HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 26, 2017 – 12:00am
I teach a subject under the Communications Department at the Ateneo de Manila University. It is called Special Topics in Performance and Practice. It is mainly a discursive class tackling diverse topics. The discussions are about World Music, the history of OPM, the Filipino bilingual experience, Filipino humor, Myths and Symbols, and the Creative Mind. We end with a conversation on the relationship between performers, writers, makers of products — anyone who makes a pitch to any audience — and the people who subscribe or buy into them. It answers the questions: “What is the promise?” and “Why do we buy into them?”
I give lots of assignments to my students. Some of them are reflection papers, but the more interesting assignments are the experiential ones. By this, I mean I assign them to do things that will drive the point of the discussions beyond an intellectual discourse and into real “felt” experience.
For example, part of the creativity module talks about how we can actually and proactively set the tone for the kind of day we want to have. On a certain day, I assign the girls to show up in long gowns for the class, and the guys are asked to wear shoes that don’t match, short pants, and a coat and tie. I then ask them what the experience is like walking down the school corridors dressed up differently from everyone they see. It is an exercise in one’s power to break routine and create new experiences. I had a female student who wore a chador, and it was such a personally moving experience for her. It made her feel empathy and compassion for all Muslim women everywhere.
Throughout the semester I give unconventional assignments and homework.
The last assignment I give at the end of the semester is a lot of fun. It is, in a sense, a summary of alI the lessons from the various subjects we’ve discussed in class. World Music and OPM talk about how people contribute and share music that reflects themselves, and how one needs to come from one’s local setting to be able to contribute in a universal way. The bilingualism module talks about how we switch languages depending on the subject and the person we are talking to. We live in two worlds that we cross back and forth between many times a day. We “wear” two cultures.
The creativity module presents five rules that one must apply in real life. It takes the subject of creativity away from a mind exercise and into a real-life application. The subject of myth talks about old and new symbols and narratives that we as a people connect to and which help us make sense of the world.
The underlying values in many of the subjects are about having authentic experiences and being conscious and present to them. It is not just about having an intellectual discussion that you forget once the course is over.
For the final assignment, I ask my students to take me, their teacher, to a place where I have never been. I tell them that the place I wish to be brought to is their world. In four minutes, they must show me something that I have never seen before.
I ask them to present one thing they are very passionate about. I ask them to do so with the aim of helping me to know them better while surprising and delighting me, or giving me an experience of shock and awe in the process. I ask them to share something about themselves and present it in the most interesting manner.
It can be a daunting experience for many of them. They must go inward and share something of themselves. It is a big challenge. They must not only present something they are passionate about but must do so with creativity, truth and passion.
I had one student who loved baking cookies. What she did was recite the recipe in rap form accompanied with a beat box, and then gave out cookies for everyone to taste afterward.
Some students who appeared to be shy and introverted throughout the semester would surprise everyone by breaking into a Broadway song and dance routine.
I have seen students recite poems, do soliloquies, dance, play the guitar, sing, etc. I had one student who designed bags and shared her story about how she managed to sell them in big outlets and establish her own brand.
I had another who shared her love for photography by showing her favorite sunset photos and explaining how she took them. She also gave away photos after.
One of the most memorable presentations was from a male student who was a cross-dresser. Throughout the semester, he would show up in class dressed however he felt on the particular day — sometimes as male, sometimes as female.
During the last day, he showed up as a male. Before his performance, he explained to us how he had to come out twice to his parents, first as a gay man, and second as a cross-dresser. It was traumatic for him and for them, he said. For his presentation, he sat down on a chair in front of a mirror and put on makeup while the Disney song Reflections played. When the song reached the central part with the lyrics, “Who is this girl I see, staring straight back at me? When will my reflection show who I am inside?”, he stood up and in one bold, flawless motion tore off his male outfit and instantly transposed into a woman in a flaming flowing red dress.
It was breathtakingly executed and the performance was shining with authenticity. He got a standing ovation from the class!
I have been teaching this subject for more than eight semesters now. I have received quite a few positive comments from my students. Some of them said it was a class they will never forget. Occasionally, I have foreign students who sign up for my class. I had one French student whose main track was economics. She changed her life path when she returned to Paris. In place of the office job she though she would be doing, she became a writer, a museum curator and a disk jockey. She told me it was my class that opened her to other possibilities.
As this semester comes to an end, I look at my students and thank them for being a great class. I know I have taken them to a place where they have never been and have raised their awareness and consciousness about themselves and the world they live in. They have learned a lot, and so have I. Just as many of my students in previous semesters still keep in touch with me, I am looking forward to hearing from my latest batch.
I can’t wait till I offer this class again.