But it had also a personal angle. I believed in knowing and understanding my students, so that, besides meeting their intellectual curiosities, I could genuinely help and support them and provide some guidance. A few of the students, who kept in touch with me later, did indeed say that I seemed like a caring mentor.
What I remember, however, is the time I failed. Roel Caniza wasn’t easily noticed; he was effortlessly self-effacing. He didn’t speak often. When classwork required him to, he spoke briefly as if observing an inviolable limit on his airtime. It was the unfailing cogency of his comments that made me pay attention. It was also what made me go out of my way to invite him to an after-class party at my home. I doubt he would have joined otherwise.
Once in the party, he impressed me with his social skills. He immediately made himself useful. He served the hors d’oeuvres the cook brought in, helped with the drinks very competently, and circulated gracefully among his classmates. He never talked or smiled much, but there was no mistaking his faultless role as a partygoer. With his good looks and neatly pressed clothes, he could have passed as a true party animal except for one thing: he quietly maintained a boundary around him and did not really belong.
Since he didn’t turn up in the next two parties, I made it a point to invite him to the third. He came readily and reverted to his role as the perfect partygoer who helped with everything and looked after other guests. I asked him to join me at the bar, ostensibly to get his assistance with some chore, and engaged in a private chat. Did he enjoy the course? Was it a burden, in addition to his work, or was the university a pleasant educational and social experience for him? Since he lived alone, did he feel lonely or did he enjoy being on his own?
Roel had realized by now that I was interested in him. He seemed to lower his guard and spoke with unwonted candor. He said he did not like living alone, but he was hoping to get used to it. He missed his siblings; he couldn’t be in touch with them because his parents did not want it. His work earned him a living, but it was undemanding and meant little to him. He would like to have friends, but he didn’t have any. I told Roel that I would like to stay in touch with him and that he was welcome any time the students came to my home.
The next week Roel was not in the class. I asked two of the students, but they did not know why he hadn’t come.
The following week the students came to my house for another after-class party. Where was Roel? When I asked the students, one took me aside and told me that Roel had hung himself in his apartment the previous night.
Did he say anything to anybody? Did he leave behind a note?
Characteristically, Roel had left a two-sentence letter thanking his friends and well-wishers. He gave no reason for his decision.