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How kids taught me the 5 love languages

/ 10:55 AM March 05, 2021
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If people were to associate me with words, “volunteering” would probably make the list. I was the kind of person who enjoyed doing acts of service. It was a love language that I liked giving and receiving.

I chose to speak my love language by being a volunteer teacher. But while many of my co-volunteers could give heart-warming reasons for why they chose to start volunteering, I consider my reason to be quite messy, if not selfish.

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About five years ago, I was struggling with anxiety and loneliness. I was already in my second year of college but I still didn’t have friends and the pressure of being academically excellent was getting to me. I felt empty. Joining a volunteer group that helped children was simply my way to distract myself from that emptiness.

When I attended orientation, I told myself that I could not commit to the experience fully. It was, after all, just a distraction for when days got rough. Except my experience during my first few weeks of joining the volunteer group became much more than I expected.

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I started meeting the kids and hearing their stories. Before I knew it, I was Ate Dana and Teacher Dana. The odd part was I was the one they called “teacher” but I was also taking home some lessons — love lessons that I apply not just for romantic love but for other forms of love as well.

Bea

Unlike the other kids I met while volunteering, I met Bea before I was officially a member of the volunteer group.

Then eight-year-old Bea passed by the organization’s tambayan and asked me why I was alone, “Nasaan ‘yung ibang ate at kuya?”

It was high noon and nobody really stayed at the tambayan during those times but I chose to stay there because it just happened to be near where my next class was.

I told Bea that but instead of leaving, she sat next to me and watched as I read and took notes. “Ikaw, wala ka bang pasok?” I asked her, trying to make a conversation. She answered, “Hindi naman po ako pumapasok araw-araw. Hindi kaya nila nanay na papasukin ako sa school palagi.”

I had to close my textbook. I felt guilty studying in front of this kid who didn’t have the means to do so every day. Normally, when people told me their problems, I looked for solutions or ways to cheer them up but I can’t solve the problems of a child who can’t afford to go to school. So I did what I could: I listened.

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She told me about the things she missed when she was absent from school for three days straight and the things she loved when she did go to school. Bea did mind that she couldn’t go to school every day, she just knew she couldn’t do anything about it.

About an hour later, Bea told me “Ate, ‘di ba may pasok ka?”

She was right, it was time for my class but I didn’t want to leave Bea because I wanted to hear more from her. But she gathered my things for me and said I should go. I could only smile at her, a little overwhelmed by her eagerness to get me to my class.

She started walking away and I walked in the other direction. I was about to cross the road when a small arm grabbed onto mine. “Thank you, ate,” Bea said, grinning at me before waving goodbye another time.

Following her retreating, barefoot form, I was confused by her gratitude. I didn’t give her anything. I just listened to her story.

But reflecting back on that encounter after that afternoon class, I realized why Bea was thankful. She was thankful because I did give her something: time — time to be heard as she faced a frustrating part of her life. I gave her time to simply say what was on her mind and have someone be emotionally present for her.

Matt and Niko

My encounter with Matt and Niko happened a few months after I met Bea.

One late afternoon, in the middle of a volunteer event, as kids were dancing to the tune of a K-pop song I didn’t like, I was at the sidelines setting up water containers and biscuits for snack time.

Just as I finished my task, I sat down, tired from minding the logistics of the event. Matt and Niko approached me and set down a red plastic bag, “Ate, para sa iyo. Kakapitas lang namin.” It contained about six pieces of fresh kaimito.

Once again, children managed to confuse me. Why were they giving away these fruits? They told me, “May sobra kami tapos kayo ‘yung naisip namin.”

Unable to say no to the generous kids, I reluctantly took the small present and said thank you. It felt odd, receiving something from children who didn’t have a lot. I was supposed to be the one extending help. I volunteered to do so after all.

“Nakita siguro nilang napagod ka dahil doon sa pagkain nila kaya gusto nilang mag-thank you,” a friend told me. He told me the boys probably thought they can’t think of a better way to show they appreciated my efforts.

Getting that gift from the boys put a smile on my face that day. Forget about flowers or teddy bears. It was just a simple gesture, but unlike what most novels and movies told me, I thought that sometimes the act of giving gifts to make others happy doesn’t need to be a grand gesture after all.

Angel

If I weren’t writing for a living today, I’d probably be a teacher. But nobody thought I would be a good teacher. “Wala ka namang pasensiya para maging teacher,” Mama used to tell me. I thought so for a long time until I met four-year-old Angel.

Angel was one of my students during a literacy program. Being four years old, reading and writing was still an exercise for Angel. We used to put her at one end of the table with other kids who needed the most help.

Angel had already been to a few teaching sessions when I saw her hesitance in answering a worksheet, a tracing exercise that asked her to follow dotted lines for words like “mata” and “ilong.” She kept on looking at the other kids and their half-finished worksheets.

