My first day in Ateneo de Manila University wasn't spent in a classroom. Instead, I was among the hundreds of clueless freshmen who were being indoctrinated the school's policies, practices, and ethos in the event that was called ORSEM. I remember my emotions then: one part exulting in the freedom--freedom from the conservative all-boys Catholic school I was affiliated with for thirteen years--and another part that despaired as 99% of the faces I saw were complete strangers. Worse was the fact that I had yet to meet my blockmates, my would-be classmates for the next four years. I imagined our meeting would be a soiree of sorts where we'd be paired off and if you lucked out, well, you were stuck with them for your entire college life.
On that first day, I didn't immediately get to meet my classmates in Creative Writing. Instead, our seating arrangement was dependent on our English class. My section was labeled R01--the first group in the regular class. In many ways, I wondered if I was in the first English class because of the degree I was pursuing. R01 was my English Block, people I'd be stuck with for an entire school year. Finding R01 was neither too difficulty nor too easy: it was located at the left-most column of the gym and I merely had to wade through the crowd. As I was bumping into people and avoiding eye contact, I realized one thing: I wasn't in high school anymore and I'd actually have female classmates! The shy part of me felt trepidation but the heart-broken part (I got turned down by my crush that summer) of me saw it as an opportunity for a second chance at romance. Me being a guy, I was hoping for someone cute to be in my class. When I finally got to R01, everyone was sitting down and facing the opposite direction. All I saw were people's hair and it was from that vantage that I deduced who was female and who wasn't. As far as I could tell, all of them were girls (and in fact I'd later find out that in a class of 30+, there would only be six of us who were guys). Moving to the side, I tried to catch a glimpse of their faces and I thought I'd approach the prettiest one. For some strange reason, girls tend to pair up with other girls so the lone, vulnerable girl in the group was nowhere to be seen. By approaching one, I approached her partner too. The one that caught my eye was this petite girl with the most optimistic of eyes. I gathered my courage and introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Charles, and I'm one of your new classmates," I said. She turned around and had a voice that was even more pleasant than I could have imagined. "I'm Ana," she said, flashing me one of the prettiest smiles I had ever witnessed. I honestly wished it ended there but then she introduced me to her companion. "This is Em," Ana said. And then I knew I had to converse with Em, even if I wanted to give Ana my entire attention.
It's funny how things worked out, which is to say they never go as planned. Ana was kind and charming (and in fact if I could cut out my heart and offer it to her I would) but I felt more kinship with Em (and then later Ria) because she was an anime/manga fan. That same week, I also decided that I would court a different girl from a different block, and so I spent the next four years trying to win her heart (I didn't). I'd like to think I'm a one-woman guy so as pretty as my English classmates were (the type that you'd be proud to bring to your prom), I wasn't looking or intending to court anyone else. As for Ana, we were arranged alphabetically in English class and since my surname was Tan, I was sitting at the back, and all I saw was everyone else's hair. Nonetheless, Ana caught my eye: she wasn't as proud as Camille, nor was she as childish as Candice. She somehow struck the balance between innocence and sophistication and easily fitted the stereotype of the girl next door... or the kid sister you never had.
The most memorable moment I had of Ana was on Valentine's Day. When everyone was receiving roses (one even plucked the petals and stored them inside her Coleman jug), Ana's suitor blew them all away in the melodrama department by having a huge oil painting of a blue rose delivered to our class. It caught everyone's attention, whether via the sheer size, the art itself, or the gesture. I didn't personally know the guy but I thought that hey, if anyone was going to court Ana, it might as well be him. Several weeks later, Ana had a new boyfriend but I never knew if it was the same person. But the boyfriend seemed like the pleasant type but then again, the less you know a person, the more pleasant they seem to be (ever had the experience where you're more distrustful of the person you know than a complete stranger?). Anyway, Ana and her boyfriend appeared to be together even until graduation and so I thought that the next time I'd hear from them would be for the marriage ceremony.
The next time I encountered Ana was during Neil Gaiman's visit at Rockwell. That event was actually a reunion of sorts as I saw a couple of acquaintances I had lost contact with. The first thing I usually notice about Ana was her smile and her eyes. During that event, they were both hidden. Ana wore shades and somehow, she felt less energetic. As far as appearances though, Ana didn't seem to age. She was easily as sixteen as when I had first met her. I said hello and would have stayed to chat longer had I not other commitments (for one thing, I was lacking sleep at the time because we hosted the Good Charlotte concert the previous night and second, I was entertaining a friend who was visiting from the US).
Last weekend, our meeting with the Lit Critters ended and I accompanied Elbert to the exit of A Different Bookstore. Apparently his fellow teachers were waiting for him as he had another gimmick after our appointment. There were three of them and they all looked familiar but Ana stood out. She was as youthful as I remember her but thankfully, I could sense none of the gloom that surrounded her the last time we met. It's nice to know that she's teaching--a fate that she shares with her other classmates from English class. But I knew everything was right with the world when I saw her smile. Ana was happy: what more could I ask for?