Ricky Lee had always known what he wanted in life—to become a writer and teacher.
Those were his dreams from the time he was a boy orphaned early and cared for by good-hearted, but impoverished, relatives in Daet, Camarines Sur.
When he came of age, Ricky banded with four of his high school buddies who shared his aspiration to study in Manila.
They left their province with high hopes they would find work there and earn enough for a college education that their families could not afford to give them.
Now a multi-awarded screenwriter, Ricky recollected the depth of his friendship with his provincemates—Ruben, Levy, Pepe, and Manolo—in the speech he delivered to the graduating class of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines after receiving his Doctorate in Humanities Honoris Causa from the university last Wednesday, May 8.
At 72, he has vivid memories of the hardships all five of them endured side by side in Manila.
In his speech, he recalled how they hanged on together as their youthful dream of a bright future got dimmer and dimmer.
In the end, it was only Ricky who stayed in Manila to follow his dream. His friends returned to their hometown, but not before making sure that Ricky was in good hands.
"Sa aming lima, sa ngayon, ako lang ang naka-graduate," he told PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Portal) in an exclusive phone interview on Thursday night, May 9.
He continued, "Walang grumadweyt sa aming apat... Tuwing piyesta sa Daet, umuuwi ako, June 24. Then nakikita ko yung dalawa sa kanila kasi eventually, bumalik sila sa Daet.
"Naging mahirap yung buhay nila, so umuuwi ako, tumutulung-tulong sa kanila.
"Yung isa sa kanila, nakatulong ako, napaaral ko yung anak sa college.
"Yung isa, eventually namatay. Nakikita ko sila, pero naging mahirap ang buhay nila."
It was Levy who had died, and the son whom Ricky sent to college was Ruben's.
About Pepe and Manolo, he said, "Yung dalawa naman, back and forth sa Manila-Bicol. Yung isa, nag-stay sa Manila.
"Okay naman ang buhay nila, but walang naka-graduate sa aming lahat, except ako ngayon.
"Yung lahat kami, tumakas para mag-pursue ng dream, wala, e.
"Kaming limang magkakaibigan, kung minsan, yung literal na colloquial term, totoo yun sa amin.
"Yung nagdildil ng asin. Yung ulam namin sa kanin asin. The next day naman, asukal.
"We went through that, sa ganung hirap."
Ricky said he was particularly close to Levy, who found ways to help him continue with his writing.
"Yung isa sa kanila, yung namatay, habang nasa apartment kami, ninakaw niya yung manual typewriter ng kapatid niya, dinala niya sa Manila para makapagsulat ako.
"One year akong hindi nakapag-aral muna, e, di ba? Trabaho muna, e, walang pera, e.
"So one year na nagtatrabaho kami, nagsusulat ako dun sa typewriter ng kapatid niya.
"I was writing short stories... Pag nagsimula na ako magsulat, parang nalalagpasan lahat, e.
"Parang nakakaya lahat, e, so I think it's the writing fueled by my imagination; I think malakas yung mundo ko ng imagination.
'Parang maski na gaano kahirap yung mundo sa labas, meron akong malakas na mundo sa loob ko, e, sa imagination ko.
"Ini-imagine ko yung mga gusto ko, yung mga isusulat ko, yung mga characters ko.
"Na-imagine ko na pupunta akong Maynila, matutupad ito, e.
"So parang gaano man ka-harsh yung mundo sa labas, malakas yung mundo ko sa loob, e.
"I think that kept me going... I think yun yung nag-sustain sa akin e, all the way.
"Kasi maski nung nasa Maynila at kung anu-ano yung trabaho ko—nagtu-tutor, nagwe-waiter, nagke-clerk, nagsusulat ako on the side.
"The writing kept me going. Parang may power ako kapag nagsusulat ako.
"Pag nagsusulat ka, nagpu-put together ka ng mga salita, parang you feel powerful.
"So maski walang makain, maski mahirap ang buhay, may hawak ka na kapangyarihan."
