I never could imagine, beyond my deepest and farthest thoughts, how fortunate school children in developed countries are in comparison to those in under-developed nations. I knew a huge gap existed, from hearing painful stories from my mom to seeing it on tv or reading about it. But i never knew, when i arrived at Cangumbang elementary school in Palo, Leyte PI, that the evidence of the disparity between rich and poor would be so heavily pronounced. And during my 3 months as a volunteer teacher for the 2nd graders, how it would change my life unexpectedly through a rollercoaster of experiences.
My mom was raised in a poor village in San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines. When we were kids, she used to talk about her hardships being a young girl who had big dreams and ambitions. She often spoke about how she had to walk for kilometers through muddy ricefields, sunny or rainy, to get to school with school supplies only limited to hand-downs such as half a pencil and tear-away waste paper to scribble on. I listened but I couldn't understand. I only had to walk for 10 minutes to my elementary school with a backpack full of pens, pencils and paper and more books than my back could carry. I wore fresh clothes every day. And when it rained, i had a jacket to protect me from the wetness. How could I possibly imagine her hardships when I, as a young boy, took things for granted. I don't blame myself, I just didn't know any better.So when I found out about an opportunity to teach elementary school in an impoverished region I haven't ever heard about, I excitedly jumped on it. I quit my job, packed my bags, and headed off on adventure - determined to make a difference, expand my horizons, and help others that need it the most.
I arrived at Tacloban City Romualdez airport without preliminary thoughts or expectations. There I joined up with the Volunteer for Visayans community group who are a set of gifted, talented, and truly special people. I've never met a group truly dedicated to the betterment and progress of their community through activities and programs designed to make life better for those who need it the most. Their slogan is touching yet empowering, "make a difference". I praise all staff and volunteers at the VFV for all their hard work, dedication, and achievements.
A 45 minute journey via jeepney bus and passenger motorbike (an elongated motorcycle capable of seating 5 persons with side luggage to accommodate for passages through unpaved, muddy roads) lead me to a tiny town of Palo where I first laid eyes on a small building filled with kids between the ages of 7 and 10. Nestled in a neighborhood inhabited by small single room wood/bamboo habitats often filled with an entire family, there existed no paved roads which didn't allow auto vehicles to pass which made it a real quiet and tranquil place. The school is centrally located in the middle of acres of rice fields picturesquely placed within a backdrop of scenic mountain slopes covered by a green blanket of coconut and palm trees. Homes were sputtered throughout the fields with no particular road leading to them. Electricity was scarce, only a single line fed through the neighborhood from the downtown area, from which many families linked their lines to without proper training or tools. Needless to say, the elementary school lacked electricity and was lit only by the grace of the sun.
I met the teacher there. A lovely young woman by the name of Harlyne Jardin. Not even over 30 years old, she was in charge of educating close to 50 school kids at the grade 1 and 2 level. The amazing part, was that she taught them at the same time! I cannot describe the overwhelming difficulties she endures day after day by trying to maintain lessons for 2 separate grades in a single room with kids who quickly lose attention at those young ages. I still think about her alot. There are alot of good people we never hear about. The people that make a real difference in other people's lives, yet never rise to fame or fortune. A person like Ma'am Harlyne.
The small building had an adjacent separate classroom, roughly about half the size of the bigger classroom, in which I was allowed to conduct my teaching. It didn't look as pretty as the main classroom. it wasn't decorated by pictures and colorful lettering. It was bare, grey, cold, and had an old blackboard. But that's all I needed, I thought. Ma'am Harlyne gave me responsibilities for the 2nd graders, since they were more advanced than the 1st graders and also there were fewer of them. I managed a class size of about 15 kids and went into my first day of teaching with fresh ideas about math and english with few teaching materials.I will never forget the first moments of standing in front of the kids. I didn't speak the local dialect, Waray, and could only meagerly get along with Tagalog. On the other side, the kids couldn't speak English, their Tagalog was limited, and they predominantly spoke Waray. I was in trouble. I got blank faces. They tried to understand me. I tried to understand them. We could not communicate.
