Keen biologist took successful long shot at career on stage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am

Ihad a Montessori education from the age of four to the time I went to university in the Philippines.

On my first day, my mother remembers taking me to school only for me to turn around on our arrival and tell her to go home. I'm not sure many kids are like that.

What my education meant to me was being allowed to learn on my own and at my own pace. Not surprisingly, I found I loved being encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient.

It was also very tactile and tangible in that we learned how to tie shoe laces, polish shoes and sew on buttons. We even learned how to iron from an early age.

Montessori isn't based on a traditional linear relationship between teacher and pupil. It's a triangle with the third focal point being the prepared environment. Our teachers would show us how to use that environment then they'd leave us to tackle it on our own.

It resulted in my knowing what the parts of a fish were and about geometry; I even knew what a pentagon was at the age of five.

It was progressive, but more importantly for me, it was a whole lot of fun. I also liked the way we were allowed to repeat things. It was fun to do it again and in a different, perhaps even better, way.

Later, we moved to Manila from the north of the country, so I could continue my Montessori education but at a different school. I found I was eloquent and confident, and unlike many other kids, knew how to speak easily with adults.

My most memorable teacher was in first grade and she was called Mary Tabaquero. She always had a smile on her face and never lost her temper. She had each child etched in her mind and she treated us all as individuals. She knew the brightest among us and those that needed more help.

I think I was a bright kid and found learning came naturally. I loved trigonometry and biology but hated chemistry because I couldn't remember the periodic table or atomic numbers.

There was also another side to my education because, from the age of seven, I'd always been performing. I was asked to audition for a repertory company that an aunt had founded and which my cousin was involved in.

So I sang and then was asked to do a monologue and the only thing I knew how to recite was my girl scout's oath. My investiture, as it turned out, had just taken place.

But it wasn't until much later, when I had my big break in Miss Saigon while at university, that I decided it'd be my career.

At high school I'd devote a few hours a week taping for television or doing film.

I remember once going to Florida for two weeks to work on a project about responsible teenage behaviour. My teachers gave me two weeks of homework, including reading, and I spent a lot of time in the hotel doing it. In fact, I covered so much ground, I found I was ahead of the class when I returned.

I decided not to pursue a career in entertainment but to study biology at Ateneo de Manila University in Manila because that was the subject I loved.

If I'm honest, I found university rather challenging and a little bit of a shock. I was used to being one of the smartest but found myself surrounded by others who felt the same way, and of course some were also more able.

But I loved learning about the plant and animal kingdoms, and species, because it had all been ingrained in me from a young age.

However, I wasn't performing that much until one day I was asked to audition for the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in London and I landed the part.

I asked my friends what I should do and their reaction was: 'Are you nuts? It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you'll never have it again.' So I accepted, thinking I'd do it for a year and then return to finish university - though that never happened.

But I also remember later asking myself, after appearing on stage night after night, what I was doing in the musical - that there had to be something more.

I went to mass with mum and the priest was rather direct. I remember very clearly him saying: 'All of us are given gifts by God and we should all use those gifts.' So I found the answer came to me.

I found on the opening night in Hong Kong, I had butterflies for the first time in a long while.

I hope one day to go back to university, although I have a two-year-old now. The great thing though is that there's Open University and online learning, which makes it all so much easier and possible to study.

Lea Salonga is appearing in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre until November 28. She was talking to David Phair