You get detention for calling your social studies teacher by his first name in front of all the other kids. He says it’s because he doesn’t want the other students to feel left out because y’all have an existing relationship outside of the classroom—he’s the coach for your CYO basketball team—but you’re pretty sure it’s really because Justin cares a little too much about his reputation at school. He gets flustered whenever someone undermines his authority as a teacher—or worse, mistakes him for a student. So when you slip up in the middle of class, he takes it the wrong way completely and responds with a lunch detention.
When you report to Justin’s classroom at the beginning of fifth-period lunch, there’s already hella people sitting with the desks pushed together and chopping it up over trays of cheesy potato wedges. Justin’s on the far side of the room, wiping down the whiteboard. Hey, Mr. Baluyot, you call out, careful to call him by his last name so he knows you’re sorry without saying it outright. What’s up, Jericho, he answers, feigning exasperation. But then he smirks, covertly affirming that y’all are still cool.
You’re surprised to see how poppin it is in Justin’s classroom. You recognize Angelica, the new kid on the girls’ CYO team who just transferred to Barnard-White from Saint Clement, sitting alone, a few of your cousin’s friends in the corner reading love fortunes, and the guys you hoop with at lunch when you aren’t kickin it with Elijah and the homies at the picnic tables.
You go up to the guys.
Aye, what y’all doing here?
It’s Filipino Club.
What do y’all do? Sit around and eat lumpia?
From across the room, Justin reminds you that you aren’t there to socialize. He points to an empty desk in the corner and says to sit quietly and to finish the assignment from class.
The curriculum for eighth grade social studies centers U.S. history—or what Justin describes as “a version of history.” It’s a presidential election year, so even though your class is two cycles away from becoming eligible voters, Justin wants to “encourage civic engagement” by forcing y’all to fill out a worksheet on the candidates’ stances on the hot-button issues. You folded it into a paper football and flicked it across the desk to Elijah until Justin snatched it out of the air.
Surrounded by all the lunchtime chatter, you unfold the worksheet and smooth out the creases. On the front side are short summaries of each candidates’ platform and on the back is a chart labeled with different issues—gay marriage, the recession, the war in Iraq. Justin wants you to fill in the candidates’ positions. You start to copy the exact wording from the front to the back, absorbing none of it.
Justin claps his hands to get folks’ attention and welcomes everyone to the first meeting of Filipino Club. He has everyone go around the room to introduce themselves and share what brings them to the meeting. Most of the responses are reducible to
I’m Filipino and I want to learn about my culture, or
I want to eat Filipino food, or
All my friends are in it.
By the time the guy in front of you turns around to signal it’s your turn, you realize you were so distracted listening to everyone else that you stopped writing mid-sentence.
I’m here for detention, you say, waving your half-completed worksheet in the air. Everyone laughs. You don’t mind being the funny guy. I’m Jericho, by the way. You wink, then glance at Justin to gauge his reaction. He pretends to roll his eyes, but the twitch in the corner of his mouth betrays a smile he’s trying to suppress.
Justin uncaps a dry-erase marker and asks folks to shout out what they know about Filipino culture and writes each response on the whiteboard:
Do you have boypren/girlpren?
Candle dance (pandanggo sa ilaw)
No shoes in the house
Almost everyone adds to the list, except the quiet kids. You chime in to add the Asian persuasion, but Justin refuses to write that one down.
Anything else? Justin asks, looking over his shoulder and waiting a few seconds for last-minute responses. When no one speaks up, Justin faces the group, about twenty-five kids, smaller than the average class size. Alright. Now, what do y’all know about Filipino history?
We were colonized by Spain, someone says. For, like, three hundred years.
Anything else? Justin asks.
You wait for someone to add something, but no one does.
Isn’t it strange that’s all you know? he asks. Why is it that, when talking about our culture, we can talk about the fun parts all day—but when it comes to our history, we begin and end with colonization?
Justin erases everything on the board, all the references to fiesta foods and YouTube singer-songwriters and Lea Salonga as Princess Jasmine.
Filipinos first set foot on this land in 1587, before the United States was even a thought in Fuckboy Chris’s head, but you won’t find that in your history book. Most textbooks don’t mention our cultures at all, which can make it seem like we don’t have a history in this country, but we been here.
On the board, he writes: NO HISTORY, NO SELF.
Not knowing our own history creates a void inside us, he says, a void that can’t be filled by anything else.
Justin returns to the board, the marker squeaking as he adds a k in front and a w after each no, the new phrase reading: KNOW HISTORY, KNOW SELF.