Ricky had a hard life growing up. His mom died when he was five and his dad passed away when he was in high school.
His father's siblings embraced him as their own, but they could ill-afford to help Ricky achieve the future that he wanted for himself.
Impassioned by his dream, Ricky refused to be discouraged. It was was then that he decided to leave his hometown and chart his future in Manila.
In his graduation speech, Ricky remembered spending most of his time reading the works of Filipino authors in the school library.
He told Pep.ph, "I really wanted to become a writer, elementary pa lang.
"Ang pinaka-mentor ko, yung mga librong binasa ko nung elementary and high school ako.
"Ayun ang parang talagang teacher... from foreign authors na sina [Fyodor] Dostoevsky to sina Nick Joaquin.
"Sumulat ako noon sa mga writers dito sa Manila when I was in high school, and may mga notes ako ng iba sa kanila, from Kerima Polotan, Ben Santos, Wilfrido Maria Guerrero ng U.P.
"May mga letters ako from them inspiring me noong high school pa lang ako wanting to learn how to write, and so on.
"So yun yung mga heroes ko noon, pero mostly mga writers ng libro na sinulatan ko rito, yung mga Filipino authors."
Reading and communicating with his favorite authors did not only help Ricky hone his nascent skill in writing, they also stoked up his other dream of becoming a teacher.
He said, "And also, gusto ko rin magturo. As in high school, nagtu-tutor ako ng ibang kaklase ko na nakakagalitan ng teacher kasi hindi maintindihan.
"Parang noon pa man, sabay na yun, e. Gusto ko magsulat and then gusto ko magturo, mag-workshop.
"Maski nung nag-aaral ako sa U.P., nagwu-workshop-workshopan kami nina Jun Cruz Reyes [writer-artist]...So noon, mahilig na ako sa parehong yun."
Ricky has been conducting free scriptwritng workshops at his home in Quezon City every Sunday.
According to him, it's his way of giving back for the good fortune that has come his way as a writer.
And as it has turned out, Ricky noted, humbly and gratefully, that he has also become a beneficiary of his own good deed.
He told PEP.ph, "These years, ang mentor ko maiko-consider ko would be my workshoppers.
"They keep me up on my toes, ginagawa nila ako na, 'O, dapat wag yan,' o 'Baka pangit yan.'
"Para silang mentor na nagiging mas alerto ako, pagbutihin ko ang sarili ko, dapat akong matutuo.
"Nandiyan silang lahat na nakatingin na ganun, so mas sila."
Humility is a known trait of Ricky for which he has been consistently praised.
In the last 40 years, he has written scripts for more than 170 films and documentaries, and has received over 60 awards and recognitions in the process.
Ricky acknowledged, in a manner of saying, that the accolades feed his fighting spirit, not his ego.
He said, "Hindi sa akin ganun kahalaga yung awards pero masarap.
"Masarap, kasi appreciation ng ibang tao yun, but I enjoy writing, e.
"It's the writing itself na parang award. And I am a hard worker.
"Pag may problema, pag mahirap magsulat, I just work hard.
"I just keep on working and working and working."
Did that mean he never suffered a creative block?
Ricky never did.
He explained, "I think nangyayari yun kasi hindi ka pa handa.
"Parang baby iyan, e. Wala pang siyam na buwan...
"Then you're impatient na makalabas yung baby.
"Hindi siya mental block, it's a process; maybe hindi pa makalabas.
"Maybe kailangan mo munang mauntog yung ulo mo sa pader—two times, three times, five times.
"And then, eventually may lalabas. I think it's just the process. It's hard work but it's a process."
Instead of forcing his creativity out, Ricky said he would start aother project to ignite fresh ideas.
"Sometimes, you feel like nag-dry up yung ideas mo sa isang bagay, then shift to another project.
"And then pagbalik ko dun sa isang project, na-energize na siya.
"I usually do two to three projects at the same time.
"So pagnabe-bend ako dun sa isa, lipat muna ako sa kabila.
"Pagbalik ko dun sa isa, okay na siya."