On seeing her

I have some vivid mental images of her. We were in second grade. It was a humid June morning; my section felt uneasy in our seats confronted by a foreign being that didn’t look like most of us. Our grade two teacher, Ma’am Ureta, was staring at her while her mother was explaining to our class adviser why her daughter missed the enrollment. After roughly 15 minutes, she was asked by my teacher to say good bye to her mother and to occupy the empty seat three desks from where I was seated. She was wearing a lavender shirt, a pencil cut skirt, and a backpack made from woven rattan strips. She looked so different from your usual public central school kid. Her skin was a lot fairer, her face radiant unlike most of us then who looked sullen if not hungry having missed breakfast or were too poor to afford it. She looked well-fed. I, in particular, was a few strands away from looking malnourished. I am not sure if we instantly clicked, but our friendship spanned nineteen years. In a year’s time she looked like most of us, public school kids. Playing under the midday sun with us charred her skin, the sweat left her hair sticking and reeking in that quintessential odor of kids unaffected by life’s many hardships that luckily only the adults worry about.

Today, I saw her again. This time, her face looked even more, I am not sure, luminescent, I suppose. She looked happy and content. Tired, yes, after having gone through the rigors of med board reviews, but there’s something that seemed to well up from within her.

And I love what I saw. I am very happy for her. I envy her in fact. She has within her the best gift a woman can ever have.

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Picking dry leaves

I still can vividly recall a recurring scene at the backyard of our old house some 18, I’m not sure, maybe 19, years ago.  It’s an image of my four siblings and me (our youngest sister was born several years after) picking up dry leaves that had fallen from an old Jackfruit tree.

This was our father’s “assignment” to us which we did with dedication every five in the afternoon after coming home from our classes in a nearby public elementary school. Our eldest sister, Mae, was 10 then. I was 8. Des, my brother born after me, was 7. Sef was 5; he attended kindergarten in the morning and at five, after sleeping the whole afternoon, already ready for play or to take part in any physical activity with us. And Gemini was 3, already an able ambler.

It was a task we took seriously, too seriously in fact that it became an opportunity for the five of us to compete with each other on who could pick the most number of dry leaves.

We had a method to this madness.

Before coming home, Mae, Des, and I passed by the stand of an old woman selling barbecued plantains (which we called sinugba nga saging because my parents are both Ilonggos, but which our schoolmates called saging ginanggang because they were all Cebuanos. The five of us never bothered speaking their language. As a generic term we called this snack banana-Q, which is not accurate since deep fried plantains in brown sugar were also called with it).

These barely cooked plantains were brushed with margarine and rolled in white sugar then skewered (I doubt if this is the appropriate word for it) using bamboo sticks that were sharpened at the tip.

To this day I cannot understand why our mother did not keep us from buying that snack, as everything about it was clearly a deadly weapon.

The plantains looked dirty after having swum in the ashes of the charcoals the old woman used to barbecue them. The margarine was without a brand name, and it was conspicuously colored in striking yellow similar to those used in emergency road signs. The brush used to envelop the plantains in that margarine-from-hell was a paint brush, and a used one, as evidenced by the chipping green latex paint on the handle. The sugar that stuck onto the bananas seemed to be from the same batch of sugar used in the previous weeks because it looked more like beach sand than sugar; individual sugar crystals could not be distinguished from the ashes that got mixed with it. Our taste in food, apparently, was very sophisticated. And lethal.

Lest I forget, the bamboo stick, which I remember using as arrows to target shoot the banana trees of our neighbor that stood in a community garden beside a small Catholic chapel. Legend has it that a grade four pupil in our elementary school was killed after having stepped on a protruding barbecue stick. That pupil’s ghost remained in the school to haunt students and teachers alike, or something that went like that, depending on the temperament of the storyteller.

After having our fill of that unforgettable delicious afternoon snack, the five of us proceeded with the operation.