There’s something about knowing your roots that does something for your identity—it fills a void that you didn’t know was there. You gotta know where you came from to know where you’re going.
You lean forward, feel the tectonic plates of your worldview shifting as you hang onto every drop of gospel that passes through Justin’s lips.
He continues on about how October is Filipino American History Month because that’s when the first Filipinos landed in Morro Bay. He says on the thirtieth, the school will hold an assembly to honor Filipino culture. Justin implores the club members to correct the exclusion—erasure, he says—of Filipino American history in the curriculum by sharing what y’all learn in Filipino Club with the rest of the student body.
The warning bell for lunch rings. Justin says that’s all for this week, everyone is already in their own conversations, packing lunches into their backpacks as they head off to sixth period.
You go up to Justin to show him your half-filled worksheet. Instead of getting upset with you for goofing off again, he gives you the opportunity to finish it for homework. You thank him for the extra chance, but he brushes you off.
You stand there for an extra second, the paper still in your hand and your half-open backpack slung over one shoulder.
Hey—Mr. Baluyot? you ask, almost calling him Justin again, even though there’s barely anyone left in the room to witness it.
Is it cool if I come by again next week? You hesitate to put yourself out on a limb, even though you know it isn’t that serious and that Justin—Mr. Baluyot—probably doesn’t give a shit.
You want another detention? he asks.
No, uh. You stumble—you never stumble. For Filipino Club?
Sure, he says, seemingly unfazed by your interest. He swipes the eraser over the whiteboard to clear away the catchphrase that’s already begun to root itself in your subconscious. Bring Elijah, too, if you want. You wait for him to say more, maybe special encouragement to come through, but he doesn’t say anything else. You take a tentative step back, give him another chance, but he has his back turned. You play it off like you didn’t expect anything and leave without saying nothing either.
Next week at lunch, Justin lectures on the use of folk dances to mask the instruction of martial arts techniques. He asks whether anyone knows how to dance pandanggo sa ilaw, and this girl Jocelyn raises her hand. Justin invites her to join him at the front of the room and asks her to demonstrate the iconic flourish of the wrist. Because she’s put on the spot, Jocelyn doesn’t balance a candle or oil lamp in either palm, so the fact that she can twist her arm around without burning herself is less impressive than it should be. No one claps when she’s done and her arms fall awkwardly to her sides. Justin thanks her, then tells her to pretend she’s about to start again.
When she poses the second time, he cuffs his hand around her wrist, holding it in a lock. Is this okay? he asks. Jocelyn shrugs. Say I’m a Spaniard trying to apprehend a villager, he says. I grab her wrist, but—he turns to her—do the candle move. Jocelyn rotates her wrist in the same motion, freeing herself from his grip. This time, she receives scattered applause. Elijah whistles at her as she returns to her seat.
You dedicate every Friday afternoon in October to practicing for the assembly. Elijah complains that it’s the weekend and y’all could be anywhere other than school, but he sticks with you anyway. The tinikling group practices on the basketball courts while the eskrima group wanders off to the mid-height chain-link fence which separates the school from the street, gear in tow. You, Elijah, and the other guys—except the baklas, who don’t count—choose to be in the eskrima group. Y’all fuck around while Justin is too busy trying to make sure the dancers don’t eat shit tripping over the bamboo to discipline you. You play-fight each other without art, whipping one another’s arms with the arnis sticks Justin supplied, seeing who can strike hard enough to leave a mark.
Angelica and her weird friend Nina are also in the eskrima group, but they only talk to each other. They follow your gang of lost boys to the outer edge of the yard, arnis sticks still in their protective sleeves, but don’t engage. They stand off to the side, not saying anything unless one of the guys tries to mess with them. Even then, Nina’s the one who cusses them out. Angelica just watches.
You slap Elijah’s ass when you catch Angelica staring at you, but then she snaps her head down to look at the sheath in her hands, thumbing the fabric. Whenever you try to talk to her, she clams up and looks to Nina for reassurance before responding. You don’t know what you did to make her so awkward around you. She and Nina are always in Justin’s classroom at lunch, so you mention it to him to see if he’s heard them say anything about you. He’s convinced Angelica’s crushing.
Listen, it’s not like I’m invested in my students’ love lives, he says, but it’s obvious. Whenever you look in her direction, she looks the other way.
I’m pretty sure she’s just shy.
Nah, he says. Trust me. She likes you.
For a moment, you consider the implications if this is true. Angelica is what Tita Mai would call big-boned, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Curvy girls, you think, can be cute. She’s in CYO and Filipino Club, so you have those things in common, too.