That night I went back to my room back in Tacloban City thinking about how to overcome this challenge. How could I possibly teach them Math and English if we cannot establish a form of communication? So that night I went to the bookstore and bought a English - Waray dictionary written over 50 years ago and revised once in the 70s. Yet the book was brand new. I also came armed with a few Tagalog dictionaries and phrase books to aid me further. So the next day, I found myself somewhat effective with my teachings thanks to my literary aid but what I realized was that the Waray they spoke was entirely different from the formal Waray in the dictionary. Some words they understood, many they didn't. English, they only knew from popular phrases and music tunes. But that night, I pondered and then discovered that the key to unlock our language problem was to focus on the universal language, mathematics.
I taught more Math than English. I figured Math was more important for their futures as they can slowly progress in English as they get older. There is such a big influence of American television and music that teenagers are able to converse in English. But I taught Math using a variety of communication methods, English, my broken Tagalog, my useless Waray dictionary, and bodylanguage. I discovered that I had this boy in my class, who was the brightest of the bunch. His name was Mark Saldana. He would always accompany me to the pick-up area after school so he could wave goodbye while running along with the motorcycle on his way home. He became my liaison to deploy my ideas to the other kids. He could speak little English and Tagalog, but understood very well. After the first week, I noticed a few of the kids became bored and wanted to rather play marbles than go through the lesson plan. I'm not much of a disciplinarian, but it bothered me. Maybe because I felt I wanted to make a big difference in their lives that they should pay attention. I tried to tell them to stop because it wasn't fair to the other kids that were willing to learn because of all the noise and ruckus they would create. Soon, that group of kids stopped showing up to class. I thought about it that night and the next day I dedicated myself to buying the faithfully attending kids lunch every day. Bags of chips and peanuts and bottles of Coke and 7-Up was my means to reward the kids for their attendance and behavior. Soon the castaway kids discovered that their "bad" behavior was detrimental to them while the other kids were enjoying their lunch, and as they looked on with jealous green eyes, I noticed a drop in their "bad" behavior. I had 100% attendance for the rest of my time there.I had to administer periodic progress exams to the kids to measure their improvement which would be reviewed by Ma'am Harlyne. At first, the scores all around were low. The averages were dropped by the kids who were lagging behind. So I needed a new gameplan. I noticed that the kids with the most difficulties were not doing their homework assignments. I found a way to encourage the kids to do their homework to be better prepared for their exams by handing out "gifts" or "rewards" for their passing grades. Simple and inexpensive things like notebooks, pencils, and crayons would bring joy to the faces of those who worked hard on their homework and would be able to pass the exams without any problems. The kids who weren't focused on doing their nightly homework, again, saw with jealousy eyes the rewards of changing their behavior. Soon, those kids would complete all homework assignments and would pass their exams on their own. They had a tough time understanding the problems, but watching them struggle with the problems and finding the answer was probably one of the most satisfying experiences.
My classroom style revolved around alot of serious teaching coupled with free-time for drawing, dancing, and overall leisure. In 95 degree heat and high humidity, attention spans are drawn to a minimum. So the kids need diversion, as did I. I still miss the kids' laughter while they jumped around dancing or playing marbles or drawing on the blackboard. I often asked them to draw freely on paper and would ask them what they could imagine themselves being "when they grow up". The boys usually went for basketball players and police officers, while the girls would draw flowers and our elementary school building. I believed self-expression was important and to give the kids freedom to express themselves in a learning environment gave them fun while learning. I also had help from a fellow volunteer from France. Her name was Sophie Macourt. Probably one of the nicest persons I have ever met. She split her time between helping me teach and help at a Catholic orphanage for the sick and abandoned. We still send each other an occasional email. I will never forget her drive and inspiration to help the truly needy ones.
