30 or more minutes after the start of the session.

Once, my classmate Eunille Santos and I rushed to finish an article for 102 in the journalism department. Ma’am arrived past 10 a.m. and upon seeing us huddled over laptop and computer, asked in her usual calm voice: “Anong ginagawa niyo rito? Let’s go.” In the brief seconds before she closed the department door behind her, we replied with a smile and uneasy laughter: “Sige lang po, Ma’am.”

Did Eunille and I try to enter the room only to find the door locked? No. Did we learn and submit the rest of our articles on time after that? Yes.

She was also quick to laugh at herself. Many times, she blamed her lack of spatial awareness for her inability to maneuver the live-view projector we used in class.

Much has been said and written about Ma’am Simbulan’s strong sense of conviction. She was as steadfast in her principles as she was with the littlest things. During the campaign trail, she invited me and candidates from the opposing political parties for a press conference. My classmates and I were to cover the event and submit a news article about it the following week.

At the end of the conference, she said expressed her gratitude to each candidate. “Thank you, Alisa,” she told the ISA secretary hopeful. To the STAND-UP chairperson bet, she said, “Thank you, Norman.” Then she turned to me. Ma’am addressed everyone by their last name inside the classroom, with no exceptions. “Thank you (pause), Miss Britanico. You’re still my student, so you’re still Miss Britanico to me,” she said with a grin.

Ma’am once said that journalism was a Promethean endeavor. Facts are not flowers reporters can pick at their own leisure — they are more like game animals, always on the move, always demanding a chase. But of the 5Ws and H of journalism, I find that the “why” is especially difficult to come by. Some questions just don’t have immediate answers, and even when they do, the answers are not always gratifying.

I have been monitoring the news all week, and there has been great attention to the conduct of traffic in Commonwealth Avenue since the accident. Last Monday, radio announcers broadcasted that the MMDA will install motorcycle patrol units along the “killer highway” to immediately respond to, if not thwart, any more road accidents in the area.

Sometimes when the answer to “why” seems too out of reach, “what now” is the next best question to pin down. Then the “what,” no matter how undesirable or tragic, will be given context, at the very least. At the risk of having Ma’am Simbulan tsk-tsk at me for lack of attribution, I shall quote something she said as relayed to the worldwide web by one of her students: “I hope you will use your skills to turn this country upside down.”

When we recall Ma’am Simbulan’s teachings and how they have touched us in professional and personal ways, we will do so the way our mind’s eyes see her — with a smile. Just as the brightest sun is made to set, her life has come to an end, but not without streaming rays of hope and warmth to the ones she has left behind.

She once told our class of young journalists, “You still have a long way to go, but you’ll improve.” That is something we will continue to hold on to, for ourselves and for the country she so loved and served. Because in death as in life, Ma’am Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan not only taught by example, but even bettered the instruction.

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