I saw how insecure she was about being one of the younger kids in the class. I knew kids could get overwhelmed, but Angel was the first one to show it to me. I held the worksheet for her and urged her to continue but she won’t look at me and just stared at the unanswered worksheet. So I set aside the sheet of paper to reassure her instead. I told her how her eyes light up when I read stories and how she could do what the other kids were doing because she was an attentive student and I believe in her. “Kayang-kaya mo kaya ito!” I told her in the cheeriest voice I could muster. Act excited and the kids would follow, they say.

As if flipping a switch, Angel was suddenly excited to push forward. Smiling and nodding at, she took the papers from me and started with the writing exercise.

I don’t know for sure if it was the wide smile I put on my face to make her mirror my excitement or the faith I put in her as I affirmed her.

I used to think telling someone you believe in them was redundant, if not cheesy. I thought some words were better left unsaid. Angel proved me wrong. Sometimes, words should be said to the people who need them.

NIA

NIA wasn’t just one child. It was an entire community. I used to visit the narrow eskinitas along NIA Road in Barangay Pinyahan, Quezon City with my fellow volunteers every Saturday and Monday to teach kids how to read and write.

We’d meet the kids at the heart of the community, a small chapel beside a day-care center and a basketball court. Every Saturday and Monday I spent in NIA had some sort of bizarreness to it.
Motorcycles would squeeze past us as we taught children about the days of the week. A basketball would smack a volunteer in the face as they helped kids with their worksheets. Perhaps the craziest experience of all was when we reached the venue and found an open coffin near our make-shift classroom as the elderly attended a wake nearby. It wasn’t the greatest venue (certainly not the place to tell the kids to “look alive”) but we made it work.

Those bizarre events made wonderful memories for me, which made it so hard for me to say goodbye. Two months was such a short time but that was how quickly over 50 children managed to fill the blank spaces in the heart.

I stood in front of the gates of the small chapel with my fellow volunteers, wearing bear ears and a panda printed t-shirt when the kids surprised us volunteers with the “ABC Song.” I remember feeling overwhelmed and teary-eyed as they moved on to “Bahay Kubo.”

The NIA community made me realize that I was committing to more than the “distraction” I was looking for because they started to matter to me. They made me feel so much love that I felt like I had some love to give away.

I always knew I earn some sense of satisfaction whenever I served, but I didn’t think it would amount to that much love. I thought giving up my weekends to teaching would take something away from me, but it didn’t. It turns out you don’t become less of a person by serving people who matter to you.

Anna

They say teachers shouldn’t have their favorites, but Anna was probably one of my most memorable students. She lived in the streets with her parents and siblings.

Taking her and siblings into our program wasn’t easy because the kids from within the eskinitas (or looban as they call it) didn’t like to come near the kids who didn’t bathe every day and had to sleep on the sidewalk.

Frankly, we weren’t surprised when those prejudices affected their attendance. When my fellow volunteers came back from the streets the next day, they said Anna and the other homeless kids didn’t want to join us. They felt eyes criticizing them and their parents didn’t want them to deal with those feelings again. It was understandable. If I were Anna’s parents, I wouldn’t want her to go through all that too.

I wanted to hug Anna and let her know they were wanted in the classes. We wanted them. Except we had an unspoken rule when it came to physical contact: don’t hug the kids unless the kids hug you. So while I wanted to let them know I would have loved to have them back, I couldn’t.

The program had to go on as usual and we never got perfect attendance from Anna and her siblings. But after the craziness of the mini-graduation day (which they attended) wound down, we took the homeless children to their little space under a big tree near the very polluted EDSA.

That’s when Anna hugged everyone she could wrap her arms around, including me. I took her in my arms and returned the warmest hug I could. You can only hug the kid if they hug you after all so I made it count. It was one of the rare moments I saw her get comfortable with physical contact with us volunteers.

I was so grateful I hugged her as tightly as I did then because a year later, we found out the family finally found a home, and their father was working a much more stable job. It was the first and last hug between me and Anna before she was finally given a better place to reside in.

I was never one to express love through touch. When everyone had to stay home and stay six feet apart, I thought I could live without greeting my friends with hugs or besos.

Boy, was I wrong. Now, as everyone had to stay six feet apart, I wish I had hugged them as I did Anna.

Once it’s safer to do all these physical expressions of love, I now know what I want to do: give warm hugs and mean them. You never know when the next time would be.

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Dana Cruz, a graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, is a news and features writer for INQUIRER.net. She enjoys watching Pixar movies and reading mystery or fantasy books. Her encounters with the kids narrated here happened a long time ago, and while she may have forgotten the names of some of them, or at least how to spell them, she cherishes all the things they taught her.

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TAGS: children, creative nonfiction, essays, love, love languages, nonfiction, Quezon City, teaching, University of the Philippines, Volunteering
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