Thursday, March 22, 2007

‘The Lady or the Tiger?’: Facing Life’s Choices (My Favorite Book Winner June 5, 2005 Philippine Star)

December 1999. With the Y2K scare and end-of-the-millennium jitters hovering in the air, I found myself in a bookstore for some last-minute Christmas shopping. I was looking for the abridged versions of the classics Heidi and The Secret Garden to give to my nieces when I saw a vaguely-familiar title on the shelves: The Lady or The Tiger and Other Stories. As I traced the embossed title with my right index finger, a particular memory flooded my consciousness.

1970. Our sophomore English class of 40 boys was quiet as our teacher, Mr. Roger Rebucan, read aloud Frank Stockton’s short story The Lady or The Tiger? in a voice with a slight tinge of Hiligaynon accent. Our yet-to-be-raging hormones and our boyishness were piqued by the intriguing title which promised romance and adventure. We were not disappointed by the tale that unraveled before us – a love affair between a young man and his sweetheart whose father, the semi-barbaric king, wants to end. The king sentences the guy to choose between two doors. One leads to a beautiful woman; the other, to a hungry tiger. With bated breath, we struggled with the protagonist as he wracked his brain as to which door to open. If he opened the door to the beautiful woman, he would be forced to marry her. Opening the other door would mean his instant death. We heaved a collective sigh when Mr. Rebucan read the part where the princess signaled to the guy by moving her hand to the right but were abruptly shocked to hear the story’s final sentence: And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady or the tiger?

Just as it did in 1882 when it was first published, the story spawned a cacophony of arguments among us which, for one whole week, spilled over to recess times, lunch breaks and lulls in between basketball games played after school. If ever there was one single story that the boys of Notre Dame of Dadiangas Boys’ Department (NDDBD) Batch ‘73 remembered having read, I am sure their aging selves now would shout in unison: The Lady or The Tiger?

It was one powerful tale that made such an impact on my life. It made me realize then, as a 13-year-old boy, real life’s lesson No. 1: life is full of choices. Later, I would find some choices easy to make, some so difficult that it dredged up every metaphor I’ve come across: to be between the devil and the deep blue sea, a rock and a hard place, Scylla and Charybdis.

The impact was even greater with the influence Mr. Rebucan had on my intellectual life. As our English teacher, he taught us a language that resonates with dynamism when used as a tool for self-expression. He was as sports-minded as he was an avid reader. Being not much of the sporty type due to my myopic eyes, I would read library books while keeping watch over the school bags and uniforms of those classmates who played in the field. I would often see Mr. Rebucan reading in between ballgames he was officiating, in the canteen while taking his snacks, in the faculty room when he had finished checking our papers, and in the parade grounds while waiting for the civic-military parade to start. I was drawn to him because we shared something in common – reading. Pretty soon, I approached him for titles to look for in the library. With him as a mentor, my love for words and reading became boundless. He did not stay long in the teaching profession as he later worked for a government agency and a soft-drink bottling company. Years later, he and I would often cross paths in search of reading materials in local bookstores and magazine stands. Cherished books were exchanged between us.

December 1999. It has been 29 years since I last heard/read Stockton’s 120-year-old story. My pulse raced as I discovered from the book’s back cover blurb that the story has a sequel: The Discourager of Hesitancy. That clinched it! This book would be the perfect gift for Mr. Rebucan. I was sure, he, too, would be as interested as I was to know how the story ended. I bought two copies and sent one to him with a short note that I hope one day we could meet and debate on the two short stories.

As I reread the story that night, I reflected on the motivations (mine and others) that led to choices impacting my life, career and relationships. I realized that at the high and low points in my life, some people acted as the semi-barbaric king who forced me to make hard decisions while others, like the princess, led me to "ladies" and "tigers" as consequences of my decisions after considering their advices and maneuverings. Whatever their motives, I thank them all because through them, I have learned to accept responsibility for my own decisions in life. As Frank Stockton aptly said in reply to the countless questions he got about the story’s ending: "If you decide which it was — the lady or the tiger — you find out what kind of person you are yourself."

[This essay was the winner for the week ending June 5, 2005 of the My Favorite Book contest jointly sponsored by the National Bookstore and Philippine Star. It was published in the Philippine Star June 5, 2005 issue.]

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