BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, April 5, 2010

Manuel V. Pangilinan, the graduation speaker; Iris Cecilia Gonzales, the graduate

Wearing a short black sleeveless dress, I stepped out of the house at around 1:30 in the afternoon of March 27. The dark blue toga on one hand and a small ecru bag on the other, I arrived at the Ateneo grounds a little before 2 p.m.

I was beaming with excitement. In a few hours, I would be graduating. It is the culmination of two years of many sleepless, insane thesis nights.

A few hours before, I just landed from Brussels, Belgium where I spent a week as a participant in an international blogging competition. Needless to say, I was jet lagged and in limbo but the excitement prevailed. I was on cloud nine as the marching song reverberated in the air.

Every step towards the Ateneo Highschool covered courts represented, for me, a piece of the parchment paper called The Diploma.

I learned just there that MVP would deliver the graduation speech. How lucky I am, I thought. I don't know MVP personally. I never had a chance to cover him. I never met the man.

In short, I was curious to hear him speak.

So there I was on the front row, waiting for MVP's graduation speech. I took out my recorder and the camera that I sneaked in.

He was the second speaker. The first speaker, a student, delivered a totally forgettable speech. I don't remember a word he said. Mushy, shallow and really cheesy. Or maybe, I'm just too old for such an oratorical masturbation.

And so when it was MVP's turn on the podium, I was all ears -- recorder on my lap and a camera strapped around my neck.

Just a few minutes into the speech, I was impressed. He talked confidently, exuding an aura of an intelligent billionaire. It was short and sweet and it seemed like every word came out of his soul.

After the speech, I clapped and I smiled and yes -- as graduation speeches should be -- I was moved and inspired -- big time. I would have given him a standing ovation but I was busy sending text messages to people I love because MVP said so.

"First, hug and kiss those who helped get you to this day – parents, grandparents, friends, teachers. If you’re too shy or uptight to do that, please do the old fashioned handshake thing. But I recommend a hug and a kiss. Don’t let the sun go down today without saying thank you to someone," he said.

That was my favorite part.

I also liked the part about money. Hearing it from a billionaire impressed me.

"I‘m not going to stand here and tell you that‘s it‘s not about money, because money is sweet. I like money. It‘s good for buying companies and things – and for putting up a few buildings here and there for Ateneo. But having a lot of money does not totally make you a successful person. What you want is both money and meaning. You want your life and your career to be meaningful. Because meaning is what brings real richness to your life, to be surrounded by people you can truly work with – because you trust and treasure them, and they cherish you in return. That‘s when you‘re really rich, that‘s when you really succeed," he said.

Impressive, really. I even told friends how much I enjoyed his speech.

Fast forward to the weekend. I received loads of e-mails, messages on Facebook and text messages about how I and over 2,000 graduates have been had.

"No wonder it was one of the best graduation speeches you've heard," friends and colleagues told me.

I was shaking my head in disbelief. How -- just how -- can a successful billionaire who moves so smoothly in the corporate world -- make such a huge mistake?

How hard it is to attribute a line or a word? I wished he simply did the proper thing and attributed the words: As Oprah Winfrey said...As Barack Obama said...As J.K. Rowling said....Better yet, I wished he hired honest and trusted writers.

But he did not. Unbelievable, really.

Nevertheless, the damage was not enough to break my heart. The words he borrowed moved me the day I heard him and that can't be undone.

But the irony of it all makes me laugh. Indeed, money is cool but it can't buy everything. It can't even buy an honest-to-goodness graduation speech.

I don't have a lot of money that can buy buildings left and right. I just have enough for the little things I truly enjoy -- a hot cup of freshly-brewed cappuccino or ice cold beer shared with good people. Or Winston Lights.

I don't even need money for the best things in life. Sunsets. Sunrise. Downtown by Petula Clark. Happy trips. Words. Photographs.

And in a little corner of the shack I live in, there's a parchment paper with a "Master of Arts Degree" and my name written on it -- my badge for two years of sheer hard work, mad mornings and evenings -- every word my own, not a word plagiarized nor borrowed without attribution.

This and many other little things are the ones that bring meaning into my life.

I'm not going to grieve or feel insulted over the intellectual dishonesty that marked my graduation.

That day was one of my happiest in recent memory. It was, for me, a fine afternoon, an Oscar moment. Nothing can change that.

MVP, unfortunately for him, can't say the same thing about that day. Ever.

(The views expressed here are solely my own and do not in any way represent the views of any organization or institution I am affiliated with).