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From a fish tank to a boat

Many, many years ago, as a high school junior, I read a newspaper announcement inviting everyone interested to join an essay contest on the topic of the Manila Aquarium. The subject perked my interest because, as luck would have it, I had paid a visit to the aquarium in Intramuros and had been fascinated by the fish (I still am hypnotically drawn to fish in a tank, which literally gives me a window on another world).

I thought of joining the contest, which was a cheeky thing to do, given that it was open to all Filipinos and I was all of 15. But I guess teenagers have nothing if they don’t have hubris, so I typed up my essay, mailed it off to the organizers, and forgot about the contest. On May 20, 1969, I received an RCPI telegram in school, care of our principal: “CONGRATULATIONS YOUR ENTRY ZONTA CLUB ESSAY CONTEST HAS BEEN ADJUDGED FIRST PRIZE BE AT THE MANILA AQUARIUM 9:30 SUNDAY MORNING MAY 24.” It was my first writing prize on a national scale, and it whetted what would become, over the next couple of decades, a ravenous appetite for competitions of the writerly sort.

I remember those exact details, because — bless our mothers who keep every scrap of filial achievement they can lay their hands on — I still have that telegram, along with a yellowed envelope that once contained P50, which was part of first prize. The P50 was pocket money for the real treat, a round-trip ticket for two to Iloilo, in a cabin on board one of the Negros Navigation ships. I brought my younger brother Jess along; I don’t think we even dared to get off the boat in Iloilo, or if we did we certainly didn’t venture beyond the pier; when the boat turned around, we were on it again, in the same cabin—the trip, not the destination, was the thing.

I bring this up this week for two reasons: first, to express my 40-years-belated thanks to the Zonta Club of Manila for sponsoring the contest. (I’ll get to the second point later in this piece.) And I’m going to express my thanks more concretely by helping my friend the writer, painter, and businesswoman Erlinda Panlilio, spread the good word about what she and her fellow Zontians have been doing lately.

Linda’s the district chair, in charge of PR and communications, for District 17, which is composed of the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Late last month, as it does every odd-numbered year, the district held a conference to assess its performance vis-à-vis its goals, and on Linda’s lap fell the herculean job of helping to make sure that everything went as planned and that non-Zontians knew about it.

What’s Zonta, anyway? Linda had a ready answer for me when I asked something I must have vaguely known in 1969 and quickly forgot: “Zonta International is a global organization of executives and professionals working together to advance the status of women worldwide through service and advocacy. It was established in 1919 in Buffalo, New York, and spread to Asia with the organization of the first Zonta club — Manila 1, in 1952. Today there are over 31,000 members in 65 countries, all pledged to improve the legal, political, educational, economic, and health status of women, and to eliminate violence against women.”

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At their biennial conference held here in Manila at the Sofitel, the Zontians held three workshops on “Education and the Job Market for Women,” “Women and Disaster Preparedness,” and “Servant Leadership.” Most interesting were the two “Inspiring Stories” luncheons offered with speakers on “Achieving Against the Odds” and “Rising Above Violence.” The first luncheon had for its speaker Ginarey Grace Guion, winner of the 2010 District 17 Young Women in Public Affairs Award (YWPA), a 2010 University of the Philippines Oblation scholar who is now on her second year in the Intarmed program of the UP College of Medicine. The YWPA award is given to young women aged 16 to 19 who demonstrate leadership qualities in the public arena. It carries a prize money of $1,000.

The second speaker, Ann-Gretchelle Santos, is the first Filipina winner of the Zonta International Jane M. Klausman Scholarships in Business Award, and is currently pursuing her MBA at UP. As District winner, she received $1,000, with an additional $5,000 as International winner.

The third speaker, Lulu Trinidad Ocampo, a widow, received the Community Empowerment and Human Development award at the golden anniversary of her UP Class of 1955. Her “Bags for Life” project has helped countless women of Sapang Palay, Smokey Mountain and other depressed areas, including the women patients of the National Mental hospital, crafting ladies’ handbags from newspapers and old telephone directories.

The second luncheon, says Linda, was a “tearjerker,” with Reubena “Jane” Frias recounting her ordeal as a survivor of domestic violence. It was facilitated by Cecilia Flores Oebando, a globally recognized human-rights advocate and international expert on human trafficking.

Linda herself received a standing ovation from her peers and a certificate of commendation from Zonta International president Dianne Curtis for her contributions to advancing the status of women. And how’s this for a coincidence? Linda Panlilio joined the Zonta Club of Quezon City as a charter member in 1969 — the same year her fellow Zontians in Manila were giving this strapping fellow his first big break in writing.

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The other reason I’m dealing with essay writing competitions is that there’s another big one on the immediate horizon. To celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, the UP College of Arts and Letters and MyRizal, in cooperation with the Office of the Chancellor, UP Diliman, are sponsoring a nationwide essay-writing contest for Filipino college students on the theme of “The Relevance of Rizal Today.”

Entries should be written in English or Filipino, should be original and unpublished (whether in print or online), and should be 5,000 words long. The deadline is Oct. 31, 2011. Entries must be submitted together with the properly filled-up entry form, which is available at the Office of the Dean, College of Arts and Letters, 2nd floor, Rizal Hall, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. The prizes are nothing to sneeze at: P50,000 for first, P30,000 for second, and P10,000 for third place.

I told my undergraduate Creative Writing class about this competition, and offered them a special incentive — since writing the essay was covered by our syllabus, I would give them extra credit if they joined this contest, and would coach them personally in the preparation of their entries. I’m not going to do any writing or rewriting for them, of course, but I gave them tips on how best to approach a general subject like this, how to make sure their essays stand out from the rest, and how to write 5,000 words that make a strong, memorable point, make sense, and don’t bore the reader. (I actually believe 5,000 words — about four times longer than this column — is way too long, especially for teenage writers; 1,000 words should have been long enough for a young writer to develop a thesis.)

I hope some of my students take up the challenge, and I hope they win. With P50,000 instead of P50, they can take all the boat rides they want, all around the islands.

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E-mail me at and visit my blog at

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