The classroom was a spacious rectangular hall with large grated windows that admitted an abundance of light and air. Along the two sides extended three wide tiers of stone covered with wood, filled with students arranged in alphabetical order. At the end opposite the entrance, under a print of St. Thomas Aquinas, rose the professor’s chair on an elevated platform with a little stairway on each side. With the exception of a beautiful blackboard in a narra frame, scarcely ever used, since there was still written on it the viva that had appeared on the opening day, no furniture, either useful or useless, was to be seen. The walls, painted white and covered with glazed tiles to prevent scratches, were entirely bare, having neither a drawing nor a picture, nor even an outline of any physical apparatus. The students had no need of any, no one missed the practical instruction in an extremely experimental science; for years and years it has been so taught and the country has not been upset, but continues just as ever. Now and then some little instrument descended from heaven and was exhibited to the class from a distance, like the monstrance to the prostrate worshipers—look, but touch not! From time to time, when some complacent professor appeared, one day in the year was set aside for visiting the mysterious laboratory and gazing from without at the puzzling apparatus arranged in glass cases. No one could complain, for on that day there were to be seen quantities of brass and glassware, tubes, disks, wheels, bells, and the like—the exhibition did not get beyond that, and the country was not upset.
Besides, the students were convinced that those instruments had not been purchased for them—the friars would be fools! The laboratory was intended to be shown to the visitors and the high officials who came from the Peninsula, so that upon seeing it they would nod their heads with satisfaction, while their guide would smile, as if to say, “Eh, you thought you were going to find some backward monks! Well, we’re right up with the times—we have a laboratory!”
The visitors and high officials, after being handsomely entertained, would then write in their Travels or Memoirs: “The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas of Manila, in charge of the enlightened Dominican Order, possesses a magnificent physical laboratory for the instruction of youth. Some two hundred and fifty students annually study this subject, but whether from apathy, indolence, the limited capacity of the Indian, or some other ethnological or incomprehensible reason, up to now there has not developed a Lavoisier, a Secchi, or a Tyndall, not even in miniature, in the Malay-Filipino race.”
Yet, to be exact, we will say that in this laboratory are held the classes of thirty or forty advanced students, under the direction of an instructor who performs his duties well enough, but as the greater part of these students come from the Ateneo of the Jesuits, where science is taught practically in the laboratory itself, its utility does not come to be so great as it would be if it could be utilized by the two hundred and fifty who pay their matriculation fees, buy their books, memorize them, and waste a year to know nothing afterwards. As a result, with the exception of some rare usher or janitor who has had charge of the museum for years, no one has ever been known to get any advantage from the lessons memorized with so great effort.
But let us return to the class. The professor was a young Dominican, who had filled several chairs in San Juan de Letran with zeal and good repute. He had the reputation of being a great logician as well as a profound philosopher, and was one of the most promising in his clique. His elders treated him with consideration, while the younger men envied him, for there were also cliques among them. This was the third year of his professorship and, although the first in which he had taught physics and chemistry, he already passed for a sage, not only with the complaisant students but also among the other nomadic professors. Padre Millon did not belong to the common crowd who each year change their subject in order to acquire scientific knowledge, students among other students, with the difference only that they follow a single course, that they quiz instead of being quizzed, that they have a better knowledge of Castilian, and that they are not examined at the completion of the course. Padre Millon went deeply into science, knew the physics of Aristotle and Padre Amat, read carefully his “Ramos,” and sometimes glanced at “Ganot.” With all that, he would often shake his head with an air of doubt, as he smiled and murmured: “transeat.” In regard to chemistry, no common knowledge was attributed to him after he had taken as a premise the statement of St. Thomas that water is a mixture and proved plainly that the Angelic Doctor had long forestalled Berzelius, Gay-Lussac, Bunsen, and other more or less presumptuous materialists. Moreover, in spite of having been an instructor in geography, he still entertained certain doubts as to the rotundity of the earth and smiled maliciously when its rotation and revolution around the sun were mentioned, as he recited the verses
“El mentir de las estrellas
Es un cómodo mentir.”
He also smiled maliciously in the presence of certain physical theories and considered visionary, if not actually insane, the Jesuit Secchi, to whom he imputed the making of triangulations on the host as a result of his astronomical mania, for which reason it was said that he had been forbidden to celebrate mass. Many persons also noticed in him some aversion to the sciences that he taught, but these vagaries were trifles, scholarly and religious prejudices that were easily explained, not only by the fact that the physical sciences were eminently practical, of pure observation and deduction, while his forte was philosophy, purely speculative, of abstraction and induction, but also because, like any good Dominican, jealous of the fame of his order, he could hardly feel any affection for a science in which none of his brethren had excelled—he was the first who did not accept the chemistry of St. Thomas Aquinas—and in which so much renown had been acquired by hostile, or rather, let us say, rival orders.
