Welcome to the family

"Samahan mo ako sa car wash," my dad told me.

I was a little scared. It's been two years since I took up driving lessons, and during those years I haven't been on the steering wheel often. The farthest I've been without a driving instructor was, say, ten kilometers from our house - and I still struggled with parking, particularly because I have knee-jerk reactions.

But, since the family now has three vehicles to take care of - my mom's car, my dad's company car, and a SUV we bought last week - my dad figured I should accompany him more often, so we can have two cars washed at the same time. We could've done it before. Well, we did, but only once.

I didn't need to panic, because I still have my basic driving knowledge intact. That, and the car wash wasn't really far: it was just a few streets away, smack in the middle of our subdivision, on the main road, in front of the main recreation area, or what we conveniently called the plaza. My drive took half a song on the radio.

There were a lot of cars queued up, so after I struggled with parking again - knee-jerk reactions, again - I took a stroll on the plaza. It wasn't much different from when I first saw it, as a five-year-old who thought it was paradise. There was a simple playground, with two sets of monkey bars and three swings: I'd often go there whenever my mom goes to the neighborhood market. But I enjoyed the concrete walkways the most, since they resembled the city maps I enjoyed looking at as a kid. Sixteen years later, they don't seem too exciting, since the grass has grown around it - neglected, regrettably - and I have, too. You can't swing in monkey bars that's two-thirds of your height, not that I ever did when it was twice as tall as me.

There was also a basketball court nearby, although I never went there alone as a kid. It felt like a very forbidding place: tall basketball ring, many square feet of concrete, and teenagers playing most of the time. The few times I've been there was with family - mine, and hundreds of others.

Each year, my old school held this big event. Family Day was one March sunday where families of students would mingle with each other, usually over games, but often over each class' performances. Field demonstrations, they called it. We'd spend five weeks practicing during our PE classes, during which our usual teacher was taken over by this choreographer - Michael was his name, I think, if I remember the name stitched on his custom-made green jogging pants. He was intimidating but we knew he knew his stuff.

I actually dreaded Family Day. Yes, I enjoyed it, partly because there'd be no classes the Monday after, but getting there was quite a chore. We'd wear these costumes early in the morning and assemble at the school grounds, which was certainly packed. "Huwag kang pagpapawisan" is a common instruction, and an impossible one: we're packed, it's a Sunday, and we're going to a parade from the school to the plaza. And then you'd stand in the sun, waiting anxiously for your turn to perform. But once you finish, you feel really satisfied. You don't have to feel anxious about screwing up anymore.

The other thing I enjoyed are the welcome speeches, this ritual at the start of each Family Day, where each class president will stand on stage and deliver a speech. I only got to do this once - maybe twice, since I remember being elected class president twice, in a fascinating yet innocent microcosm of Philippine politics - and I clearly remember the first word I told the crowd: "Quiet!"

The point, in hindsight, was that it offered the school's whole family - administrators, teachers, other staff, students, and their families - time together. It felt tedious back then - big basketball court, long walks under the sun, all those costumes - but it was a day when we all just enjoyed each other's company. For the most part, it worked: while I can attribute a part of it to my being barely ten, my elementary years were some of the best years of my life. It was mostly the reason why I, a cynical high school student, watched the school celebrate its tenth year - no longer a Family Day per se, but more of a long play staged at the theater at Zobel, still packed with many people.

I remember feeling bad back then. I could've stayed in that school and not have to go through the crap that was my first three months in an intimidating high school environment. I could've stayed and seen my face in the glossy souvenir program - they're going big time and I'm not part of it! I'm one of the original students and I'm not part of it!

At the end of the presentation, all of the students - at least those who took part in the play - went up the stage. The principal, Mrs. Guiriba, talked at length about family. "This is the Mother Theresa School family," I remember her saying. "The students, old and new, and you," referring to the parents, and pretty much everybody else.

Earlier that day, we met, and she - the woman who often told me about the virtues of self-control, even before I was diagnosed with ADHD - gave me a tight hug.

There was this song we were taught in school. Surely you were also taught Welcome to the Family, complete with actions. Walking through the plaza, with its overgrown grass and a new set of teenagers playing ball, I started humming the tune, the lyrics already at the tip of the tongue. And then I finally remembered.

Welcome to the family. We're glad that you have come to share your life with us as we grow in love. And may we always be to you what God would have us be: a family always there to be strong and to lean on.

Clenched fists. Lean to the side.

As I went home - I went first, since my car, which isn't really my car, was finished first - I wondered where it all went. You know, that feeling of satisfaction? There I was, dealing with my knee-jerk reactions, and wondering why the car wash people turned my wipers on, and anxious about driving the car. I have seven months left on my driving license, and two years of work experience, and a whole decade of life since I graduated from elementary, and I'm wondering why it all got so complicated. And I was still humming the song, trying not to act out the actions, since I had my hands on the steering wheel. I figured, we all have to move on.

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