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Change the Z to K, Karate! The Inimitable Sir Cris Zarate

All sophomore high school students during my time – particularly if they had older brothers who also went to the same school – could not wait for the school year to end so that they could become juniors and take… Biology!!!

No, there was nothing special about the course in itself. Rather, everyone could not wait to be under what was arguably the most colourful personality of a teacher of that era.

We all heard about him from not only our brothers but even from our upperclassmen. His first-day day opening speech, something we were told he gave on the first day of Biology class without fail, was something we had all heard about. Yet, when he did come around to delivering it, the whole class was still practically rolling on the floor with glee and laughter.

“Take a look at my surname,” he went on, “Zarate!” He looked around, then resumed dramatically, “if you change the Z to K, what do you get?”
First, he wrote his name with a piece of chalk on the blackboard: Mr. Crisanto Zarate.

“Everyone,” he began pleasantly, “please take a look at my name: Crisanto. Although it is one name, there are indeed two parts to it.”

Although our eyes were shining with anticipation, we instinctively knew that this was still the serious part of the speech. So we had our hands neatly folded atop our desks and kept quiet as all classes tend to do when meeting a teacher for the first time.

“First, Cris… This means “Christ.” Polite laughter.

“Next, santo,” he went on, “meaning saint.” More polite laughter.

What he wanted to let us know that there was a side to him – as long as we tried to get along with him and behaved ourselves – that was good, Christ-like and saint-like.

“However…” he cautioned us after a dramatic pause. ‘Eto na… We were all feeling like a barrel of gunpowder with a fuse about to be lit.

“Take a look at my surname,” he went on, “Zarate!” He looked around, then resumed dramatically, “if you change the Z to K, what do you get?”

He straightened both palms and made chopping gestures at the air. Everyone responded, “Karate!!!” And all hell broke loose…

What he was trying to convey to all of us was that, if we crossed him, then there would be hell to pay. It was as simple as that; but being the artist that he was, he naturally had to convey his message in a colourful way that we would remember for the rest of our lives!

Oh, and by the way… He said he wanted to be called… Sir Cris… And this was long before it became universal to refer to one’s teacher as Sir This and Ma’am That.

Indeed, he had this really silly philosophy that got us into trouble with him – or was it the other way around? From Day 1, he did warn us that as far as he was concerned, kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat.

Well, there was this one morning when everyone was given group work or something. Rows 2 to 6 were diligently working on the assigned task; but Row 1 was unbelievably noisy. I was in the last row beside the windows.

My classmates in Row 1 were given a few warnings; but indeed, boys will always be boys – and the school was still an all-boys’ school. The noise would subside somewhat after each warning; but would resume louder – if anything – in no time at all.

Finally, Sir Cris had had enough.

He had this really unique way of punishing errant students: magbunot ng makahiyâ. One needed to be thorough when pulling out the weeds; he wanted to see the roots.

Well, because – as he said before – kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat, Row 1 had to go to the yard just outside our classroom to pull out 100 makahiyâ each; while Rows 2 to 6 just needed to pull out 50.


Out we went obediently; but inside, we were seething! Those of us who were working diligently on our group work thought that this one time was when the philosophy should not have been applied!

So we did not speak to him for a couple of weeks. When he conducted his lectures, everyone stayed quietly with his hands neatly folded on the desk. When one of us was asked a question, we agreed we would just stand up and stare blankly into space.

Then he gave a quiz. There were those among us who were initially fearful about our grades; but in the end, everyone cooperated and passed his paper with absolutely nothing written on these but his name!

The matter got to the attention of the Principal, who tried to mediate. In time, of course, we kissed and made up with Sir Cris. He was just too lovable a character to stay mad at for long. Besides, where would we all hang out? The Biology Room was our favourite haunt!

Who can possibly forget his outrageous attires???!!! He had this red-orange polo shirt that had no less than 50 buttons from his collar to the bottom seam. And he loved to tell all who cared to listen that one morning, he was late for work because he was midway through buttoning the shirt only to discover that the buttons and the buttonholes were not properly matched…

The highlight of our junior year was – as it was with everyone else – the Biology field trip to Mindoro. Unfortunately, ours was ruined by this regrettable accident that I told in the story Puerto Galera.

All students who had the good fortune to be under Sir Cris will have endless stories to tell about him and his Biology class. He also became a co-teacher when I returned to the school in 1982; this time as a teacher. What he was to me when he was my teacher – a unique, colourful and totally lovable personality – he also was when he was already a peer.

It is unfortunate that he had to leave the school in the mid-nineties. He was just one of those personalities who are just impossible to replace – the sort that we say are one of a kind.

Every day in that Biology class was unique; and no day passed without humour! Yes, we did have that falling out with him; but in the end, it was just one of those things that was eventually overshadowed by all the other good things that happened during a memorable school year under one of the most memorable characters the school had ever had the fortune to have.

To end – and this is a little-known nor acknowledged fact – Medicine and its allied courses were among the favourite career paths of many of those who were under Sir Cris’ Biology class. The humour was something we would remember for the rest of our lives. But he was also a damned good teacher…

[If you are an alumnus/alumna and have a Sir Cris story to tell, please do not hesitate to do so using the Comments Box below this page. You will need a Facebook user account to contribute.]

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