Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Boy Who Wasn't There

On July 22, a birthday was quietly celebrated in my house for a boy who turned 16. He has been living in my house since he was 12. His mother has been my constant companion, translator, and protector since late 2007. And after three years of living under the same roof, the boy and I remain almost total strangers.

I am willing to take some of the blame for this, but the boy is no day at the beach, either. He was always, I am told, quiet and self-effacing. I would often fail to notice that he was there. Walking around the house on a cool afternoon, I would be convinced I was alone until I saw his feet sticking out from behind a door, sitting there reading his bible.

His older brother, then 14, lived with us at first, until some of his actions around my remote barangay - like stealing fish out of a nearby fish farm - persuaded his mother to send him to live with his older sister. He was a far more interesting boy, to say the least. Tall, and light-skinned, he possessed that unmistakable but mysterious something that makes the opposite sex do double-takes. Five of them would come to the window of his room every morning to whisper him awake. Sitting in a friend's sala one evening, I heard a commotion outside the door when a girl proclaimed her love for him and then burst into tears. He just sat on the floor in front of the TV, paying no attention to the poor girl outside.

After his older brother's departure, the boy settled into a routine of doing nothing. When he arrived in my house he was, at the age of 12, a second grade drop-out. He gave no indications of what he intended to do with the rest of his life until I had had enough of his sullenness, his sneaking comings and goings, and proposed to him that he return to school with an allowance of five hundred pesos (a little more than $10) every month. I only did it to get him out of my house during the day, five days a week.

This change of outlook apparently had such an immeasurable impact on his life that he somehow found Jesus - with a vengeance. In fact, he couldn't have devised a better revenge on the man who usurped his good for nothing father. I couldn't have been less pleased if he'd announced he was a Republican. And he couldn't have opted for the gentle Roman Catholic Jesus, whose worship is conducted once a week in church. No, he had to be "born again" - a boisterous, exclamatory worship of Jesus, conducted everywhere: in their hole in the wall church, at the dinner table, before bed, in fact just about every time it occurs to them to emit their passionate cries of devotion to their savior. The boy was made aware of my utter disdain for his new found faith when I told his mother to tell him to shut his trap one night when his bed time prayers were beginning to drown out the comforting drone of my electric fan.

Since I have a bible of my own, in the King James text, I found a passage in the Matthew gospel that might persuade him to hold it down. The passage seemed to be addressed directly to him and his born again crowd:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:5-6)

This strategy seemed to work. Or else it was his mother translating to him all the things I told her I would do to him if he didn't shut the hell up.

For awhile, I began to suspect that the boy was gay. It was only little clues, like when he got a cellphone and the only thing he photographed with the built-in camera was his own face, in painfully simpering, precious poses. Then there were the deeply homoerotic messages to Jesus that he left on the covers of his school notebooks - "Jesus Lover of My Soul" being the most obvious. Or when the neighbors' girls would parade past my verandah in their pink high school skirts, and he would duck inside until they were out of sight. It bothered me because it was one less thing - sexuality - that we had in common, one more possible obstruction to our ever communicating.

By the time he turned 15, cutting an odd figure in the third grade, he went to all the bother of taking a placement test, and waited six months to be informed that, while he had already achieved the level of Grade Three (with honors, I should add), his score had met the basic requirements for Grade Two. I took no satisfaction from the fact that he had scored highest in "communication arts" (English). The test was irrefutable proof, that could not have been encouraging to his teachers, that getting perfect grades the hard way, year in and year out, wasn't good enough for the Philippine Department of Education.

So, unless he is willing to take the test again this November and wait until next June to get the results, he will have to face graduating high school at the age of 22. Since a proposal is now being considered to lengthen the current K-10 school program to the American K-12 model, he will have another two years of his life to postpone. And because there are no dependable jobs here in the provinces even for a high school graduate, the boy will probably be living with his mother, who lives with me, long after he becomes a man.

If he doesn't advance to a higher grade soon and has to attend the fifth grade next year, and if he doesn't get discouraged by the prospect of his life passing him by while he hangs around a bunch of kids, (and if the proposal before DepEd passes) he will be ready for college when he is 24. I honestly can't see him wasting his time for much longer. Whatever choice he makes, his mother seems to believe - whether I do or not - that there will always be a place for him in my house.

But I suppose the real reason why I find this silent boy so insufferable is because he reminds me too much of me. I was just as much a loner when I was a boy, and rather more so. My father probably thought I was gay for awhile. I was a living exemplar of the Confucian saying, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I learned from a very early age how to make myself invisible. This probably explains why I never found God, because I made it so impossible for Him to find me.

I am confident enough, and saddened, that he will perhaps never read these words or comprehend how much it pains me to know what a failure I have been as a step-father. If I had more influence over him, I would try to get him away from the people in his church, where he spends so much of his time. I should thank them, perhaps, for giving him the ego-gratification that he found nowhere else. But I have serious misgivings about a religion that makes it impossible for a 14 year old boy to act like any other normal boy, that instructs him to act like a lunatic at every opportunity and that makes living in the same world as everyone else harder than it already is. Never mind my doubts about its setting its flock apart, of turning them into suspicious-looking strangers who associate only with one another, who act as if they are special, set apart, exceptional, different. Occasionally, when his mother got drunk on tuba (coconut wine), he would scold her. I simply told him in untranslated English to get the hell out, taste life for ten years and then come back and judge his mother. This boy was different enough without Jesus making it easier for him to be weird. His faith may indeed bring some joy to him, but only at great cost. It's hard enough to figure out how to be a man without getting Jesus mixed up in the process.

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