How teaching in the mountains ‘ruined’ my life
Five years have passed since I first arrived in the mountains to integrate myself and live in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Bukidnon. I can still remember my ambition to be heroic and bring about change to a community in southern Philippines, a heroism that I thought could be done through teaching.
This was what brought me there, an ambition that led me to live in unfamiliar grounds—enduring silent nights with the crickets, and the foggy and cold early mornings in the mountains miles away from home.
I worked as volunteer English teacher at Father Leoni Memorial School, a mission school of the Society of Jesus in Cabanglasan, Bukidnon, that caters to both young “lumad” (native) and non-lumad students. My lumad students were children of the Umajamnen tribe.
I aspired for excellence and perfection, and set a very high standard for myself and my students—standards that my students would fail to meet.
I would often shout every time I saw them at the back of the classroom, sleeping on the floor with empty rice sacks as mats. I called them out as “tamad” and, on very bad days, even “bobo.” Some of the boys would play basketball during lunchtime; so, when classes resumed, they’d be restless and inattentive. This made me very angry for hours. It reached a point when I was burned out and wanted to quit.
I did not quit, though. Perhaps it was the shift in perspective that made me stay. I started looking at things differently. I found myself walking with the students every morning from the convent where I was staying to our school about a kilometer away. It was the same rocky, muddy and dusty road we’d pass in the afternoon or evening on the way back to the poblacion. The same road where students expressed their joys, disappointments and pains. The same road where they gladly shared their ambitions and their hearts’ desires.
It was on that road that I got to know them and, eventually, somehow, to understand their stories.
How uncaring it was for me to label them this and that without understanding that most of them had to travel several kilometers, even cross rivers, just to be in school. That’s why many were tardy, exhausted and sleepy in class.
How shameful my insensitivity was for not knowing that many of these kids started their walk to school as early as sunrise, with some of them not having eaten breakfast yet. They would enjoy their baon during recess and would have nothing to eat by lunchtime, so they’d simply play or sleep.
I began eating with my students, and we shared the little food we had. Most of the time, it was just simple fare: rice mixed with corn and some vegetables.
Many people are fortunate to have names and know their birthdays. We had some scholars who did not know their birthdays. It was the Jesuit priests, together with us volunteers, who initiated their baptisms so they could have names and be registered with the government. They copied our names and our birthdays, and we just estimated their birth years based on their body development.
I felt increasingly guilty that my idea of heroism added to the daily sufferings of the people. Perhaps it was this feeling of guilt that led me to a turning point, a change of heart. One day, I realized I needed to be kind—that kindness allows one to listen, understand and see beyond himself or herself.
It was kindness that pushed me to aspire to be more committed, dedicated and selfless in forming the lives of my students.
As for my aspiration to become a hero, I have already abandoned that thought. To be a modern-day hero was a silly starting point for being there. It was selfish and shameful! A person who wishes to share his life for a good cause should limit himself to “aspiring to becoming a kind and loving person to others and God”—nothing more.
My volunteer year ended soon enough. Looking back at it today, I feel a sense of failure at not having achieved the change I had always wanted for Cabanglasan and my students. I did not change the place or the system; injustice and poverty remain prevalent there.
However, there was change somewhere else. It was I, my personality, my perspectives in life, and my heart that were changed by Cabanglasan and by my students and friends, such that, until now, I have not fully moved on from the experience. Cabanglasan, the lumad, the non-lumad and my friends there somehow “ruined” my life in a good way. I will never be the same again.
Rey Sandy Abayan, 29, is a teacher at Lawaan National School of Craftsmanship and Home Industries in Lawaan, Eastern Samar.