We used those bamboo sticks sharpened at the tip to pick those fallen Jackfruit leaves in our backyard. The idea was simple, we punctured each leaf until they accumulate into a bunch of stabbed dry leaves. Each of us had a base camp where we stockpile our Jackfruit leaves “barbecue”.

The one who picked the most leaves won.

I don’t remember what we did with the leaves after, what the winner got as prize after winning, or what happened to the Jackfruit tree when we moved to a new house years after.

What I vividly recall, though, was our old backyard that was free from those fallen dry leaves.

And our father smiling at us.

Paths

Last Monday, I saw her again after eight long years, right in the middle of a morning train rush to work. My last glimpse of her, she was my seatmate in our fourth year, was during our high school graduation in 2003, crying, like all high school students do when it dawns on them that the road from this point on radically diverges and that they’re bound not to see each other ever again.

I was standing, holding the still-warm metal handrail when I heard a woman say my name, ‘Fev’, a couple of times. The timbre of the voice did not register. Nobody calls me Fev anymore except those people whom I spent with most of my childhood and teenage years. Seeing her after many years brought back memories of the better times  in the province. We were classmates in fifth grade when she, along with a handful of her classmates, were distributed among the 13 other sections in grade five after their class adviser died of cancer in the middle of the school year. They were from section 6. She performed really well in class, did even better in subjects like Filipino and Civics than my section 1 classmates. She silently made her way  and consistently maintained her good grades. She remained my classmate from then until our last year in high school. I learned from former classmates that she studied Fish Technology at Mindanao State University in General Santos City then moved to Laguna after graduation and eventually to Manila. We planned to meet once or twice when we began working but it never materialized.

I looked to her direction, she was seated between two old men. She seemed to have aged well beyond 25. I saw gray hairs peeking through her coarse crown. “Kamusta na ka, Fev?” It took me a while to recognize her. I simply blurted “Janice!” We did not talk as she hurriedly got off at Ortigas station. She was carrying a tote bag that dwarfed her small frame but this did not keep her from ambling confidently and joining the crowd scurrying out of the station, and getting lost in the plethora of strangers.

People indeed pass us by in a matter of seconds to say ‘hi’, or if we’re lucky, minutes, and for some of us who are not very fortunate, without us even realizing it. Our paths, though at some point may fortuitously converge, remind us that whatever we have now is ephemeral, that however we wanted to chat and catch up with a high school classmate we have not seen for almost a decade, we all must proceed with our own journey and just be hopeful that in the next train ride we can ‘stop and talk a while’, says a line in a famous commercial for coffee in the 90s.

Teaching for 42 years

http://www.mediabistro.com

If I count all the years I have spent working since I graduated from college in 2007, they would sum up to roughly two years and a half. Of this, I spent two years teaching. The other six months was spent either in a job I did not love or whining about that job I never learned to love. Negligible, if I compare this to my elementary school teachers in the provice whose service records stated 25, 31, 37 years spent teaching (this I learned after they unsuspiciously asked me, then a naive-looking grade three pupil, to photocopy their service records at the principal’s office. You may be asking why it’s in the principal’s office. During that time when the photocopying machine made it premier in our small barrio anything precious, as was just proper, was stored, inventoried, and displayed in the principal’s office, so dead frogs preserved in a clear bottles of mayonnaise, stuffed giant tortoise caught in a creek beside the school, outstanding school projects submitted by students whose mothers had to pay a national artist a fortune to paint their son’s ‘Go, Glow, and Grow’ charts, ‘modern’ equipment like a stereo the size of a coffin set vertically, a black-and-white TV, a turntable, and the Minolta photocopier popular during the 90s find their way in his mildewy office. The principal, by default, was also the photocopying machine operator as secretaries were unheard of in those years,). The principal himself, who was my teacher in a required drafting class, was one of the longest –serving teachers in the school, 35 years. He died three years after he retired, serving a total of 42 years. The truth is, I got really nothing to say in this post. I am now in the middle of my class, and thoughts about teaching just preoccupy my mind.