This was the professor who that morning called the roll and directed many of the students to recite the lesson from memory, word for word. The phonographs got into operation, some well, some ill, some stammering, and received their grades. He who recited without an error earned a good mark and he who made more than three mistakes a bad mark.
A fat boy with a sleepy face and hair as stiff and hard as the bristles of a brush yawned until he seemed to be about to dislocate his jaws, and stretched himself with his arms extended as though he were in his bed. The professor saw this and wished to startle him.
“Eh, there, sleepy-head! What’s this? Lazy, too, so it’s sure you don’t know the lesson, ha?”
Padre Millon not only used the depreciative tu with the students, like a good friar, but he also addressed them in the slang of the markets, a practise that he had acquired from the professor of canonical law: whether that reverend gentleman wished to humble the students or the sacred decrees of the councils is a question not yet settled, in spite of the great attention that has been given to it.
This question, instead of offending the class, amused them, and many laughed—it was a daily occurrence. But the sleeper did not laugh; he arose with a bound, rubbed his eyes, and, as though a steam-engine were turning the phonograph, began to recite.
“The name of mirror is applied to all polished surfaces intended to produce by the reflection of light the images of the objects placed before said surfaces. From the substances that form these surfaces, they are divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors—”
“Stop, stop, stop!” interrupted the professor. “Heavens, what a rattle! We are at the point where the mirrors are divided into metallic and glass, eh? Now if I should present to you a block of wood, a piece of kamagon for instance, well polished and varnished, or a slab of black marble well burnished, or a square of jet, which would reflect the images of objects placed before them, how would you classify those mirrors?”
Whether he did not know what to answer or did not understand the question, the student tried to get out of the difficulty by demonstrating that he knew the lesson, so he rushed on like a torrent.
“The first are composed of brass or an alloy of different metals and the second of a sheet of glass, with its two sides well polished, one of which has an amalgam of tin adhering to it.”
“Tut, tut, tut! That’s not it! I say to you ‘Dominus vobiscum,’ and you answer me with ‘Requiescat in pace!’ ”
The worthy professor then repeated the question in the vernacular of the markets, interspersed with cosas and abás at every moment.
The poor youth did not know how to get out of the quandary: he doubted whether to include the kamagon with the metals, or the marble with glasses, and leave the jet as a neutral substance, until Juanito Pelaez maliciously prompted him:
“The mirror of kamagon among the wooden mirrors.”
The incautious youth repeated this aloud and half the class was convulsed with laughter.
“A good sample of wood you are yourself!” exclaimed the professor, laughing in spite of himself. “Let’s see from what you would define a mirror—from a surface per se, in quantum est superficies, or from a substance that forms the surface, or from the substance upon which the surface rests, the raw material, modified by the attribute ‘surface,’ since it is clear that, surface being an accidental property of bodies, it cannot exist without substance. Let’s see now—what do you say?”
“I? Nothing!” the wretched boy was about to reply, for he did not understand what it was all about, confused as he was by so many surfaces and so many accidents that smote cruelly on his ears, but a sense of shame restrained him. Filled with anguish and breaking into a cold perspiration, he began to repeat between his teeth: “The name of mirror is applied to all polished surfaces—”
“Ergo, per te, the mirror is the surface,” angled the professor. “Well, then, clear up this difficulty. If the surface is the mirror, it must be of no consequence to the ‘essence’ of the mirror what may be found behind this surface, since what is behind it does not affect the ‘essence’ that is before it, id est, the surface, quae super faciem est, quia vocatur superficies, facies ea quae supra videtur. Do you admit that or do you not admit it?”
The poor youth’s hair stood up straighter than ever, as though acted upon by some magnetic force.
“Do you admit it or do you not admit it?”
“Anything! Whatever you wish, Padre,” was his thought, but he did not dare to express it from fear of ridicule. That was a dilemma indeed, and he had never been in a worse one. He had a vague idea that the most innocent thing could not be admitted to the friars but that they, or rather their estates and curacies, would get out of it all the results and advantages imaginable. So his good angel prompted him to deny everything with all the energy of his soul and refractoriness of his hair, and he was about to shout a proud nego, for the reason that he who denies everything does not compromise himself in anything, as a certain lawyer had once told him; but the evil habit of disregarding the dictates of one’s own conscience, of having little faith in legal folk, and of seeking aid from others where one is sufficient unto himself, was his undoing. His companions, especially Juanito Pelaez, were making signs to him to admit it, so he let himself be carried away by his evil destiny and exclaimed, “Concedo, Padre,” in a voice as faltering as though he were saying, “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.”
“Concedo antecedentum,” echoed the professor, smiling maliciously. “Ergo, I can scratch the mercury off a looking-glass, put in its place a piece of bibinka, and we shall still have a mirror, eh? Now what shall we have?”
