Okay, this is Miguel as a baby. Isn’t he the cutest thing ever? And so serious-looking even then. I mean, look at him. You’d never figure that his nose would grow to the size it is now because his cheeks were so chubby.
This is Miguel at one year, browsing through a book while the rest of his cousins are bouncing around in front of the camera. Note the absorbed look on his face and the way his little fingers are tracing the illustrations. I’ve been told that Migs was an easy baby to take care of because he was so quiet and well-behaved. All you had to do was dump him in his playpen and drop some toys in with him, and he’d be fine. He wasn’t given to whining or crying or throwing tantrums. He barely even talked, from what I heard.
His parents, his mother especially, used to worry about him, thinking that he had some sort of speech impediment. They even brought him to a couple of doctors but he turned out to be completely normal, except for his acting more like a well-mannered if somewhat abstracted adult rather than a toddler. It was just that people could sense that Miguel was special even then, and it tended to confuse them.
Here he is at two years old, standing in the hallway of the St. Helene Academy preschool—yes, the same St. Helene known for its posh campus, rabidly competitive students, and stratospheric academic standards. His mother wasn’t looking to enroll him when she took him there. She went there to look for Dr. Carmelita Bernardo, who’s this expert on autism and learning disabilities as well as principal of the preschool. I guess you could say she was pretty much at the end of her rope.
They found Dr. Bernardo’s office but she was in a meeting, so her assistant offered to give them a tour of the preschool while they waited for the principal to return. They were shown around the classrooms where singing, arts and crafts and story-telling sessions were going on. Migs watched all this quietly, but they could tell he was getting mighty curious about things. Dr. Bernardo’s assistant allowed him to go join the other kids in theplay area while the two grown-ups finished the tour. Off he went without a backward glance, as excited as his Mama had ever seen him, and she entertained a tiny spark of hope that Miguel might be able to break out of his shell on his own.
She came back five minutes later to a familiar sight: Miguel alone in a corner stacking wooden blocks in neat lines while all the other kids played together and ignored him. The spark of hope in his Mama’s heart died. Even putting him in the middle of a loud, boisterous and extremely social situation couldn’t draw Migs out of the private world he inhabited. She braced herself for the worst.
Dr. Bernardo had finished her meeting by then. She walked to where his mother was watching her boy despairingly, and listened while she voiced her fears about Miguel. The principal observed Migs for a while then, unexpectedly, broke into a smile. “Well, from what I can see, your son might indeed be as special as you believe, Mrs. Santillan. But I’m not sure if you understand what exactly makes him special. Come with me, please.”
They approached Miguel, who looked up from his work and rose to his feet. Dr. Bernardo crouched down until her eyes were almost level with his. “Good morning,” she said. “My name is Dr. Bernardo. What’s your name?”
Miguel glanced at his Mama. “Answer the doctor, dear,” she coaxed. “Say, ‘My name is Miguel.’ Go on.”
He looked back at Dr. Bernardo and tilted his head as if to say, “There’s your answer.” Dr. Bernardo smiled and stuck out her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Miguel.”
“Go on and shake Dr. Bernardo’s hand,” Mama instructed. He shook it cautiously.
“So what are you doing here?” Dr. Bernardo asked, indicating the blocks beside him.
“Playing,” Miguel answered.
“And what are you playing, dear?” Mama prompted. “Are you building a house? Don’t you want to play with the other children?”
Miguel frowned and stared down at his blocks. Dr. Bernardo stood up. “Mrs. Santillan, I assure you, you don’t have anything to worry about,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Miguel.”
“How can you say that after telling me my son is special?” Mama demanded. “Surely there’s a battery of psychological tests you need to conduct—”
Dr. Bernardo shook her head. “He is special. Kindly look closely at the blocks your son has arranged. Miguel, step back please and show your Mommy what you did.”
Miguel moved aside, giving his mother a clear view of his project. The multicolored blocks had letters of the alphabet painted on them, and his Mama’s eyes widened when she saw exactly how Migs had lined up the blocks. “Oh,” she gasped.
“Miguel, can you tell us what you’ve done with these blocks?” Dr. Bernardo asked.