Death of handwriting

handwriting

I was quite surprised to learn that my friend, Rogelio Braga, this year’s Palanca second prize winner for best short story written in Filipino still writes his works using pen and paper. With all the electronic gadgets to input all the information, one can actually write a prize-winning novel without having to cut a single tree. However this essay will do away with lecturing (or giving a sermon) on the better way of saving the environment by considering how we transmit information, or in the case of writing, giving a physical form to what is inherently cerebral undertaking.

On the contrary my reluctance to totally abandon script as a method to transform my thought or anyone’s into its more tangible version has less to do with environmnetalism as it is with the romantic aspect of writing and the beautiful feeling of my ballpoint licking the surface of a paper, leaving cursives that say more about my identity than all the combined adjectives I have used to describe myself.

This is not to say, nevertheless, that I am still doing hand. I don’t anymore, which I think is unfortunate. I type directly in my computer. According to Umberto Eco we are depriving history, or in case extra-terrestrial beings visit our planet in the future, any evidence that our thoughts pass through raw stages before they become the fluid collection of words we see in print.

Writing in script reminds me of the painstaking activities my classmates and I had to go through as we were learning how to write when we were eight years old. Our grade two teacher would write each letter on the blackboard, the mothers and children, the upper and lower cases respectively, and each of us had to fall in line to show her our imitation of her handwriting in cursive. One will have to be careful especially between T and F as the upper case F has a serif while the other has none. Or that there is an extra curl for capital letter C and the lower case is a simple semi-circle.

But with the advent of computers, smart phones, and PDAs, the art of handwriting is relegated to the back alleys of yesterday. My youngest sister who is eleven years old and is studying this time at the same central school all my other siblings including myself graduated from, surprisingly still writes in beautiful cursive. I wonder how things would have been had she studied in Manila and had been exposed to all the modern comforts we all ignore.

As for me, who is made too dependent on my computer, I cannot imagine myself writing on a piece of paper, but who knows? In the event those aliens come here earlier than predicted and start sacking our planet, I could revert to pen and paper and write something about them. Whenever I hear of people still writing their drafts on pieces of paper, I could not help but feel nostalgic about the not-so-distant past when I used to also do the same beautiful cursive and find satisfaction in seeing my unedited thoughts in my imitation of my second grade teacher’s handwriting.

Gleaning lessons from School of Life (Mga Dulang Walang Pinag-aralan)

Our happiness as a nation is not of an insouciant kind. We are not afforded to experience this blithe and unconcerned happiness because the consequences can be devastating for reasons we all know by heart.

However, this does not mean we have already given up on happiness or humor altogether, in fact we are one of the happiest people in the world (that is, if we take humor and happiness as interchangeable). Despite the harsh living conditions that are at first glance incapable of supporting happiness, we can still make fun of the situation and ourselves. Something that most foreigners think is laughable if not ridiculous.

Without this adaptive mechanism, however, we would not be able to cope with the hardship of life in this country and we’d all end up lining up for a slot in the National Psychiatric Hospital, that is, if it exists at all.

Of course, we try to have a semblance of happiness in our lives giving rise to this distinctively Filipino way of redefining the phrase “pursuit for happiness”.

And this Filipino humor repeatedly manifests itself in the three plays that make up a set called School of Life in this year’s Virgin Labfest 5. It is the use of humor, in all its kinds, to drive a point or a commentary on the public school system, education, lifelong learning, and life that made this set truly a school of life.

Public School in the Philippines

Isang Mukha ng Pandaraya (by Oggie Arcenas, directed by Roli Inocencio)

The vision of the director for the play was well executed, and this is visible in the plays tight scenes and good timing. Considering that both the storyline and the theme of the play Isang Mukha ng Pandaraya are nothing new, the challenge of making the play feel fresh lies on the direction, and this successful attempt of its director Roli Inocencio is worth noting.

