She stood in front of the crowded room, her hand clutching two sheets, her figure struggling for composure.
“I still lack one paper for Ma’am Chit to complete my feature writing class,” the girl, Paula, said in Tagalog.
She glanced at the casket, and her voice shook. “It’s here–I’m finally passing it.”
With claps, some chuckled, some nodded.
The prof who was no longer there to grade the 2-years-overdue paper became its subject. In it, Paula recalled her doubts and laid out her regrets–missing out on what a great teacher she had.
With every sentence, the occasional pause, Paula would break down, all until she finished reading the final paper. She had posted it on Facebook a day after learning her Prof. Chit Estella-Simbulan died in a crash.
One of Paula’s batch mates said the paper contained the words many lacked the courage to express.
It was probably the most emotional moment in almost a week of memorials.
Simbulan died instantly when a speeding bus rammed and crushed a taxi she was riding along Commonwealth Avenue.
Such a death seemed ill-suited for a journalist like Ma’am Chit, but at the wake, her colleague Ellen Tordesillas belied the thought.
“If Chit’s death would result in a probe on road management, it would not be in vain,” she said.
Officials have finally found the bus driver who hid the week after. Lawmakers have launched an inquiry into why motorists still transgress the 60-kilometer speed limit on what is known as the ‘killer highway’.
Indeed, the public eye has turned yet again to the state of our roads.But the loss is still personal for Ma’am Chit’s family, friends, colleagues, and students.
It’s a toll rarely seen among people whose careers confront them regularly with death and grief.
From journos & journos-to-be
During the 3-night wake at the Arlington Memorial Chapels, colleagues known for their tough stances dropped them for long, silent hugs and somber faces.
And yet after the solemn jam-packed services ended, the room would stir to the noise of conversations.
For former students and friends at the UP College of Mass Communication where Ma’am Chit studied and taught, it was as if the alumni homecoming scheduled for September had come earlier.
The reunions brought us back to the talk and music-filled Plaridel Hall, an atmosphere we now find incomplete without laid-back Ma’am Chit.
She would have loved the tribute of chatter. For all her unheeded wishes of a closed-casket viewing and a quick cremation, at least her request to be jovially remembered was honored.
Expect the stories to flow when journos come to mourn.
She was the “balance” of the Malacañang press who gave the group a sense of approachability, said Ed Lingao of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
“Together, we were the group that tormented presidents.”
Vicente Tirol, Ma’am Chit’s publisher in the Estrada-era Pinoy Times, recalls sharing the news of her death with Booma Cruz of Probe.
Cruz texted back in Tagalog from the airport: “I owe Chit a lot, and I’m crying here where I stand. The people here probably think I’m a victim of human trafficking.”
Others who spoke at the memorial elicited laughs telling how Ma’am Chit’s high sense of journalism ethics made her refuse even a cup of coffee.
Perhaps the most personal of stories came from another Ma’am–Yvonne Chua.
She wrote in the Inquirer of a lifetime of friendship with Ma’am Chit. It wasn’t merely mentoring and adventures in keeping government accountable. Their story also included dances, girls’ nights out, and afternoon walks at the UP Academic Oval.
Ma’am Yvonne could not read this rare and emotional memoir at the last night of the services, leaving the task to Rupert Mangilit, a former student.
The first flood of tributes to Ma’am Chit came from those students and streamed online, where many got wind of the accident and the succeeding wake.
Ronin Bautista wrote about riding past the wreckage minutes after the accident. Clueless who the victim was, he doubted if she would live.
It became the first major coverage for the incoming staff of Tinig ng Plaridel, our college publication. Former editor-in-chief Franz dela Fuente wrote how he helped spur on the new team through the “avalanche of emotions” they faced as they put out online updates of the road from the crash to the funeral home.
“It’s not yet the end at all,” remembers Daryl Zamora, who finished his thesisunder Ma’am Chit. For him she was an encourager who scribbled the note on his draft passed days late.
Many, like Jali Fernando, kept notes of quotable quotes from Ma’am Chit’s classes. One of them: “Keep asking questions so that the person you become in the future is not different from the person you are today.”
At another memorial service, CMC Dean Roland Tolentino in Bandila style read a myriad of obi-tweets and blog entries from his iPad.
Mentor & inspiration
She would always be “Ma’am” Chit to me, as mentors often remain.
Her smile and hearty laughs mark my best flashbacks of her. She spoke with a calm confidence, carefully choosing her words and punctuating them with thoughtful pauses that convinced you she was instinctively an editor.
Yet an editor with a heart. I experienced what teamwork can achieve as I led our newspaper laboratory class under her with now-TV5 reporter Trish Roque.
As we rushed our publication an hour after the deadline, Ma’am Chit would poke her head into the room every so often and remind us of the time.
She still accepted it, posed for a picture, and gave it a fairly high grade.
Like Paula from the feature writing class, I had thought Ma’am Chit didn’t think much of me. Only when I asked her for a recommendation letter with some hesitation did I learn otherwise.
I no longer have a copy to cull quotes from, but all I remember is the glow I felt reading her positive review of my work.
She was not my thesis adviser, but I and thesis mate Mark Ching partly owe our first investigative report to her.
Her 2005 stories on the proliferation of substandard nursing schools largely inspired our 2-part report on the lack of regulation over these schools 3 years later.
I mentioned that to Sir Roland, Ma’am Chit’s husband, when I gave him my condolences. He showed me a plaque placed near her casket–an award for those stories.
Ma’am Yvonne supervised our research, but Ma’am Chit edited them for publication through Vera Files, the team they formed so they could continue writing independently.
She handed me my first paycheck for our published reports.
I was still applying into my job then and she wished me luck. I was “Mr. Bagaoisan” as a student, but this time she called me Anjo. It was the last time I spoke with her.
I finally saw her at her wake. From there until her urn was brought for a tribute at the college, I was assigned, tailing behind.
Making her proud
There I met with classmates who were now colleagues at ABS-CBN. Rach Hermosura was filing stories for ANC. We were the noisy crowd in Ma’am Chit’s political reporting class, our last under her. (Watch her report here.)
UP professor Danny Arao noticed the many former students covering Ma’am Chit’s death and wake. He also observed how their reports went straight to the point, avoided the sensational, and zoomed out to the bigger picture.
He was proud. And Ma’am Chit would have been.
Apparently she was also happy for where Rach and I had turned out, as a former boss recalled their last conversation.
The unlikely batch reunion at Ma’am Chit’s wake led to dinners and conversations on the goings-on at the outfits where we had spread out.
We found that somehow we still shared the idealism we got from UP and from professors like Ma’am Chit. And that our connections and stories could be sources of courage and support.
The feeling echoed a speech a work mate had shared to us ABS young guns that same week.
Robert Krulwich, an American science broadcaster, encouraged graduates anxious about their futures to try doing independently what they loved and to do them with like-minded friends.
It was the same spirit that led journos like Ma’am Chit–now pillars in the industry–to form teams like the PCIJ and Vera Files, and remain staunch in their standards.
We saw how Ma’am Chit valued her principles and her relationships in the stories we heard at the wake. The stories befitted one who regaled her classes with endless tales of newsrooms and halls of power.
Too bad future journalists-to-be will no longer hear them firsthand.
But no doubt, they will get to hear them from those like me, who were once stirred up by a professor to someday “turn this world upside down–or right side up.”