The youth gazed at his prompters, but seeing them surprised and speechless, contracted his features into an expression of bitterest reproach. “Deus meus, Deus meus, quare dereliquiste me,” said his troubled eyes, while his lips muttered “Linintikan!” Vainly he coughed, fumbled at his shirt-bosom, stood first on one foot and then on the other, but found no answer.
“Come now, what have we?” urged the professor, enjoying the effect of his reasoning.
“Bibinka!” whispered Juanito Pelaez. “Bibinka!”
“Shut up, you fool!” cried the desperate youth, hoping to get out of the difficulty by turning it into a complaint.
“Let’s see, Juanito, if you can answer the question for me,” the professor then said to Pelaez, who was one of his pets.
The latter rose slowly, not without first giving Penitente, who followed him on the roll, a nudge that meant, “Don’t forget to prompt me.”
“Nego consequentiam, Padre,” he replied resolutely.
“Aha, then probo consequentiam! Per te, the polished surface constitutes the ‘essence’ of the mirror—”
“Nego suppositum!” interrupted Juanito, as he felt Placido pulling at his coat.
“How? Per te—”
“Ergo, you believe that what is behind affects what is in front?”
“Nego!” the student cried with still more ardor, feeling another jerk at his coat.
Juanito, or rather Placido, who was prompting him, was unconsciously adopting Chinese tactics: not to admit the most inoffensive foreigner in order not to be invaded.
“Then where are we?” asked the professor, somewhat disconcerted, and looking uneasily at the refractory student. “Does the substance behind affect, or does it not affect, the surface?”
To this precise and categorical question, a kind of ultimatum, Juanito did not know what to reply and his coat offered no suggestions. In vain he made signs to Placido, but Placido himself was in doubt. Juanito then took advantage of a moment in which the professor was staring at a student who was cautiously and secretly taking off the shoes that hurt his feet, to step heavily on Placido’s toes and whisper, “Tell me, hurry up, tell me!”
“I distinguish—Get out! What an ass you are!” yelled Placido unreservedly, as he stared with angry eyes and rubbed his hand over his patent-leather shoe.
The professor heard the cry, stared at the pair, and guessed what had happened.
“Listen, you meddler,” he addressed Placido, “I wasn’t questioning you, but since you think you can save others, let’s see if you can save yourself, salva te ipsum, and decide this question.”
Juanito sat down in content, and as a mark of gratitude stuck out his tongue at his prompter, who had arisen blushing with shame and muttering incoherent excuses.
For a moment Padre Millon regarded him as one gloating over a favorite dish. What a good thing it would be to humiliate and hold up to ridicule that dudish boy, always smartly dressed, with head erect and serene look! It would be a deed of charity, so the charitable professor applied himself to it with all his heart, slowly repeating the question.
“The book says that the metallic mirrors are made of brass and an alloy of different metals—is that true or is it not true?”
“So the book says, Padre.”
“Liber dixit, ergo ita est. Don’t pretend that you know more than the book does. It then adds that the glass mirrors are made of a sheet of glass whose two surfaces are well polished, one of them having applied to it an amalgam of tin, nota bene, an amalgam of tin! Is that true?”
“If the book says so, Padre.”
“Is tin a metal?”
“It seems so, Padre. The book says so.”
“It is, it is, and the word amalgam means that it is compounded with mercury, which is also a metal. Ergo, a glass mirror is a metallic mirror; ergo, the terms of the distinction are confused; ergo, the classification is imperfect—how do you explain that, meddler?”
He emphasized the ergos and the familiar “you’s” with indescribable relish, at the same time winking, as though to say, “You’re done for.”
“It means that, it means that—” stammered Placido.
“It means that you haven’t learned the lesson, you petty meddler, you don’t understand it yourself, and yet you prompt your neighbor!”
The class took no offense, but on the contrary many thought the epithet funny and laughed. Placido bit his lips.
“What’s your name?” the professor asked him.
“Placido,” was the curt reply.
“Aha! Placido Penitente, although you look more like Placido the Prompter—or the Prompted. But, Penitent, I’m going to impose some penance on you for your promptings.”
Pleased with his play on words, he ordered the youth to recite the lesson, and the latter, in the state of mind to which he was reduced, made more than three mistakes. Shaking his head up and down, the professor slowly opened the register and slowly scanned it while he called off the names in a low voice.
“Palencia—Palomo—Panganiban—Pedraza—Pelado—Pelaez—Penitents, aha! Placido Penitente, fifteen unexcused absences—”
Placido started up. “Fifteen absences, Padre?”
“Fifteen unexcused absences,” continued the professor, “so that you only lack one to be dropped from the roll.”