The carefully established contrast, a crucial element of the play, between the characters from the two sides, the counsels of the defense and prosecution and their clients, that the play requires is very distinct. Though in some cases one will have an uncomfortable feeling that he is watching a teleserye involving a cat fight between Judy Ann Santos and Gladys Reyes in the early 90s soap Mara Clara, except that the character of Isadora, the cheating summa cum laude, is not bitchy enough neither does she sound adequately intelligent for somebody graduating with the highest honor, although admittedly, she is more than scheming.

There are also aspects of the play, such as the distracting message alert tone of the chair of the Student Disciplinary Tribuna, that mock the university where the story of the play is based: the University of the Philippines, where a case involving students who committed cheating, a grave act in the University Code punishable with expulsion, but was downgraded to “misconduct”.

The play has too much negativity in it. Then again, if the realities it tries to imitate are negative in the first place, it is understandable therefore that pessimism can be sensed in all its parts. This sense of the negative foreshadows the conclusion the play chose or is forced to choose, an ending that the viewers already expect and anticipate because the prevailing realities of education in the Philippines dictates this kind of ending.

By trying to avoid sounding like delivering a sermon, the playwright gave in to the pressure of ending this play the way he ended it. An unwise decision, I believe; a decision that unburdens the writer to suggest a solution to the problem. A no-brainer conclusion that even the final implied act of Amor biting off the penis of the chair of the Students Disciplinary Tribunal did nothing to recover the depth the play has sunk.

Ang Huling Lektyur ni Misis Reyes (by Tim Dacanay, directed by Hazel Gutierrez)

It must have been a daunting challenge for the only character of this play, Misis Reyes, to do a monologue and to continuously amuse the audience the entire time she gives her last lecture before she resigns.

Her lecture on dissonance is impeccably clear and engaging. Her lessons on life interspersed between her Music class is more effective than any Values Education in high school or Philosophy courses I took in college. Her last lesson on sex, told without restraint but with full sensitivity on the issue, is better in driving the point than the all the sermons in the pulpit of the Church on the subject.

Misis Reyes becomes an animated character because of the personality the actor bestowed on her. In Misis Reyes I saw images of the countless, untiring teachers. I even saw in her the image of my mother who is also a teacher in the public high school where I graduated from.

These teachers at some point were idealists like anyone of us who also hoped to change the system and improve the way knowledge is taught and used. But like the imaginary sister principal, the system does not admit change as quickly as we would have wanted.

For some, the decision, although hard, is to give in to the system and give up the hope, but for Misis Reyes it is to become a better mother to her son, to give up for now, and to give her last lecture that defies rules, to be a rebel, if need be, all for the sake of her students who need to learn what they have to learn about their own bodies and sexuality.

This is a play I would love my mother to see and all my teachers who taught me the best lesson I’ve learned: going against the current.

MPC (Mababang Paaralan ng Caniogan) (by Job Pagsibingan, directed by [I could not remember her name but she was this very gorgeous lady who demolished that night my stereotype of a theater director] and mounted by the actors of Dulaang Sipat Lawin)

Everything in this play is meant to be funny and comical: the oversize props, the actors dressed in cute primary school uniforms, these same actors’ affected way of delivery of their lines, the teacher’s bright uniform and clownish make up, the unpredictably witty and satirical exchanges of lines, the situations, and its no-holds-barred parody of the truths about the public education system in the Philippines.

The effect of sensing truths is not static; it is dynamic, amorphous, myriad. Our reaction to them can also be varied depending on our own experience of them and how they are presented. Job Pagsibingan represented all these truths he knows in his play Mababang Paaralang ng Caniogan with utmost sensitivity and outright humor.