He nodded. “They’re arranged alphabetically,” he said, pointing at the longest row of blocks, and his mother goggled when she heard her “speech-impaired” son pronounce a six-syllable word as if he’d been doing it for years. “See? They start with the letter A, then B and C and D…” He went through each letter, pointing at respective blocks. “I couldn’t find the ‘Z’ block,” he confessed when he got to the end of the row. “So I got another ‘N’ block and put it on its side so it’ll look like a ‘Z’.’”
“Oh,” Mama breathed.
“Very good,” Dr. Bernardo said. “But what about this one?”
“That’s Mama’s name,” he said, nodding at a stack that spelled out MAMA.
“And this row?” She pointed at a smaller stack of blocks that spelled out WIG.
“That’s supposed to be my name but I wasn’t finished yet.” He bent over to flip the W block so it would look like an M. “I couldn’t find any more blocks with letters.”
“Oh my,” Mama squeaked.
“Excellent work, Miguel,” Dr. Bernardo said again before turning to the stunned woman beside her. “Mrs. Santillan, are you aware that your two-year-old son has already learned the alphabet? And can spell?”
“No, I didn’t. I—we let Miguel listen to nursery songs on the cassette player so he must have heard the alphabet being sung. And he’s always looking at books and magazines. But his name. I wrote his name once on a piece of paper to show him, but that was months ago. I can’t believe he remembered it.”
“Yes, well, I think Miguel will be giving his Mommy a few more pleasant surprises in the future,” Dr. Bernardo said. “What else can you do, Miguel? You already know the alphabet very well. I suppose you can already read?”
“Only the words in my picture books,” Miguel said.
“How did you learn how to read?”
“From watching TV. And from my picture books.”
“What about numbers? Can you count?”
“Yeah.” Migs smiled for the first time since they got there. “Numbers is easy.”
“But his toys—he’s not interested in his toys anymore. And he doesn’t play with his cousins. And he hardly ever talks!” If his mother sounded more bewildered than relieved, who could blame her? She woke up that morning prepared to be handed some terrible news about her baby and determined to do everything in her power to protect him from an unkind world, only to find out that not only was her baby better off than she’d thought, he was already leaping ahead of her before she even knew it.
Dr. Bernardo must have known this too, because her next move was to gently take his Mama by the arm and, with a conspiratorial wink at Miguel, steer her toward her office where she proceeded to enlighten her about the intricacies of raising a gifted child. Six months later, Migs started school at St. Helene—at 3rd Level Preschool with the five- and six-year-olds, because by then he could already read words that were not in his picture books. And do simple addition and subtraction because, after all, numbers is easy.
I love this picture. It’s one of my favorites. Miguel is five, and the baby hanging from his arms is his sister, Reese. He won’t get his glasses until he’s ten, but his hair was already messy and sticking out all over the place, and it will remain so for the rest of his life. Unless he plans to go bald someday, and if he ever does shave his head, I swear I’m going to beat him up and duct-tape him to the rails of the MRT.
I love his hair, okay? It’s thick and soft and wavy, and I love running my fingers through it. He says he hates it when I do that because I just make it messier, but he’s never actually pulled away or stopped me. Sometimes I lull him to sleep with his head on my lap and my hands in his hair, so it’s not like he hates it all that much.
His nose, on the other hand—what? His nose is big. If he ever trips and falls down, his nose is going to leave a deep gash in the ground, so you might want to walk behind him where it’s safe.
Haha, just kidding. Nevertheless, his nose is gigantic, and the only reason people don’t notice it is because his glasses get in the way. He owes a lot to those silver wire-rims of his. My workmates at K&M and DM Ross keep raving about how cute and intellectual-looking he is, and it’s all because of his nose and his glasses…and yes, his eyes too…and, oh hell, his lips and his cheekbones and his shoulders and…
Pfft. Suffice it to say that he’s really cute, beaky nose and all. Ahem. Where were we?