“Fifteen absences, fifteen absences,” repeated Placido in amazement. “I’ve never been absent more than four times, and with today, perhaps five.”
“Jesso, jesso, monseer,” replied the professor, examining the youth over his gold eye-glasses. “You confess that you have missed five times, and God knows if you may have missed oftener. Atqui, as I rarely call the roll, every time I catch any one I put five marks against him; ergo, how many are five times five? Have you forgotten the multiplication table? Five times five?”
“Correct, correct! Thus you’ve still got away with ten, because I have caught you only three times. Huh, if I had caught you every time—Now, how many are three times five?”
“Fifteen, right you are!” concluded the professor, closing the register. “If you miss once more—out of doors with you, get out! Ah, now a mark for the failure in the daily lesson.”
He again opened the register, sought out the name, and entered the mark. “Come, only one mark,” he said, “since you hadn’t any before.”
“But, Padre,” exclaimed Placido, restraining himself, “if your Reverence puts a mark against me for failing in the lesson, your Reverence owes it to me to erase the one for absence that you have put against me for today.”
His Reverence made no answer. First he slowly entered the mark, then contemplated it with his head on one side,—the mark must be artistic,—closed the register, and asked with great sarcasm, “Abá, and why so, sir?”
“Because I can’t conceive, Padre, how one can be absent from the class and at the same time recite the lesson in it. Your Reverence is saying that to be is not to be.”
“Nakú, a metaphysician, but a rather premature one! So you can’t conceive of it, eh? Sed patet experientia and contra experientiam negantem, fusilibus est arguendum, do you understand? And can’t you conceive, with your philosophical head, that one can be absent from the class and not know the lesson at the same time? Is it a fact that absence necessarily implies knowledge? What do you say to that, philosophaster?”
This last epithet was the drop of water that made the full cup overflow. Placido enjoyed among his friends the reputation of being a philosopher, so he lost his patience, threw down his book, arose, and faced the professor.
“Enough, Padre, enough! Your Reverence can put all the marks against me that you wish, but you haven’t the right to insult me. Your Reverence may stay with the class, I can’t stand any more.” Without further farewell, he stalked away.
The class was astounded; such an assumption of dignity had scarcely ever been seen, and who would have thought it of Placido Penitente? The surprised professor bit his lips and shook his head threateningly as he watched him depart. Then in a trembling voice he began his preachment on the same old theme, delivered however with more energy and more eloquence. It dealt with the growing arrogance, the innate ingratitude, the presumption, the lack of respect for superiors, the pride that the spirit of darkness infused in the young, the lack of manners, the absence of courtesy, and so on. From this he passed to coarse jests and sarcasm over the presumption which some good-for-nothing “prompters” had of teaching their teachers by establishing an academy for instruction in Castilian.
“Aha, aha!” he moralized, “those who the day before yesterday scarcely knew how to say, ‘Yes, Padre,’ ‘No, Padre,’ now want to know more than those who have grown gray teaching them. He who wishes to learn, will learn, academies or no academies! Undoubtedly that fellow who has just gone out is one of those in the project. Castilian is in good hands with such guardians! When are you going to get the time to attend the academy if you have scarcely enough to fulfill your duties in the regular classes? We wish that you may all know Spanish and that you pronounce it well, so that you won’t split our ear-drums with your twist of expression and your ‘p’s’; but first business and then pleasure: finish your studies first, and afterwards learn Castilian, and all become clerks, if you so wish.”
So he went on with his harangue until the bell rang and the class was over. The two hundred and thirty-four students, after reciting their prayers, went out as ignorant as when they went in, but breathing more freely, as if a great weight had been lifted from them. Each youth had lost another hour of his life and with it a portion of his dignity and self-respect, and in exchange there was an increase of discontent, of aversion to study, of resentment in their hearts. After all this ask for knowledge, dignity, gratitude!
De nobis, post haec, tristis sententia fertur!
Just as the two hundred and thirty-four spent their class hours, so the thousands of students who preceded them have spent theirs, and, if matters do not mend, so will those yet to come spend theirs, and be brutalized, while wounded dignity and youthful enthusiasm will be converted into hatred and sloth, like the waves that become polluted along one part of the shore and roll on one after another, each in succession depositing a larger sediment of filth. But yet He who from eternity watches the consequences of a deed develop like a thread through the loom of the centuries, He who weighs the value of a second and has ordained for His creatures as an elemental law progress and development, He, if He is just, will demand a strict accounting from those who must render it, of the millions of intelligences darkened and blinded, of human dignity trampled upon in millions of His creatures, and of the incalculable time lost and effort wasted! And if the teachings of the Gospel are based on truth, so also will these have to answer—the millions and millions who do not know how to preserve the light of their intelligences and their dignity of mind, as the master demanded an accounting from the cowardly servant for the talent that he let be taken from him.