When I was young, Dad introduced me to the concept of the bucket list. This was shortly after one of our first SCUBA dives together, exploring a submerged mountain, watching a cuttlefish changing color in front of us like a rotund neon starship. I remember the salt taste in my mouth, the ache in my nose from the awkwardly-fitted children’s dive mask as I told Dad that this was the closest we’d ever get to being astronauts.
I didn’t see the look on his face, absorbed as I was by the waves lapping against our banca. I talked about how it was zero gravity, strange alien creatures, life support equipment. Adventure.
I would later find out that Dad was checking “astronaut” off his bucket list, that list of things one must do before one dies. This year, he checked off “Fly a Spitfire,” and that’s our previous story.
When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was to be a pilot. My first movie was either Star Wars or Top Gun, which explains a lot. Mom complained on a trip to Disneyland that the only toys I ever asked for were airplanes. The first item on my bucket list was there from the start.
I became more sensible, of course. I grew up. Learned to be responsible. The school newspaper. The honors section. Dad and I built model airplanes. I decided I wanted to be a teacher. Not a legend, like my mentor, Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan (Mr Pagsi to his students). Just a teacher. A good one, someday. Maybe.
I was as surprised as anyone when I lifted off the runway in 2006, in a genuine, bona fide airplane (I had learned to pronounce “Cessna” correctly at the age of three). I laughed out loud and swatted at the empty air beside me where my instructor should have been. Solo flight.
It took me two circuits to realize why the plane was pulling to the left.
There is a very specific feeling, somewhere between disbelief, joy, and satisfaction, when you do something that was on your list. This is one pleasure that young people don’t realize they have –- to feel something new for the first time. The first time you influence someone’s life in a big way. The first heady rush of sexual attraction, at once so natural and unfamiliar. And of course, the first time you cross something off your bucket list. You need to savor that feeling, memorize it. Because here’s a secret: you will sometimes feel this feeling at the most unexpected times.
I thought I would be as old as Mr Pagsi by the time anyone thought to call me legendary. When Celadon awarded me their Legendary Teacher award at the age of 27, I felt it again. I didn’t particularly feel that I deserved it. But I felt that rush of joy. Another item off my list. One that I had stopped taking seriously some time before.
Sometimes, life tells you in subtle ways that you are doing something you were meant to do. Sometimes, you won’t realize that something was on your bucket list until life gives it to you.
I teach the Ateneo de Manila University’s Introduction to Ateneo Culture and Traditions class, which helps incoming freshmen adjust to college life. Sort of like a cut-rate guidance counsellor. I was expecting a bit of good fun, a little extra cash, a chance to brag about my being a fourth-generation Atenean.
What I got instead was a young woman who burst into tears during what should have been a routine consultation. Her Dad had a stroke. A student begged for advice on what to tell her cousins, whose mother was dying of cancer. In my first year of teaching, in a very conservative Catholic high school, someone snuck a message into an essay. Sir Rivera, I’m gay. What do I do? A young woman, eyes no longer quite so young, talked about her baby boy.
There’s something of a formula for these situations. You listen without judging. You use all your art to convince them that they’re not evil or worthless. You name-drop a guidance counsellor. Then you say farewell, and give them a hug if you’re young and foolish enough, and that’s where the formula breaks down, because nothing in a teacher’s preparations prepares you for the feeling that comes next. I wanted to tell these kids-not-kids that they would be alright. I wanted to do more for them. I felt an urge to prove to them that the world is a good place. I felt…
Sometimes, life gives you something that you never realized you were meant to do. Sometimes something you’d cast aside as a silly dream. Sometimes something you’d never really considered. So that’s why it’s important to check things off your bucket list. Not just for the experience itself. But so that you learn to recognize that feeling, to understand that at this moment, life is giving you something Important.
My suspension of disbelief has been broken since about 2006. Nothing seems impossible anymore. My cup runneth over.
And for the record, “astronaut” is still on my list.
Posted from Manila
January 7, 2015
Thank you to Johans Lucena for Carlo’s photo at Reach for the Sky 2