[Even as] the Filipinos were prepared for self-government [under US colonialism], the department of education was never entrusted to any Filipino. … In exchange for a smattering of English, we yielded our souls.

—Renato Constantino, “The Miseducation of the Filipino”

My limp Tagalog becomes more taut with immersion and effort. My mouth muscles relax as my vowel sounds narrow. When I’m in Manila, I remember how much physical work I put in to sound “American.” And I wonder if people would treat me differently if I had never started trying.

The trouble with Filipino class in high school was that it skipped from fundamentals to Noli Me Tangere. The few kids like me who had been raised speaking zero Tagalog at home were left struggling with all the verb conjugations more complex than past, present, and future. I didn’t even know how to say a sentence like “The car was going to be fixed,” and now I was supposed to discuss nationalist allegory through the figures of Sisa and Padre Damaso? I still can’t explain when to conjugate verbs with um-, mag-, or in-; I just know by instinct sometimes, but often I don’t and my mom will correct me. And I always use the paki- form for imperative verbs because it seems disrespectful not to.

(We didn’t actually read Noli Me Tangere. We just watched the TV adaptation, and then I would skim the Locsin English translation to clarify what had happened in that day’s episode.)

For all of high school I carried around a fat indigo Tagalog-English, English-Tagalog dictionary. It was the one by Leo English, who I now find was, of all things, an Australian Redemptorist priest. He began compiling it while incarcerated during the war. Most Tagalog-English dictionaries you could buy at National Bookstore were useless; this was the only one that was portable but served its purpose. Whenever we had to write in class, I’d sit by myself paging through it for 40 minutes just to write a 6th-grade-level paragraph. Everyone else would finish the assignment in 10 minutes and spend the rest of the time fooling around. “Have you ever seen a flying stapler?” Sir Peralta, my IB Filipino teacher, would threaten anyone who got too makulit. He’d tease “Nag-didiksyunaryo na naman si Athena,” but he gave me the schoolwide “Most Improved” language award my senior year out of pity. By the time I graduated, chunks of the dictionary had given up on their cheap glue, and the cover bore the strain of all the times I had flung the book into my locker. Using it was like looking at a defeated clown whose missing teeth gaped in his sad smile.