But there’s another half-second when you wonder why Justin’s pushing you toward Angelica. You start to regret seeking his advice in the first place. Maybe you just liked the idea of him seeing you in another light—not just a student, but someone capable of being loved.
You take the queue from Justin and start talking to Angelica. With enough exposure, you figure you could develop feelings for her, which is what you think is supposed to happen. You tease her to make her blush because bullying your way into a girl’s heart is a trope in teleseryes, so there must be some merit to it. Still, you try to balance it out with some sweetness. You smile at her in the halls at school. You compliment her when she does well during practice. You even offer to be her eskrima partner when Nina stops showing up to Filipino Club, but she declines.
One day you catch Angelica wandering through the main courtyard, clutching her binder close to her chest, looking lost. You invite her to sit with you and Elijah and the rest of the homies. You appreciate that Elijah is polite to Angelica even though she’s stiff and doesn’t speak unless spoken to. He’s been your best friend ever since first grade, when he shoved your soft face onto the blacktop for complimenting his long eyelashes. Whenever one of y’all invites someone into the fold, the other needs to approve. If they can’t hang with Elijah, they can’t hang with you either.
You got a busy schedule—CYO basketball practice on Tuesdays, CCD on Thursdays, Filipino Club on Fridays, and games almost every weekend during the fall season—which means you’re spending a whole lot of your time in and out of school with Elijah and Justin.
Elijah’s mom spends most of her time at home and is usually able to pick y’all up from practice, but tonight she can’t—Auntie Emmie’s cooking up a big batch of suman and needs to wrap each individual serving in a banana leaf before her client comes to pick up the order at 7:00. She’s grateful when Justin offers to give y’all a ride home.
From all the extra time you’ve been spending with Justin, you start to realize that even if he’s a hard-ass in the classroom, Justin’s a cool dude. Wild 94.9 comes on when he starts the car, and it hits you that he isn’t that much older than y’all, maybe ten years, Elijah’s half-brother’s age. You wonder if that’s why he’s so uptight about students calling him Mr. Baluyot.
Even though it’s almost dinnertime, Justin swings by Tapioca Express on the way back to South Hayward from UC. Justin insists on paying for your drink. He hopes you’ll pay it forward someday when you’re in a similar position.
It’s not as busy in the evening as it is right after school, so you’re able to get a table easily. You sit and watch Elijah play with his Tech Deck while Justin waits by the counter for your order to come out.
So, Justin says, flipping his cup upside-down and swirling it to distribute the contents. He ordered something with actual tea, earl grey or oolong or Okinawa or something. In contrast, the artificial color of your green apple slush looks radioactive. How are things going with Angelica?
Angelica? Elijah asks. Sure, you’ve brought her around the lunch table, but this—the idea of you and Angelica—is news to him, and he’s supposed to be your best friend. You stab a squid tube with your skewer to avoid the blend of confusion and betrayal on his face.
She sits with us at lunch sometimes, you say.
Don’t make it too obvious you like her, Justin warns. Guys got thick skulls, so they need the extra help, but for girls, it’s overkill. Trust me.
Even though Tita Mai will kick your ass for spoiling your appetite when there’s food at home, you polish off the popcorn chicken and squid tubes before cutting out. In the car, Justin plays all the church slaps—Open My Eyes, Trading My Sorrows, Mighty to Save. You all know the words from mass and sing with your whole chests. You cherish these nights after practice. It’s the only time you get to kick it with Elijah and Justin without adult supervision, even though Justin is technically an adult himself.
Justin drops you off first. He pulls up to the curb in front of Tito Paul’s house. He reaches into the backseat and rummages around the trash on the floor for something. You notice that he has a tribal band tattooed to his right forearm, just below the elbow. You want to touch it, to trace the pattern with your fingertips. But as soon as the thought materializes in your mind, you swat it away.
What’s that? Elijah asks. Justin hands you a paperback, the cover partially folded from having been kicked around the footwell by unknowing passengers.
Carlos Bulosan, Justin says. May be too soon to call, but Jericho strikes me as a future historian. But you gotta know where you came from to know where you’re going, so I figured he needs to read a classic from one of the forefathers of Fil Am literature.
Justin’s never mentioned his vision of you as a historian before, so you wondered where this prediction came from, and whether you’re capable of living up to such a lofty expectation. A historian sounds so scholarly, so smart, but you’re neither of those things. You’re just some kid, not even a “gifted” student, not even good enough to make the A-team for CYO basketball.
They got books by Filipinos? Elijah asks.
You take the book into your hands. There’s a portrait on the cover of a man in a suit with your same nose and monolids.
I can borrow this? you ask.
For sure, he says. If you’re into this kinda thing, I wanna encourage that interest. I could take you under my wing.
