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Write those stories that need to be told

For 36 years now, the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) has been celebrating the third Tuesday of July as National Children’s Book Day, to mark the publication in July 1889 of Jose Rizal’s “The Turtle and the Monkey” in English. The story appeared in Trubner’s Oriental Record, a London publication. This is acknowledged to be the beginning of Philippine children’s literature.

Traditionally, PBBY invites a keynote speaker impassioned about literacy and the reading and the writing of literature, a role model for children and adults alike, to grace the day’s opening ceremony. There could not have been a better choice this year than former education secretary Bro. Armin A. Luistro, FSC, because of his known commitment to literacy and the role of an active, well-informed citizenry in a country in flux. Luistro’s own legacy is the passage into law of the K-to-12 program, one that many of his predecessors had also attempted to implement were it not for challenges at every turn.

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Looking back at his years in the Department of Education (DepEd), Luistro pointed out two areas of immediate concern where classroom resources are concerned. In the early years of the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) program, in which the children’s mother tongue is used in the classroom as a bridge to learn Filipino and English, there was the big problem of the lack of original stories in the mother tongue needed for the primary grades. There were occasional translations of great stories, but these were so far removed from the world of first-time readers.

The teachers were then compelled to create their own “big books,” using original stories and oral traditions gathered from interviews with folks in the community. This was an important documentation program, aside from building up a growing collection of oral literature that would otherwise have been lost forever. Luistro happily noted how this collection has grown, and while he admits it would need editorial intervention, the harvest of original Filipino stories in the mother tongue is remarkable.

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This lack of available teaching resources surfaced again when the DepEd used local history as the starting point for Araling Panlipunan. Since many barangays did not have materials on their histories, the teachers themselves again had to research on local heroes and community chronicles. This was a worthwhile and logical start toward love of country—knowing and appreciating one’s place of origin first. The resulting collection can also be edited into a book to be used by other teachers.

Luistro found the day a timely occasion to call on all writers and chroniclers to forge on. All those who are “gifted—nay, compelled—to write because they have a story to tell, or a lie to expose, or history to be recorded, or beauty to be captured… Write as though this nation’s very existence lies on the tip of your quill,” he said.

By invoking two Pepes from our historical past, he invited today’s writers to share the same spirit of patriotism and hope for the nation. Jose Rizal, while in exile in Dapitan in 1895, was in a somber mood, yet he wrote: “Aking natatanaw na kulay-rosas na ang magandang langit… (I can see that the beautiful sky is now rose-colored).”

The other Pepe is also one to draw inspiration from—Jose W. Diokno, who dreamt of “… a free nation, where men and women and children from all regions and with all kinds of talents may find truth and play and sing and laugh and dance and love without fear.” Diokno’s country is also characterized by pride, justice, independence, honor.

There were no platitudes on the many virtues of reading—for haven’t we heard them all?—only strong statements on the role of writers and the might their pens wield. Luistro expressed his longing “to hear the voice of our poets and writers and artists where the nation’s soul resides.” A reminder and a challenge, about the difficult task of telling stories and exposing truths.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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