• U.S.

In a U.S. School: A Homecoming

7 minute read
Ralph Graves

The 30 alumni and alumnae of Brent School, in the Philippine mountain city of Baguio, were in for some cultural shocks. Having traveled 7,000 or 8,000 miles to celebrate the 75th anniversary of a school most of them had not seen for more than 40 years, they found something quite different from the tight little American island they had once known.

The old buildings were still there, still painted cream and green, and pine trees still cover much of the campus. But new buildings accommodate a student body that has more than tripled in size. More than 50 of the students and many of the faculty and staff are Filipinos, a radical departure from the past. Once a week, as required by national law, the entire student body Lines up to witness the raising of the Philippine flag and to sing in Tagalog the national anthem, Pambansang Awit.

At an anniversary performance in the school gym, half the musical program consisted of Philippine songs and dances. At the dedication of the new media center, the guest speaker was the Philippine Minister of Education. Responding to him, Headmaster Peter Caleb said, “We are proud to be part of the Republic of the Philippines.” This would never have been said 40 years ago—and only partly because the Republic did not then exist. Although Brent students felt affection for the Filipino houseboys and, indeed, the Filipino people, no one dreamed that any of them might actually enroll. This was an American school in the Philippines, not a Philippine school.

The old school was the most determinedly American institution the alumni had ever known. Founded by the Episcopal Church in 1909, it had not accepted Filipino students before World War II, and no Filipinos were on its faculty. Americans may have prided themselves on a benign colonial policy, but not that benign. Almost all the 100 students used to be Americans, the sons and daughters of Army and Navy officers, Government officials and businessmen who had some how landed in the Philippines.

Philippine influences on the school were few. Filipino cooks and houseboys took care of the 40 boarders, the school played some Filipino teams in basketball and baseball, and a few native items occasionally invaded the staunchly American menu. Mangoes were popular. Pechay, the odorous Philippine cabbage, was despised. But because students, under the eye of a faculty member at each table, were expected to eat everything on their plates, it was difficult to avoid. One boy, more imaginative and more opposed to pechay than most, went to unusual lengths. Learning that pechay was on the night’s menu, he took a hair from the longest-haired girl in school, worked it into his plate while the teacher was not looking and then pretended to discover it. “Look at this, sir!” he announced, grasping the end of the hair and then slowly and endlessly drawing it out of the hated vegetable. That night his entire table was excused from having to eat pechay.

But otherwise, Brent School was irrepressibly American. Students and faculty dressed American, talked and thought American. Although the school was coed, it was so rigorously chaperoned that the closest sexual contact was the dances in the living room of the girls’ dorm, where the music was Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. Virtually the only entertainment that they did not provide for themselves was to walk into Baguio once a week to see an American movie. Because they were isolated and totally dependent upon one another, they shared everything, including an innocent and trustful patriotism.

In the summer of 1941 the last graduating class, consisting of two boys and five girls, listened to a commencement address by the U.S. High Commissioner of the Philippines. Six months after this ceremony, the Japanese army invaded the Philippines, and Brent School ceased to exist. Most of its students spent the long war in internment camps.

Six weeks ago, 43 years after graduation, four of the seven members of the class of ’41 were back at school. Along with the other alumni, they had traveled at considerable expense from the U.S. to a country that is not, at the moment, high on anybody’s list of tourist attractions. All were drawn by some indelible imprint.

When the alumni began the reunion ritual of photographing one another, ancient images returned. The remnants of each class posed for portraits. The complete starting lineup of Brent’s best basketball team (15-3) turned out to be present for a picture. So did the three original inhabitants of the “toddler dorm,” the home of the youngest boarding students.

The alumni learned that Headmaster Caleb is vigorously restoring the school to academic excellence and is also restoring some of its old traditions. In the dining room, faculty members rotate from table to table every two weeks so that each teacher gets to know each boarding student. Birthdays are once again celebrated with a rectangular cake that the student himself cuts, handing out the four corners to his closest friends. But there was nothing Caleb could do about the “lucky tree” that the basketball team used to touch on its way to every game. The Japanese army had cut it down.

All through the week of intense recollection, the alumni kept asking one another what made this school and this bond so special—special enough for all of them to have kept in touch with one another over so many years, special enough to bring them back together from such distances for this occasion.

The answers are not a bad prescription for present-day educators, parents and, especially, students to bear in mind:

“Brent was special because of how we treated one another and cared about one another. We were away from our parents. This was our family.”

“Everybody was made to feel part of it. It’s been with me all my life. When my daughter, who knows my singing, learned that I had been in the choir, she said, ‘They must have let you in everything.'”

“My friends think it’s wonderful that anyone my age could be so excited about a high school reunion. The difference is that we all knew one another so well. We saw everybody every day.”

“I won four letters in basketball and four in baseball. In the U.S., I wouldn’t even have made the team.”

“Each of us was needed. We couldn’t field a team, couldn’t put on a play, couldn’t do anything unless every one of us participated. To be really needed when you are so young is very rare.”

“If you are an American and make a friend abroad, the bond is tenfold stronger than with a friend made at home. Add to that the climactic experience of the war bringing it all to an end, and it has left a bond stronger than any I have ever seen.”

On their last day at Brent, three alumni teetering on the edge of 60 set off to find Senior Cave. This had been a modest hillside hole, concealed from the faculty by distance and foliage, where as boys they once spent many afternoons smoking cigarettes and drinking, for want of wisdom, cherry brandy. The day was warm, the hill steep, the pine-needle footing slippery, and the men were all overweight.

They could not find their cave, which, like their youth, had vanished under more than 40 years of erosion. But as the three Americans, puffing and sweating, clambered back up the steep Philippine hillside, they knew they had shared the pleasure of searching for it.

—By Ralph Graves

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