Lady I know married in her early 20s, had two kids, and clawed her way through hell and back. “Life hasn’t been generous,” she said, “but I did everything just to make sure they finished their studies.” They did, and became professionals.
At 60-something, she wore a white blouse, a blue skirt, and glasses probably as thick as the earth’s crust. She was a classmate in college; the rest of us were a bunch of teens too enthusiastic about our future. We had chattering mouths, she confined herself in solitude. She didn’t mind. I knew, by her stern expression, that she was all “been there, done that.” She was the oldest student in the university. We were somewhat proud that she was in our college. Came graduation, and we received our diplomas. She had the biggest smile; she had all the reasons to.
About a two-hour drive away is this paradise called Agusan Marsh—so vast it is believed to cover the same area as Metro Manila. It’s a “waterworld” where houses and schools float along with intestinal excretions. Canoes are the mode of transportation. When I learned about the volunteer teachers there, I was overwhelmed with shame. They were working in such a hostile setting, I was working in the city. And they don’t get a penny watching lilies and being with children who, ironically, with such an abundance of water, stink from not taking baths.
I don’t know the rest of the story, but here’s what I know to be true. A child will wail like mad not because mom didn’t buy her a laptop or a new cell phone. She wails because she can’t go to school today. Dad has to harvest the crops in another town. Mom has to brave the brown waters for fish or clams. The child has to be babysitter for the day—or babies’ sitter, if you want the full glory of it. She has a number of younger siblings.
No, the children don’t complain because the hot dog tastes like crap or it’s the same eggs and bacon again for breakfast. No, they can’t do that. There’s nothing to complain about. There’s no food on the table.
It’s a school day today, yes. The students, five or six of them, have to pile into the wooden canoe and paddle probably a kilometer to the floating school. No unnecessary movements, or the canoe may topple and spill them into the water. As though the misfortune is not enough, those who forgot to wrap their bag in plastic will find their books, notebooks and pencils all wet. Now you have an idea what’s a bad day. The students will thank the heavens when they get back into the boat in one piece. Lolong, once the biggest crocodile in the whole world, was captured here, by the way.
But life goes on, the boat has to drift with life’s miseries. Teacher understands, it happens. Students sit, learn the ABC, learn about Mars, compute the square root of whatever, the lot.
You’re probably reading this sitting comfortably, with music in the background, in your cozy room, while 60 students are stuffed in 10×15-meter classrooms, all for the love of learning. But the Department of Education is supposedly doing something: X number of classrooms are being built, yes, to roof XXX number of students. Did I get the numbers right? Yes. I mean no. Who cares? That’s not the point. It is not enough to respond to the growing number of students. As I write, classes started a week ago, but the building geniuses made sure to slow down their work for reasons unfathomable. Maybe they want to be seen working? So Teacher talks in front, with the sounds of hammers pounding, of saws cutting through wood, of the truck dumping gravel as the background music—very conducive to learning!
But life goes on. School is school. This is where you’re freed from the bondage of ignorance; this is where, for the minutiae of things learned, the line is blurred, one side being knowledge, the other being wisdom.
In the film “An Education,” Carey Mulligan’s character says, “Me don’t wanna be in school. Any time from now, the Russians might drop a bomb here. I wanna marry my Jew. And go to Paris, and read books and drink coffee, and listen to jazz.” I know, I know, many people here share that view. Oh, that’s some fancy illusion; life is that easy, eh?
I am thinking of my classmate, smiling coyly in her yearbook picture. There’s an air of irredeemable content in finishing college at such an old age. I am thinking of the waterworld of Agusan Marsh—the students still paddling their way to knowledge, the teachers volunteering, the hungry crocodiles waiting to attack.
Oh. School. It’s such a rotten place. It kills my creativity, I don’t want my knowledge to be constantly tested. I wanna experience life outside its four corners. I wanna go to Paris and drink coffee and read books and listen to jazz.
Sure, tell me that. Or better yet, tell the crocodiles that.
Glenn R. Galendez, 28, says he is “soon to join the OFW bandwagon” to work as an English teacher in an international school in Zhengzhou, Henan, China.