Migs as a brother? Well, I’m not really a good judge of sibling relations, being an only child myself—although I do claim Sharm and Erwin as my soul-sisters—but Migs and Reese are pretty close for siblings. Of course, there’s the occasional yelling match between them. Miguel can be anal about neatness and has his books and CDs arranged by genre and alphabetized, while Reese’s idea of neatness is to kick her clothes into “clean” and “dirty” piles on the floor. That the two of them get along at all strikes people as amazing since they seem to be polar opposites, but those two have gone through some hard times together, and the bond between them grew strong because of that. Plus, seeing Miguel act the overbearing older brother to a bratty Reese is kind of funny.
One thing, though: I know Reese sometimes gets frustrated trying to figure her brother out. Once, when she was five, she and her Mama had gone to St. Helene to pick Miguel up. They were running late, and by the time they were swinging into the parking lot of the elementary school, Migs had already been waiting for an hour. They rushed through the hallways, heading straight toward the library, only to be told that Miguel had not set foot inside the library all day.
One of Migs’ teachers appeared and offered to take them to where he was. She led them to the faculty lounge, and there was Miguel, sitting on a couch with his nose buried in a book about Physics. His teacher said he’d asked to be allowed to borrow her books since he’d already gone through most of the books in the library. Migs looked up when Mama called his name, not at all upset at or even aware of the long wait.
“If he weren’t getting perfect grades in everything, I’d be a bit worried about him,” Reese heard the teacher telling her mother. “I swear, he acts more like an adult than a child. It makes me wonder why he’s in such a hurry to grow up.”
Four years later, it happened again. Miguel and Reese were standing side by side in church during the Mass commemorating their Papa’s first death anniversary. Their mother stood on the other side of Miguel, and when Reese heard her Mama’s quiet sniffling over the priest’s gloomy tones, she began to cry a little herself. She was distracted by a touch on her arm; Migs had wrapped his fingers around her wrist in a comforting grip. He looked up at Mama and Mama looked down at him, and whatever it was that she saw in his face made her calm down again. It was like magic.
The gesture had not gone unnoticed. Later, an aunt commented rather insensitively how difficult their mother must have it without a man in the house. Before she could reply, another aunt observed with a twinkle that Migs at ten years old seemed to be filling the role quite nicely. Everyone hummed approvingly, and Reese looked over at her brother, who wore an abstracted look on his face and didn’t even seem to have heard the exchange, and wondered.
When Miguel passed the trial period required by the state university’s special placement program with stellar grades in every subject, thus qualifying, at the age of twelve, as one of the youngest college students ever, Reese couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer.
“What’s the rush, Kuya?” she asked over their celebratory dinner while their Mama and Nay Loring went to fetch dessert.
Miguel looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
“This.” Reese tapped the official-looking documents lying on the table. “What’s your hurry? Why do you want to skip high school entirely?”
Miguel shrugged. “Because I can.”
Reese couldn’t believe it. She herself was looking forward to high school and its promise of freedom, to say nothing of romance and excitement. Those paperbacks and teen flicks she had stockpiled in her room couldn’t be all wrong. She and her friends couldn’t wait to get out of grade school and into the wilds of teenagehood, and here was her super-nerd brother and his amazing brain heading straight on to boring college. Didn’t he know what fun he was going to miss out on? Did he even know the meaning of the word “fun” outside of whatever was printed in the dictionary?
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,” she said, but Mama had returned by then with chocolate cake. Reese swallowed the rest of her speech, which revolved around the opinion that his sense of timing sucked.
She told me that it wasn’t until much later that she admitted to herself that her brother’s timing might be far better than she’d thought.
(insert loose heap of photos)
Here’s a bunch of other photos of Miguel as a child. Here he is at age three at a school presentation, and in case you’re wondering, those are supposed to be cat-ears on his head. At age five at a family vacation in Baguio where he embarrassed his parents by arguing with a family friend and local business tycoon that the city didn’t need a mall taking customers away from small businessmen. At age seven after an awarding ceremony at school where he won first honors in every subject except PE—that’s Reese he’s holding up by the collar of her dress. At age seven wearing a ridiculous Batman costume. At six wearing only his underwear, also Batman. At age five wearing nothing at all.