You’ve always known you were Filipino, but it didn’t mean anything to you other than the fact that the food you ate on Thanksgiving and Christmas was bomb and that it took forever to leave family parties. You remember that thing Justin said at the first Filipino Club meeting—something like, no history, no self. Before then, you wouldn’t have thought someone who looks like they could be your uncle would’ve done anything worthy of being considered “history,” but the book in your hand suggests otherwise, a tangible counterexample to what you previously thought you understood about your culture.
As expected, Tita Mai guilt trips you for skipping dinner. Never mind her. You head straight to your room, empty now that lola hasn’t had the strength to leave the living room sofa since finishing her last round of radiation. You flip to the first page of Bulosan’s book and read until you get a text from Elijah.
>>Wtf was that sht bout coach takin u under his wing?
<<wut u mean?
>>Wen he gave u d book
The first thing that comes to mind is: maybe Elijah’s right. Is it that weird for Justin to want to teach you these things? Half the guys on the CYO team already call him Kuya. They invite him to their club games and to be their Confirmation sponsor when they turn fifteen.
>>N tips 4 pickin up Gel
The second thing that crosses your mind is: maybe Elijah’s jealous. Because he’s supposed to be your best friend, but you told Justin about Angelica before him.
>>Since wen u been feelin her neway?
The thing is, you’re not even sure if you’re feeling Angelica like that. You hardly know her. She’s real quiet and innocent, which you think is kinda sweet. It’s cute that she’s into rock music, despite her good-girl image. But do you like her? You don’t know. Not yet.
You flip your phone shut and toss it to the foot of the bed. You pick up the book and flip through the pages until you’re where you left off. You don’t read except for school, and all the books Mr. Pacheco assigned this year are corny so you can’t take them seriously. But this one is like a special assignment that Justin came up with, just for you.
At first, you imagine yourself as Allos, the protagonist, and Justin as both of your older brothers, providing books to prepare you for a future beyond your present circumstances. But as you read onward, the image in your mind’s eye shifts, and you start to imagine Justin as the main character instead. Picture him in a field, wearing a wife beater and wiping the sweat from his brow, the tattoo on his forearm exposed. Justin unscrewing the cap off a plastic water bottle and lifting it to his full lips to take a long, hard sip.
You spend most of your weekday afternoons in Justin’s classroom, even though the FAHM assembly’s over and there’s no more after-school practice. Usually there’s at least one or two other guys in there, studying or playing Yu-Gi-Oh or chopping it up. You get a good amount of your homework done while Justin catches up on grading or whatever he does on school days. Sometimes you bug him with random questions, like what was he like when he was in high school and how did he start coaching and has he always wanted to be a teacher, and even though he rolls his eyes and asks whether you couldn’t redirect this curiosity toward your studies, you feel he secretly enjoys the attention. Sometimes you don’t leave school until 5:00 because you’d rather hang out with him than go home.
Your English teacher, Mr. Pacheco, assigns a report for every book you read in his class. He requires you to print it out and read it to the class, which is a waste of time cause no one listens and it takes hella days, but you have to do it because it’s the only advanced class you’re in and you don’t want to blow it. You don’t have a printer at home, so you ask Justin if you can use his computer to type up your essay and he agrees. Really, you could’ve gone to the media center, but you’d rather kick it with Justin than Mrs. Dennings-Leung.
You go straight to Justin’s classroom after seventh period. When you get there, it’s empty except for Justin, who’s standing at his desk and biting into a green apple. He leans forward to type in his password with his free hand, then steps aside to let you behind the teacher desk. The computer chair is too low for you, so Justin pumps the lever under your seat to raise its height and corrects the position of your wrists so they don’t rest on the table. Your skin tingles where your fingers touched you, like static without the shock.
You already wrote out the whole paper in your notebook, so all that’s left is to type it up. You focus on the keyboard, typing with your pointer fingers and glancing up at the monitor after every few letters to check for mistakes. You shouldn’t have messed around so much when you had keyboarding as your elective in sixth grade, the one class where the shit you learn is applicable in real life. Now you gotta hunt for every single letter.
By the time you tell Justin you’re done, the soft light in the mottled glass window has dimmed to a dark gray color. The wall behind the desk is covered with wallet-size graduation photos from former students who loved Justin and hoped he would remember them. You understand the sentiment. Justin doesn’t look away from the essay in his hand, eyes scanning the text. When he gets to the bottom of the page, he sets the paper down and presses his thumb and forefinger to his temples.
How are you getting home? Justin asks.
Need a ride?
