By Sch. Robbie Paraan, SJ
They say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. At Sacred Heart School–Ateneo de Cebu, we have a different saying: “Don’t judge a teacher by his/her bulletin board.” That’s a joke, of course. But it is somewhat half-meant. Because in SHS-AdC, there are a few tasks more important than bulletin board designing and crafting.
She shrugged, tilted her head to the side, and crinkled her nose when I asked her about her bulletin board. That response is classic NancyToledo, the adviser of the graduating honors class of the high school. She always seems so unsure of herself and her work even though she has been doing this for 14 years. Later on, a week into the school year, her bulletin board was judged the best among all senior classes. And without any doubt, it was: She used yellow, orange, and red strips of cartolina for the simple yet arresting sunset background. On this she pasted silhouette cutouts of different animals—a solitary lion under a solitary tree, two giraffes, a mother elephant nursing her babies, and several meerkats hanging around a small hill. The zebra stripe border was a tasteful touch to the African savanna.
It’s unfair to describe anyone by their work, but I can’t help doing that with Nancy and her bulletin board. The simplicity of thought, the capacity to imagine and think outside the box, the resourcefulness to make do with what she has, and the vision and execution to bring all these together to communicate not only a message, but a story—all these make her one of the most effective teachers in SHS-AdC. Observing her interaction with the students in the classroom is like watching a long drawn-out rally in a tennis match: both teacher and student pass the ball of the subject matter back and forth with much focus and intensity. The analogy is imperfect though since Nancy never sees her students as opponents to be defeated. Rather, she sees them as her own teachers, even going so far as calling them her formators.
When not in the classroom, she could be found at the President’s office, hunched over her laptop crafting a presentation or a memo for Fr. Manny Uy for whom she works as Executive Assistant. She does her job with so much dedication and efficiency that whenever we joke her boss about the possibility of her transferring to another post, he cringes and tells us to stay away from her. She lets her hair down—not literally since she always wears it in a tight bun—in the faculty room among her teacher friends. It is not unusual to find her at the end of the day with colleagues, sharing some food, jokes, and classroom anecdotes.
Our Jesuit schools have been blessed with people of Nancy’s breed, those who have distinguished themselves for their dedication, commitment, and fidelity to our common Ignatian mission. However, to be distinguished is something which the ever humble Nancy will probably recoil from. She has never wanted to stand out or be recognized. But she can’t help but do so, just by her state of life.
For four years now—a time she calls “very, very graced”—Nancy has been living the life of a single blessed. In deeply religious Cebu, choosing to lead a vowed life without the support of any congregation is probably more revolutionary than being a sister. Ironically though, it is precisely her desire not to be set apart and to instead minister to her family that made her decide in favor of single blessedness. She makes it clear though that the choice of vocation is secondary, “What draws me to it is still the relationship with Christ. It’s not the single life per se that I’m pursuing. It’s the form of life that I feel would lead me closest to Christ.”
Nancy claims that she did not grow up deeply religious. She would join her family at mass and in praying the rosary, but that was it. Even during her college years at Ateneo de Manila, she was never a member of any religiously-affiliated organization nor did she join any retreat. The tipping point came in her early years of teaching at SHS-AdC, when she underwent the Retreat in Daily Life with the late Fr. Cy Unson. She remembers Fr. Cy as being “so cool and chill” which mattered to her since she would usually go to him for their weekly sessions feeling that she had not prayedenough, or that she was doing it incorrectly.
Through Fr. Cy’s guidance, Nancy’s life began to be structured around prayer. This opened her to praying the right devotions, to reading the right books, and asking the bigger vocation questions. It was a slow process but, little by little, she began to embrace Ignatian spirituality, particularly the discerning way of life it demanded. The witnessing of the Jesuits in school also struck a chord with her. She narrates how she came in at a time when Fr. Asterio Katigbak was already very sickly, and yet how he still gave himself fully to his work. The many regents who have passed through the school, especially during her first years, have helped as well. They were just the same age and yet they already seemed to be fully committed. “It really made me think about my own commitment. Their presence made me think, ‘What about me?’”
Now, Nancy evokes the same response from Jesuits and countless others with whom she works. Having been formed by the Jesuits and all the lay men and women who have carried the Ignatian tradition in this institution, Nancy is now a real inspiration for all of us. She has become a model of the grateful and humble, discerning and free person Ignatius endeavors for his sons and daughters. She will probably deny this, but her words betray the fact that she has discovered the pearl of great price which continues to elude many: Christ himself. “At the heart of it all is the relationship with the Sacred Heart, with God. That filled in the gaps with what was lacking in my faith formation. It stopped being the faith that was handed over to me and started to be the faith that I was actively trying faithfully to pursue. The whole thing just fit.”
On the day she finished her bulletin board design, Nancy posted a picture of it on her Facebook account together with the lyrics to “Circle of Life”—the theme song of “The Lion King”. It fit, of course! Anyone who grew up with Simba, Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa would’ve seen how the iconic song completes the story of the bulletin board. And for us, who have been graced to know Nancy, it also provides the perfect storybook ending. Nancy’s no lion—she reminds me more of a gazelle—but like Simba, she has finally found her place on the path unwinding.
Sch. Robbie Paraan, SJ is currently teaching at the Ateneo de Naga High School. This article originally appeared in THE WINDHOVER (Year XVI Volume 2 2014). Photos by Anthony Suralta.