I guess you’re wondering where I got all these pictures of Migs. You can bet he didn’t give them to me of his own free will, the selfish jerk. The fact is, I stole these pictures from his room. It wasn’t my fault. I wouldn’t have had a chance to steal them if he hadn’t stolen them from his Mama first. You see, his mother had lovingly compiled all the photos of him and Reese into a huge album, the kind with pink roses watermarked on the cover. Now members of his family are prone to dropping by unexpectedy, and his cousins had a habit of dragging that album out and teasing him about it. So one night, totally uncaring of all the hard work his mother had put into it, he snitched the album, tore out all the pictures of him, stuffed them into an old shoebox and shoved this box into a corner of his closet. That’s where I found them, moldering pitifully in their prison. Of course, I had to rescue them.
To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. Reese confessed to me that she’d raided the pink album herself. To keep their Mama from discovering the crime, the siblings stashed the album behind the stacks of cooking magazines their mother loved to collect but never actually read. As far as I know, it’s still there.
He doesn’t know I stole them. Or maybe he does. Doesn’t matter, anyway, because he’s never getting them back. Nah-uh. These pictures are mine now. Mine! Haha!
Uh, could you strike out the last three minutes? They are totally off the record.
Ah, here we are. This is the class picture of Section 1-Eagle. There’s Miguel sitting on the floor in the front row, third from left, wearing his usual my-face-will-crumble-to-dust-if-I-smile expression. And here, sitting five kids away, is Alvin de Guzman, his best friend in the world although they would never, ever admit it to each other. You know how guys are about showing affection to each other.
Anyway, Alvin de Guzman. Class comedian specializing in toilet humor and political incorrectness, Japanese manga fanatic and budding sex offender. He used to have this sketch book that he covered with pages torn from an old issue of Hustler, where he drew or stuck cut-outs of girls he considered wet-dream material. These girls ranged from actresses and porn stars to girls in his class. I hope he gets down on his knees every night and thanks whatever god watches over him that none of these girls ever got their hands on that book. I thought Reese was kidding when she told me about it—Migs certainly never went into the gory details—but really, that sketch book had to be seen to be believed. Not that Alvin ever showed it to me. I stole it from his backpack when I crashed in on one of their male-bonding sessions, and I recognized a few of the girls as Miguel’s former classmates. I once offered to take Alvin down a peg or two, teach him a little lesson about respecting a woman’s power…you get the idea. I was only kidding, mind you, but Migs went ballistic over the idea, and I could tell Reese wasn’t too thrilled about it either. I’ll get into that later.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I like Alvin. He likes me too, although that’s probably due to my being the only older woman he knows who doesn’t secretly intimidate the hell out of him. Also, the boy is a gifted artist. It’s something he and Miguel have in common.
And here. This bean-pole standing fourth from left in the back row, the one with hair like a melting pin cushion. That’s Leo Paras, Miguel’s other best friend from his childhood years. Quietmusician-type who plays guitar like aman possessed. He comes over to Migs’ place with Alvin, and he and I sometimes talk about music and stuff, but I tell you, this guy’s a mystery to me.
Alvin and Leo had been Miguel’s classmates since first grade, but it wasn’t until fourth grade that they decided to draw him into their circle. Before that, Migs didn’t have friends. Who wanted to be friends with the nerdy, arrogant little snot who looked at people as though they were some new and vaguely interesting species of insect? To the other kids, Miguel was a freak. He lurked in corners, read book after book, and earned perfect grades just by breathing. He didn’t talk to any of his classmates outside of class, he lived in the library, and he could finish a grueling mid-term exam in Math in less than five minutes while looking bored out of his mind and get a perfect score besides.
He wasn’t Mr. Ideal Student despite his grades. For one thing, he flatly refused to join any extracurricular activities. PE was the one subject he was actually bad at, so the sports teams were out. He had no acting or musical ability, so the theater and glee clubs were out, too. The academic clubs would have peed in their collective shorts to have him, but he had this way of bluntly pointing out people’s mistakes, even the teachers’, that annoyed people, and frankly, the academic clubs bored him silly. He was popular, but for all the wrong reasons. He was a rebel after a fashion, but no self-respecting delinquent would have a grade-point average that high. And the rich kids actively shunned him after he told them how stupid they were to be lording it over everyone because of something they had no control over and wasn’t theirs to begin with. Until Alvin and Leo came along he didn’t fit in anywhere, and he never bothered to try.