Justin’s given you tons of rides home from practice, so you don’t think anything of it. You follow him to the front of the school where Justin’s Civic is parked on a patch of dirt and gravel. You toss your stuff in the back and hesitate before getting in. Whenever Justin’s given you rides in the past, it’s been you and Elijah, so y’all would sit together in the back. But today it’s just you. You shut the door to the back seat and get in on the front passenger side. Justin gets in on the driver’s side and waits for the car to warm up.
You get a chance to read Bulosan? he asks.
Even though you had to reread a few passages over and over again cause the prose was too dense, you finished the whole novel in a weekend.
What’d you think?
You don’t want to disappoint him. You wish you could tell him that the book transformed you, that you finally understand what it means to be Filipino. There was so much in the book that was new to you, things you didn’t know happened to Filipinos in this country, and things you wish you didn’t know. A part of you wishes he’d given you guidance so you would know what to focus on and what it all meant. But at the same time, there’s a voice in your head berating you for expecting him to hold your hand when he’s already done so much to teach you about your history, and you couldn’t even figure out this small piece on your own. You’re afraid that if he finds out you don’t get it, he’ll realize you’re dumb as rocks, not worthy of calling him your kuya. He’ll realize you’re not special, just some stupid kid.
It was alright.
Justin holds his palms up to the air vents, warming his hands. You do the same, rotating your wrists so you get both sides.
Hungry? he asks.
He backs out of the lot and drives down the road to 7-Eleven. He asks what you want. You’ll eat anything. He leaves you in the car with the heater on while he runs into the store.
He’s in there for a while. You look through the junk in the footwell of the passenger seat and find a McDonald’s bag full of trash and a cloth CD case filled with a bunch of mixes labeled in Justin’s handwriting: Disney classics, ballads, 90s R&B. You don’t know why this is in the car, considering it only plays cassettes.
You get antsy waiting, afraid Justin will catch you snooping through his stuff. You take the keys and go inside. He’s standing in the aisle, holding a bag of Bugles and two beef chimichangas in both hands. He hears the bell over the door ring when you walk in and beckons you over, asking if his selection is okay.
The bell rings again and when you turn around to see who it is, it’s one of the preppy girls from your social studies class, Kayla. Hey, Mr. B, she says. Her eyes move from Justin to you. Oh. Hey. She’s with her mom, who fake-smiles at Justin with closed lips before ignoring you both to request a pack of Marlboros from the clerk.
Justin breaks away to line up behind Kayla’s mom, meanwhile Kayla walks up to you.
What’re you doing here? she says.
Nothing, just getting some food with Mr. Baluyot, you say, trying to play it cool, like you and Justin kick it after school all the time, which is technically true. This girl is insignificant to you, but you’re glad to be spotted outside of school with Justin. It cements your relationship as special, not confined to a single context. He’s gonna give me a ride home.
Kayla’s mom glances back to mean-mug Justin. It’s not like that, he says, holding his hands up, palms out. You aren’t sure what’s got him so defensive, but his reaction makes you embarrassed for both of you.
Oh, okay, is all Kayla says, scanning the colorful row of plastic chip bags. See you at school, I guess.
Kayla’s mom finishes paying and then so does Justin, and you all leave the store one after the other. Justin won’t look at you as he gets into the car, or even after Kayla and her mom drive off. You run your mind back to figure out what you did wrong, but you don’t know what it is.
Listen, he says, dropping his hands down from the wheel. A worry line creases his forehead. I’ve been meaning to talk to you.
You know I’m here for you, he says. Whenever you need anything, I gotchu.
The words are measured and deliberate, well-spoken but with enough vernacular mixed in to suggest that he’s trying to level with you, to let you know he’s just like you, which is something folks only do when they’re talking down to you.
But I’m your teacher, he says. I don’t want folks to think I’m giving you special treatment. You understand?
You don’t, not when it was only a few weeks ago that he was treating you to boba and lending you books from his personal library. He said he thought you could be a historian. You don’t even know what a historian does, but it made you feel like he saw something in you that no one else noticed or thought to nurture. He was supposed to take you under his wing.
I’m still your coach, though, he says, gazing out the windshield or into the rearview mirror, his gaze landing anywhere but on you. I can still give you and Elijah rides after practice. You can still talk to me when something’s bothering you.
He drums his fingers against his kneecap. Are we…cool?
Justin bounces his leg, wiping the sweat from his palms on the dark denim of his jeans. You notice the faded brown oxfords on his feet and wonder if he’s been wearing those to seem more teacher-y.
You reach across the center console to dap him up. Mr. Baluyot is a cool dude. You’re the one who forgot your place.