October 17, 2017, 8:28 am
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‘Space-filler only’

When I was in high school, our English Literature teacher encouraged me to write. Even just for myself. And to establish the self-discipline of writing. Since I respected her immensely, I followed her advice. 

So I got addicted to writing. I’d write short essays when I was bored in class, or when we were asked to listen to classical music by our Music teacher. I don’t even know how I passed Music. Up to now, I can’t remember a single piece that we listened to. One day, with extreme trepidation, I submitted an article to one of my classmates who was a staff writer in our school paper. She returned it me with a hastily-scribbled note on top of the page. It said, “Space-filler only.” My article wasn’t published. I guess they didn’t have any room for a space-filler. 

My heart sank to my feet. I’m sure I got depressed. But in that circa, depression wasn’t fashionable yet, so I must’ve dealt with it myself, somehow. High school was full of angst anyway. We just didn’t have a name for it then. 

“Space-filler only.” What a blatant, unforgiving put-down, I thought. I chided myself -- Shucks. I should’ve spared myself the heartache. I shouldn’t have submitted anything at all. I vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to submit anything ever again -- unless I was asked to. Excuse the sophomoric melodrama. 

My English Lit teacher, on the other hand, kept prodding me to keep writing. And she’d give me an extra push by reading some of my short essays in class. I wanted to dissolve into the woodwork -- we had pretty sturdy school desks then. But I was undeniably happy that she liked what I wrote. 

A year after the “space-filler only” incident, to my utter surprise, I was asked to write two essays for our class yearbook. The opening essay and the closing essay. Oh my goodness. Major pressure. Major stress. Major acid-reflux moment. 

Looking back , I’m positive it wasn’t the editor (of our school paper) who asked me to write the two essays. I knew she wasn’t too keen on my writing. 

So it must’ve been other people in my class who suggested I write the two essays. I never really found out exactly who they were -- but I think I can make some pretty accurate guesses. You see, at least three of my brightest classmates kept encouraging me to write, and they were my cheering squad when I was polishing those two essays. Come to think of it, the interest they showed was beyond normal. So it must’ve been them who gave me my first big break. 

Our yearbook came out with those two essays printed at the beginning, and at the end. I must say that I appreciated the complete freedom that the editors gave me to choose what I wanted to write about. They, very wisely, didn’t dictate anything on me. I don’t take that kind of trust lightly. And the final compliment was this -- the two essays were printed as is, without any corrections. I was aghast. I was flabbergasted. I was enthralled. 

So I’m writing this to encourage you. Yes, you. If there are people in your life who -- for whatever reason -- said that what you’ve done is a “space-filler only,” or who go out of their way make you feel that you’re just a space-filler, don’t believe them. God didn’t create you to be a “space-filler only.” 

Believe the truth instead. Believe that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God himself. No one has the right to belittle you, insult you, or put you down. If they do, then they’re really belittling, insulting, and putting down God himself, your creator. 

But here’s the punch line, the God-twist, as it were, to my story: 

When I moved on to college, my English Lit professor recommended me for a scholarship in a university that’s well-known for its writing workshops. My classmate who wrote “space-filler only” on my essay also applied for the same scholarship. By God’s grace, I made it. But she didn’t. No, I didn’t gloat. 

Because by that time, we had become good friends. So she decided to go to the writing workshop with me anyway, by paying for her own transportation, accommodations, and tuition. It was a rambunctious summer. While young college girls around us were quickly losing their virginity, we did not. But I’m digressing. 

I don’t know if my good friend even remembered that she wrote “space-filler only” on my essay. But apparently, it didn’t affect our friendship. I must’ve forgiven her somewhere between third year high school and second year college because we were inseparable by the time I stepped into UP Diliman.

Now that I’m 64, I’m still writing. Happily writing. I think my friend is still writing, but mainly for herself. I’ve told her a gazillion times that she writes very well. But maybe, just maybe, someone also wrote “space-filler only” on one of her manuscripts, and sadly, she believed him/her. 

A word of warning, therefore, to editors and those in a position to write off people -- please be careful that you’re not writing off someone who has a gift that you, yourself do not have. Or are unable, or unwilling, to appreciate.

I think one of the criteria for being an excellent editor is the capacity to not be intimidated by real talent. Decide to overcome your insecurities and fragile egos. Instead -- be a purveyor of grace. Bravely and selflessly build up people who have something that others can enjoy, learn from, and benefit from! 

We don’t have to be the best at what we’re doing. We just have to be good at it -- and be willing to let others outshine us, if they’re better. If mediocre is the best we can be, then let not our own mediocrity cause us to drag others down. 

So I’m saying what must be said -- I’m deeply grateful to my English Lit teachers in high school (two of them were indefatigable in pushing me to write) and my luminous English Lit professor who dispassionately analyzed my writing a few times, called it “fine writing” and told me to never prostitute my talent by joining an ad agency. He later became our National Artist for Literature. 

I am also profoundly in debt to my three (or maybe four) classmates who volunteered me for our yearbook. I know who you are, even if you’ll never openly admit it. Thank you for being such secure, magnanimous individuals who aren’t afraid to let others shine. My dears, you’re all still shining brightly in your own firmaments. 

That’s how it works with God, I suppose. When you’re brave and secure enough to build up someone, he, in turn, will build you up in the most magnificent ways!
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