(NOTE: My friend and high school classmate, Carlos ‘Toots’ Perez, penned this article to honor one of our Jesuit mentors whose influence has affected us in more ways than one).
Fr. Kwaki is a name of endearment for our former high school teacher at the Ateneo de Naga during the early 1960s when young Jesuits in white soutanes and black leather shoes were fashionable in the campus; when white shirt and khaki pants and custom-built rubber shoes were the uniform; when white-side-wall was the hair cut; when English-speaking inside the classrooms and in the corridors was the rule; when the Mass was celebrated in Latin; when ‘Jug-and-Post’ was the punishment for misbehaving; when a free show at the Bichara was the reward for doing something great for the school; when the music was the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Cascades, and the Beach Boys; and when the Lollipops from Colegio de Sta. Isabel caused our heartbeat to skip when their eyes met ours. Those are the graffiti of our high school culture preserved in our memories until today since we graduated in 1966. And Fr. Florencio Cuerquis, SJ. has been front and center of that graffiti. We love to call him Fr. Kwaki.
Now, let me reflect on the time it was with Fr. Kwaki. And what a time it was when we were young, exuberant and romantic. No, no, no. Please don’t get me wrong! It’s not what you’re thinking. Oh, far from it.....! Kwaki is still very much alive and kicking! But gone now is his passion for Johnny Walker Black and Marlboro Reds. He’s probably in his early 80s by this time, but he may just have more lucid intervals than many of his former students who are now senior citizens themselves. He’s not in the pink of health though. That’s sad. Fr. Cuerquis is presently residing at the Jesuit Health and Wellness Center inside the Ateneo campus in Quezon City together with other infirmed Jesuits. We had invited him to grace our 50th Year High School Anniversary in Naga City last September of 2016. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it due some health concerns.
Fr. Kwaki taught us Religion during our 1st year in high school. I believe that was his very first teaching stint and we were his first batch of students. We were all wide-eyed in respect and admiration for this young Jesuit Regent who had just completed his Philosophy course and went to Naga to teach the Ateneo boys. Early on, we enjoyed his humor and wit but we were mindful of his reputation as sticker for discipline. Joevic Fabregas, Joseph Sellner, Marianito Abella and Manny Aureus were his ‘los ninos bonitos’ in the class.
Afterwards, he was our class moderator during our 2nd year. From that vantage seat, he started to mold the youth in us to be Renaissance men like him. He terrorized us with English prose and poetry: The Merchant of Venice, Ivanhoe, The Ransom of Red Chief, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Charge of the Light Brigade. We got our daily dosage of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Housman. Book reports! Each one of us reported individually and orally a book read once a month. More on the classics and not the Hardy Boys variety. Like a marine sergeant, he drilled us on writing and grammar, pronunciation and intonation, similes and metaphors, alliterations and rhymes. One unfortunate day, he severely dressed down the whole class for not knowing the meaning of ‘bric-a-bra’, a word in one of our daily readings we didn’t pay attention to. Not even a Florante Saltarin or a Pedro Hife or a Raul Borjal or a Gregorio Castilla could save the class that day. What a mouthful of ‘atroci
ous’ and ‘abominable’ we got from him! Those are the two expletives he threw at us whenever annoyed, dismayed and exasperated.
Well, he drilled us on etiquette and manners too! Manny Aureus recently recalled Kwaki’s admonitions such as ‘don’t put your hands in your pocket’, ‘don’t spit’, ‘carry a handkerchief. He had none of those childish boisterous playful antics. The late Joey Manuel and I had paid dearly for it one hot sunny noon at the campus grass. That was a very humbling episode in my young life. Under his coaching for the exact gestures and a commanding presence up there in the stage, I practiced Portia’s “The quality of mercy....” for an elocution piece. Yes, Fr. Kwaki made a lot of impact to many of us. Erning ‘Bido’ Verdadero had evolved himself to be our resident poet and orator in class, and was made the editor of our class paper ‘The H-2 Horizon’. But we also had fun and crazy moments with Kwaki outside the classroom where we let our hair down once in a while. Joevic mistook him for Joseph Sellner while attempting a wild mischief during a night out at Quiborac. It could have been a riot, but somehow Joevic got away with it. I won’t tell you the whole story.
Fr. Kwaki was our Latin teacher during our 3rd year, the last of the Latin class. ‘Caesar Gallum divisa est in tres partes’ - one of those daily recitations and translations from that old and thick hard-bound textbook. He had immersed us with so many Latin words and phrases that we find very useful today and make us erudite somehow when quoting Latin in our day-to-day conversations. Ad hominem, deus ex machina, mens sana in corpore sano, non-sequitor, res ipsa loquitor, quid pro quo, sic transit gloria mundi, sui generis, tempura fugit, and veni, vidi, vici.
We moved on to 4th year, and Fr. Kwaki moved on as well to pursue his theological studies at the Loyola House of Studies
(LHS) inside the Ateneo campus in Quezon City. That was his last year at the Ateneo de Naga.
Many of us have been touching base with him after college even until now. As a matter of fact, he was the officiating priest during my wedding to Yev in Tuba, Benguet on September of 1979. On short notice, Goyo Castilla and Cesar Prado snatched him from Loyola House of Studies and brought him to the wedding site in an old wooden chapel up the mountains near Baguio City. Likewise, he was one of those who officiated Goyo’s wedding to Lynn at the chapel inside the AdeMU Grade School where he was the Headmaster. He was probably berated by the Jesuit hierarchy because wedding in those days was not allowed inside the grade school campus. No wedding was ever allowed after that. We met several times when I was starting to grow and raise my family. As if to push my luck that far, Fr. Kwaki educated my three sons when he was the Grade School Headmaster at AdeMU. Incidentally, a very illustrious member of our high school class, Nicol Miraflores, was one of the English teachers of my sons at the grade school during that time.
Fr. Florencio Cuerquis, SJ, had planted so many seeds in the hearts and minds of his students during those high school years at the Ateneo de Naga. And those seeds have germinated well. Fr. Kwaki was one of a kind as a teacher, friend and mentor. Sui generis. Do they still make teachers like him these days?