It dawned on me while watching the play that there are eerie similarities in the experience of all Filipinos who attended public schools anywhere in the country. The play is set in Bulacan, I studied in South Cotabato, but everything that the three students – Pelis, Didai, and Erwin – have gone through is exactly the same things my classmates and I experienced in Dole Cannery Central Elementary School in Polomolok.

I laughed almost to a point of hyperventilating because I saw myself in all the three characters; my teachers in the harsh but loving, dedicated but fatigued Miss Magnaye who, like all other public school teachers, has to resort to selling goods if only to make both ends meet; and my fear of the leaders in the chills-and-shudders-causing district supervisor who left indelible fears we all have on people of superior ranks.

The play has not introduced any new perspective on the failure of the country’s public school system. This has been repeatedly tackled in all other plays whose object is to shed light on the already glaringly corrupted system. This truth is not something that we can easily laugh about. But the methods the play uses to treat its conflicts, a blunt commentary on this already tired topic and that nostalgia-inducing scenes between the three students and with Miss Magnaye, make this play truly memorable.

****

At the end of the day (forgive my use of this cliché) a theater’s success does not depend on whether it has caused us to ask profound questions about society’s ill, man’s place in the world, life in general, or to cause us to intellectualize on the motivations of the characters.

If it touched baser human needs to laugh and to cry and inspired primitive emotions such as anger, fear, love, happiness in it viewers then it is already more than enough. That theater is aready successful.

10 things you’ll not forget if you attended a public school in the Philippines

Public School

I am a product of the public education system, and based on the way I turned out, public schooling in my country can’t be that bad. I spent two years of my kindergarten and six years of primary education at Dole Cannery Central Elementary School, four years of secondary education at Polomolok National High School, my college at the University of the Philippines. Furthermore, I took several units from the Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi University of Foreign Studies in Vietnam both public institutions of higher learning in both countries.

If you spent most of your years of schooling at a public school in the Philippines you should have experienced any of the following:

1. Your teacher was selling ice candies, yema balls, colorful threads for your HELE ‘kinds-of-stitches’ project, art papers for your organ systems projects, and anything imaginable to her students.

2. You were scared to death by the rumors that your school was a former cemetery or that a ghost of a teacher who died of a violent death is haunting your classroom.

3. You spent and hour or more of your time every day watering plants, pulling weeds, scrubbing the floor or planting cabbages in the vegetable garden of the school.

4. You remember clearly well that the class bully was the stupidest student in your class.

5. Bringing of home-made sandwiches made from mayonnaise and Tasty loaf bread to school during recess was a sign of being well-off that can either inspire respect or scorn from your classmates.

6. Staple afternoon games played while waiting for dismissal were Chinese garter, hide-and-seek, tumbang preso, luksong tinik, patintero. (In my elementary school we had 21, dampa, bahay-kubo, baguongay, takyan, baseball using tennis balls and the arm of a chair for bats).

7. Going to school not in uniform and wearing slippers were not prohibited.

8. You escaped from class before the afternoon dismissal time to watch Japanese animations such as Cedi ang Munting Prinsipe, Sarah ang Munting Prinsesa, Maria at ang Pamilya von Trapp, Ghost Fighter, Flame of Recca, Mojacko, and Gundam

9. Some of your classmates professed to be prophets of God capable of ‘performing’ miracles which had earned them a significant number of gullible followers which might have included you (but of course, something you will vehemently deny).

10. Your teacher had a basin she used for peeing and all her bodily needs since restrooms were non-functioning. These heavily ammoniac bodily discharges were used to water plants that inevitably made these plants, most of the time bougainvillea, smell as sweet.

(This note was written a long time ago, sitting untouched with my other files. I only remember that I have written this note that enumerated the things I experienced in my elementary school after watching the play Mababang Paaralan ng Caniogan, one of the featured plays in the Virgin Labfest V held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. And I was surprised with the almost similar experiences the three characters have in their school in Luzon to that of ours in Mindanao.)