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No matter what dreamers think

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Jul 16, 2021 3:12 pm

It all ended with a ghost of a sigh, my college years.

What began with the zest that could fuel a whole city for years began to simmer down immediately for no better reason than I was bored stiff of college life. I wanted something more than the commonplace odor of tables and chairs and cheap perfume and cobwebs and talk of the latest romantic item in school and fancy cars and all the cock-and-bull students unearth within the campus.

I wanted my life to be on a par with my dream of being a doctor of medicine. I dreamt big when I was in my teens. A heart surgeon, why not? Thus, the University of Santo Tomas was the place to be. Born in a family preyed upon by all sorts of cardiovascular accidents, I believed that the dream was cut out for me early on.

I likewise saw myself as a writer and journalist should my dream of being a doctor flounder later on. Even as young as eight, I was, and still am, fascinated with words.

My being a hapless bookworm might have been the culprit. I couldn’t tell a pipe dream from reality. As early as 14, I already had about a thousand books in my personal library, more than half of which I’ve read from cover to cover. From Russian classics to spy-vs-spy potboilers, I hardly left anything to chance. It was my one and only vice next to smoking.

University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Photo by Tristan Tamayo/Wikipedia

Problem was that I was too immersed in the fantasy that I didn’t see the meteor coming. Long before my junior year ended, I was out the gates of the University of Santo Tomas for behavior unbecoming of a Catholic student. Worse, I was too drunk and much too irascible to notice.

Life went from being a dream to a nightmare shortly after that. I leapt from one university to the other to waste whatever was left of borrowed time and money. Sooner than I could say “hello,” the two other schools I enrolled in kicked me out faster than I could complete my tuition. Again, for behavior unbecoming.

Recently I came across Facebook posts by students ranting sadly about how their dreams “have failed” all because they were refused entry into the universities of their choice. It saddens me how swiftly kids nowadays hang up the gloves just because things didn’t work out the way they planned.

The third and last college was only too certain that my presence there was, in fact, hazardous to students’ health, thus their decision to close their gates on me. The day I questioned Freud’s psychoanalytic theory found me suspended for two days. My professor had no soft spot for anyone calling Freud a “sex-starved schizophrenic.”

The years that trickled by weren’t so kind. By then I was the father of two wonderful children, thus the need for a stable job. Between turning into an armed robber and a stevedore, I chose the latter. The next four years saw me hauling produce with my bare hands the size of a brontosaurus: 1.9 tons of meat and canned goods each day for P100.

To bag an extra P200-P300, the return trip to Manila had me digging my hands, without gloves, into busted freezers crawling with inch-thick live worms the size of human thumbs on spoiled hotdogs and Christmas ham.

The hours-long trips to the provinces, however, offered me ample time to catch up on my readings. Each day, I’d drag a novel to my trips to keep me company. Failing health eventually caught up with me and forced me to throw in the towel. It was a short four-year-stretch, one I was only too glad to leave behind.

University of the Philippines in Diliman, QC. Photo from UP’s Facebook page

Not long after this, a friend gave me a call and urged me to join a newspaper company. My rather thin resume scarcely helped, hence I ended up as an editorial assistant, quite the fancy name back then for janitor. For two years I dusted the newsroom library, swept its musty floors, delivered correspondences, cleaned out the trash, and brewed coffee for the editors. During mornings when all lay still, I edited the front page.

My first stint as a writer arrived when a reporter called in sick one day. The deadline loomed and left the editor in a bind. I boldly approached the editor and said that I could do the interview and write the story if only he’d let me. He turned with this look in his eyes, wondering why the janitor knew how to speak English. Long and short of it: I got the assignment.

That was close to 40 years ago. I haven’t stopped writing since.

Recently I came across Facebook posts by students ranting sadly about how their dreams “have failed” all because they were refused entry into the universities of their choice. It saddens me how swiftly kids nowadays hang up the gloves just because things didn’t work out the way they planned.

My squandering my college days is not something I'm proud of. I was a college dropout with nothing more to look forward to but a life as stevedore. However, allow me to say that dreams have a way of taking a different route than the one previously planned.

University of Santo Tomas, which kicked me out in my junior year (and rightly so) published, years later, two of my books. The University of the Philippines, too, was one dream I did not get to see. Decades later, I had the honor of being a fellow of the 53rd UP National Writers Workshop for Mid-Career Authors, with two of my books (I, Journalist in 2020 and View from the Foxhole in 2022 I was recently told) getting the nod from UP Press.

I have also been invited to lecture in both universities on journalism and creative writing, things I never thought I'd be doing. So, don't give up on the dream, not just yet. One thing I've learned is that dreams don't give up on the dreamer too easily.

No matter what the dreamer thinks.