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[OPINION] The scope of loss: 5 years after the UP Faculty Center fire

The news erupted sometime after midnight. Though my tasks for the night remained unfinished, I was glued to my social media feeds as they generated an avalanche of updates.

Once it was verified that the reports were neither fake nor part of a cruel April Fools’ prank, that there was indeed a fire and it was in fact the FC being razed to the ground, I felt an anguish and panic that only kept worsening as the incident went on. While the FC was no paradise – with its terrible indoor lighting, poor ventilation, cramped spaces, and dilapidated facilities – it was, nevertheless, to professors and to many of their students, a home in many ways, an intimate bazaar in the greater marketplace of ideas, a welcoming shelter for the inquisitive mind.

The FC in Diliman housed the nation’s leading scholars and writers in the humanities and social sciences – highly-regarded in their fields, engaged in different levels of work across geographical and thematic boundaries. The range and diversity of intellectual activity within the building shaped part of the university's esteemed academic reputation. For any newcomer, it made walking inside the FC as dazzling as it was intimidating, surrounded as you were by names synonymous with expertise and authority.

Within its walls contained incalculable resources on nearly all facets of Filipino life. Scholars – the Waray poet, the medical anthropologist, the Spanish translator, the specialist on Martial Law underground literature – built, organized, and curated archives that were uniquely theirs, reflecting their encounters and experiences, representing a lifetime of adventures. All of these had gone up in flames.

When it was almost definite that there were no human casualties, it felt opportune – perhaps to placate the growing sense of doom – to recall and record the things that had likely been left inside the burning building. I attempted to list down, item per item, the most probable casualties, but then it felt too depressing, as impossible as it was pointless. The list seemed limitless, quite characteristic of the building's eclecticism: rare books and artifacts, paintings and century-old manuscripts, wartime propaganda materials, American-era textbooks, various lists and compilations of references, historical maps, photographs, engravings, and drawings. 

There had also been materials drawn from disparate fields: transcripts and recordings of oral interviews, specialized dictionaries, slides and notes from lectures and seminars, notebooks and photographs from years of fieldwork, department and student records, research and teaching paraphernalia in English, Filipino, and a dozen regional and foreign languages, footage and scripts of old and recent performances by the Dulaang UP, bound dissertations, duplicate copies of published works in refereed journals and edited books, and so on and so forth.   

The process of listing things as if the center were only an academic repository felt myopic and selfish. When I heard a professor saying that his little room in the FC contained his entire life, I realized I had neglected a critical element in the scope of loss: the things that might not carry intellectual value but were irreplaceable in ways unknown to me. I had completely missed, for instance, the valuables that humanized the building’s interiors: photographs of loved ones, gifts from sons and daughters, handwritten letters from distant relatives, postcards from friends and lovers, souvenirs to commemorate travels and research trips.

I had missed, too, the mundane and meaningful encounters, planned and spontaneous, that manifested the center's spirit: the crowded corridors during office hours and student registration, the rehearsals in Teatro Hermogenes Ylagan, the lectures and debates in Recto Hall, the classes and seminars in the Botor and Arcellana Libraries, the film viewings in sketchy audiovisual rooms, and the casual moments of mentorship and friendship over lunch or merienda in the basement cafeteria or upstairs faculty lounge. The minutiae of the everyday made university life more intimate, more enjoyable, and in difficult times, more bearable. All these we had lost to the flames, too. 

***

After the fire, though we felt like we needed to pause the semester, we tried to set our lives back to normal as if nothing had happened. We followed the monotony of campus life, eager to move on despite the ravaged building in our midst. Rumors on the origin of the fire floated around, finding their way into casual conversation. And around us seemed to be a sense of solidarity, as if we were cheering for each other, harboring wishes for the center's immediate reconstruction and rehabilitation.

That week our professor in political philosophy made it clear that classes would continue. But when he entered the room for the first time, he didn’t carry his usual thermos of coffee. Instead, he had a bottle of calamansi juice bought from the campus vendors. As he settled into his seat, we waited in silence for what he had to say. I felt that, in the midst of the destruction – his possessions, his office for the past 30 years, his department, even his thermos, all gone – maybe he would want to express his feelings, to say anything.

But he offered no words, only vague gestures delivered in silence. If he felt grief, and I was sure he did, it was concealed, eventually channeled into his lecture, in which he elaborated on the ideas of John Rawls that had been fleshed out in previous sessions, and drew contentious passages from A Theory of Justice.  

That particular April day, in our old classroom on the third floor of Palma Hall, felt so ordinary that we might have forgotten for a while that something tragic had happened to our community. On this day I felt, too, more palpably than ever, what my professor had meant when he said that he considered himself lucky to teach for a living. He kept going then, patiently engaging with us – idea after idea, question after question – without signs of weariness or distress, doing the job that brought him joy. – Rappler.com

Before coming to Princeton, Jonathan Victor Baldoza earned an MA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from the University of the Philippines, where he studied history and comparative literature.