Ma'am Harlyne started to notice the progress of the kids' exam scores. She was happy that the kids were learning and also were having lots of fun. She couldn't thank me enough for buying the kids lunch everyday, which was only a small thing to me. But to the kids, who probably only eat once or twice a day, they enjoyed it tremendously.There was a spelling bee organized for all of the schools in the district. 2 of our finest 1st and 2nd graders would be chosen to represent our tiny school and compete against the bigger, and better-funded schools in the district. The event drew hundreds of kids, parents, and teachers. The kids stayed close to me, not to get lost in the crowd. They were nervous. They were never before crowded by so many people. It was overwhelming for them to sit in that environment and perform. I held their hands even while they sat and prepared for their test. I felt like a father. A proud father.
It became apparent that the well-funded schools produced more advanced kids from the results. Cangumbang placed last of a list of 8 or 9 schools. The kids couldn't keep up some of the English words. Between the pressure and the nervousness of the kids, I also felt partly responsible for their failure. But down as I was, when one of the kids, Renalyn, finished her test and they announced her incorrectness and elimination - she looked me square in the eyes amongst a crowd - and smiled. I never felt more proud of her and all my other kids. Silently I cried inside, but was happy at the same time. We all went for ice cream.
3 months had passed and it is close to Christmas. My time had expired. It was time for me to pack up and leave. It was a difficult moment. It was emotional. On my despedida (going away party), I decided that I wanted to treat my all of my kids to lots of food, presents, and more food. I ordered a whole lechon baboy (roasted pig), some lechon manok (roasted chicken), and my live-in family made spaghetti. I also invited all the parents of the kids I taught to attend so I can give my thanks for allowing their kids to leave the work behind on the ricefields to attend class. I remember I was so busy with the preparations of the food that I barely slept. The next morning, it was logistically difficult to get everything loaded up and transported to the school, which added to the fatigue. But I became so enthralled with serving up the food, first to the adults second to the kids, that I quickly forgot being tired. The room was packed with faces. It was hot and humid. Everyone was there, the kids, the kids' parents, the teachers and some from other schools, my live-in parents and family, my drinking buddies from the neighborhood, and the other staff and volunteers. The night before, with the help of a girl who was part of the family I stayed with, Kat-Kat, I prepared a little thank you speech. The intent was for me to recite my English words into Waray, to show respect and honor the kids and parents. I rehearsed all night and tried to memorize it. But when it came time to recite in front of the crowd, which seemed to be over a hundred people all jampacked in a small classroom, I choked and had to read from my paper. I choked not from the pressure, but for the overwhelming feeling of emotions that ran through me. I've never been much of an emotional person, but in this moment in this instance, as I read aloud my words of thankfulness and grace in Waray, as I was looking around the dead-silent room into the eyes of the attentively listening kids and parents, I started to tear. I've never heard that much silence around me. They understood me perfectly as I spoke in their dialect. And at the end, people around me started to cry. I heard agreeable applause from the parents and the kids scrambled towards me in a mad dash. I was surprised, they prepared a speech for me too! Then they formed a crescent around me, held each others hands (even the ones that didn't like each other), and in unison screamed "We Will Miss You Kuya Allan!" The experience was magnetic. I circled the room and shook hands with all the parents and other attendees there to show my respect. I hugged the kids and Ma'am Harlyne. Then I walked away in tears. A couple of my best buddies, Bing and Benedict, from the town I stayed in accompanied me back to the pick-up area and drive back home with me for a drinking session. They wanted to say their final goodbye too. I miss those guys too.
I will never forget this wonderful experience. It has added to my book of experiences and further shaped me and the world that I live in. I felt like I changed after this experience. The irony was that I was supposed to be there to "make a difference", yet it was the kids that made the difference.As I rode away, the kid Mark Saldana did his usual run along with the speeding motorbike as he waved goodbye.