I’d very much like to say that I am currently a highly paid professional living in the lap of luxury, just so I can lend this piece an inspirational rags-to-riches feel. But, alas, I am simply a twentysomething writer, trying to make the most of my paycheck. This is not a rags-to-riches story, only a simple tribute to my beloved alma maters.
I grew up in public schools. I clearly remember my very first day in the first grade. We didn’t have nannies—our mothers themselves had to take us to our classrooms and then leave us there because they had laundry to finish. I was scared and I wanted to cry, especially when I glanced through the classroom’s wooden jalousies and saw my mother leave. But eventually I made friends and got the hang of it.
Friends in public school tend to stick, probably because no one went anywhere far enough. Or maybe because every day, we had to greet them with “Good morning, dear classmates!” Whatever the reason, I know that my best friends in the first grade are still my best friends now.
Not everyone stayed, though. Many of our classmates kept missing classes and became the butt of jokes. But during Parent-Teacher Association meetings, we’d hear their parents explain that those kids had to take care of their baby siblings or help their fathers in the fields. In many cases, they’d be absent on a Friday and not come back the next Monday or for the rest of the school year.
Then again, it’s not like public schools are a kid’s idea of a wonderland. Kids don’t exactly like being cramped in small square rooms with 40 to 50 classmates. Kids don’t have enough patience when they have to share old textbooks, especially with classmates of slower reading speeds. Kids don’t get motivated when they have to make do with rickety seats or leaking roofs.
Still, we had our share of fun. Though we had no playground with swings and seesaws, we loved playing team games on the grass. One favorite was the slipper game, which is like baseball, only with slippers instead of balls. Yes, we wore slippers to school. There was no real policy on wearing uniforms, much less school shoes. This was only appropriate, considering that many of us couldn’t even buy new slippers when the old ones wore thin.
We didn’t mind, because we would rather go barefoot than wear shoes when we leaped in luksong-tinik or climbed trees. For us, it was childhood bliss.
Kids as we were, we had very little sense of entitlement, because everyone was required to work. We were taught early on that we had to work not only for the things we wanted but also for the things we were responsible for. We scrubbed classroom floors and weeded gardens. We hauled gallons of water to feed the plants and cultivated the earth with our hands.
We had to perform tasks like these every day and no one was exempted. It became such a norm that if anyone tried to dodge the tasks, he or she would be branded lazy and annoy the rest of us.
My favorite task to do was rare: cleaning the library. Ironically, the school library was closed on most school days, and one of the few times it would be opened was when Department of Education supervisors were expected to do inspections.
I loved being a library cleaner. The books fascinated me, partly because they weren’t readily accessible to us. As I dusted the shelves, I’d go through every one of them, from the 20-page Adarna books to the donated American textbooks which still had the names of their previous owners.
Despite the restricted access to books, we had other ways to enrich our learning. We especially loved “Sineskwela” days, when entire grade levels would be ushered into the administration building to watch “Sineskwela” on TV. We were packed like sardines, but we cherished our every brush with the multimedia.
Things weren’t much different in high school. We still did the cleaning, still expected closed library doors, and still got giddy over any new-ish technology that arrived. My batch, the so-called wired generation, couldn’t use computers until we were juniors who took up the ICT elective. Even then, the most we could study was Microsoft Office. And this was 2005.
But most of us didn’t mind. The notion was that we wouldn’t have much use for computers in our small rural town, anyway.
This is where we fell short. We weren’t thinking big enough, or maybe we didn’t know how. It’s no wonder why, when high school was over and we had to make one of our first big life decisions, we were fazed.
On my first day of college at a private university, I was alone and it felt like first grade all over again. The difference was that the intimidation didn’t wear off the more people I met. Instead, it intensified every time a classmate mentioned a computer term that did not ring a bell for me or an author whom I had never heard of. The alumni of private high schools, especially, seemed much more well-read, better-equipped, and generally way ahead.
I worried at the thought of not being able to keep up and not passing university standards. I cowered so much that I even flunked an algebra midterm. A freshman without close friends, I wanted (more than I ever wanted in grade school) to go home and cry to my mother.
But if there’s one thing from public school that empowered me, it was the years of experience in school publications. That was why I took a communication course in the first place. So I pushed myself to outlast the tricky minors, and when my writing classes finally came, things became easier.
I knew then that I owed a lot to my publication mentors in elementary and high school. They were the special kind of public school teachers who stayed after hours just to help us students become better at what we do.
When I realized this, I saw the many ways public schooling has gifted me. I had teachers who went beyond the lesson plans just to teach our class skills like public speaking and singing. I formed a sense of responsibility and an awareness of my environment because I was taught to dirty my hands with the earth and be proud of it. I had the best childhood because we were allowed to be innocent and happy with the simplest things, like 20-page books and running barefoot on the grass.
So this is my salute to all the public schools across the country. Thank you for teaching us, in unexpected ways, the very essentials we need in life.
And this is a shoutout to public school kids who grew up and now see the real world, the small-town kids now taking the midnight train to anywhere, the tree-climbing kids who had holes in their slippers and now on their certainty about the future:
It may look scary, but you’re ready for it. Go big, classmates. You’ll never get lost with your bare feet planted firmly on the ground.
Hyacinth J. Tagupa, 23, is a freelance writer and a proud alumna of Catarman Central School, Camiguin National High School, and Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.