Shit. I promised I’d be fair, right?Alvin and Leo weren’t Miguel’s only childhood friends. See this girl sitting in the second row, third from right? The one whose face looks as if her mom’s done up her pigtailstoo tightly? That’s Melanie, or Lala to her friends. Preppy type, class president and all that. She lives a block away from him and considers this basis enough to stake a claim on him, but for a smart guy Migs can be astonishingly dense. She’s a loyal friend and a good-hearted person, even if her idea of an excitingtimeis getting a discount on the entrance fee to the local planetarium. When we first met she called me a bimbo. When she learned what I really was, she called me worse. But I owe her, you know. In a twisted, emotionally masochistic way that neither of us likes to dwell on. But that’s another story for later.
You know, you are never going to get an interview as interesting as this out of Miguel. He’ll be all formal and polite, sticking only with the facts and responding to questions with the most concise answers. That’s too bad because I’m a fascinating person. Well, at least I’m not as dull as he’s going to make me sound. Oh, it won’t be intentional. Miguel’s just pretty guarded around people. His social skills have vastly improved, but deep inside he will always be an awkward introvert who’d much rather spend his time designing a totally environment-friendly, industrial-use bioplastic than sit around talking. It’s just the way he is.
Lucky for you, there is a way to get him to loosen up. Three ways, in fact. The first involves alcohol, but I wouldn’t recommend this because Migs will immediately become suspicious and refuse to cooperate, and even if you do succeed in getting him smashed, there’s no guarantee that anything he’s going to say will sound coherent.
The second involves a good deal of patience and lots of cuddling, and if I hear that you used this method on him, I will hunt you down and kill you. Capiche?
The third is coffee. The boy is addicted to coffee thanks to all those late nights at the lab. If you ply him with coffee and simply wait, all that excess energy will soon come rushing out of his mouth. You can tell the caffeine is working when he starts interrupting himself and veering off his prepared speech. Here’s the catch: there must be absolutely no stimuli around him, nothing that will distract him and give his brain something to focus on besides the interview. So no blackboards, no models of the atom, no diagrams of complex machinery, no books, no computers, no microscopes, no electronic devices, or he might walk right out on you and head straight to his lab. I suggest an intimate café with bland interior decor, good food and brewed coffee strong enough to melt steel. Do that, and all you’ll need to do afterward is change the batteries in your tape recorder.
This is the last picture I have of Miguel as a child, and this is the one I love best. It’s his eighth birthday, and that’s his Papa beside him with his arm around his shoulders. And Migs is smiling in this picture, one of his rare, genuinely happy smiles. This picture wasn’t with the ones in the shoebox in his closet. He kept this in his desk drawer. He has another picture of his Papa on a gilt silver frame on his book shelf, so every time you’re in his room you always get the feeling you’re being watched. But this picture is special. It’s the last picture taken of him just before his life went screwy. The year he was eight, and the years that followed, were not exactly good years for him and his family.
Hmm. You know, when we agreed to this interview, Migs and I decided to be honest about some of the, uh, unsavory things in our pasts. But some things are too precious to him to be handled by anyone else. It’ll be up to him if he wants to talk about the rest of his childhood.
Now, aren’t you glad I brought these pictures? I didn’t want to just talk about him as if I were reading from his curriculum vitae. Name: Miguel Alejandro Santillan. Born December 29. Finished grade school at St. Helene Academy. Completed the special college placement program of the University of the Philippines Diliman and entered the College of Engineering at age twelve that same year. Graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering, magna cum laude, at age sixteen. Topped the Chemical Engineering Board Exam at age seventeen as one of the youngest takers ever. Is set to graduate with a masters degree in, and plans to go straight into his PhD. Is the youngest faculty member at the College of Engineering. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Booo-ring! You can get all that from the feature article the Inquirer did on him and four other child prodigies six years ago. All you need is to update your info via the Internet. But that run-down of data is dry and inadequate and terribly uninteresting compared to the real thing. There’s so much more to my Migs than that.
Hah. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall when it’s his turn to say something about me. He’d never be able to do me justice. Just don’t forget the coffee, okay?