The tenth student
One. His life can be summarized in two words: cable TV. Left to his grandparents at a young age, he grew up watching cartoons for hours after school. He’s a fruit of a relationship gone south. His father lives in a town named “Nowhere,” his mother shows up at their doorstep only a few times a year. At 13, he wonders how living with both his parents feels like.
Two. Sometimes he comes to my class late because he has to take the family’s cows out to graze. Whenever there’s an event happening at an elementary school in their neighborhood, he doesn’t show up. He helps his mother sell snacks in a hawker stall they set up. Also, he talks to me as if we were of the same age, forgetting, or perhaps intending, not to say “sir.” So I teasingly call him “batch,” short for “batchmate.”
Three. She told me that during the worst days, her legs become so numb that she can’t even walk. Every morning she takes two pills—one a pain killer and the other for the nerves. “They’ll have to cut my legs if the medications won’t work,” she said, her face void. I didn’t see fear in her eyes. I didn’t see a fighter either. It’s as if she knows she’ll lose them, sooner or later. I gave her a book she can read if she can’t attend my class, when it’s one of those worst days.
Four. Five. Six. Three boys. Peer pressure has descended upon their world in the form of reading story books. Each would pick one from a pile sitting on a thin plywood board at the center of my classroom. Then, they’d gather around me. A petty commotion arises for a moment when they can’t decide who reads first. The best among them is usually the one. He doesn’t read fast; he’s actually a slow reader. They all are. Just like anyone else with an untrained tongue, he finds it hard to pronounce the “th” sound in words such as “thought.”
The second is the littlest of them. His height is opposite his self-image. He proudly proclaims himself as one of the most handsome students in his section, despite a pair of decaying teeth. Average reading speed: one word every two seconds. He often reads a word incorrectly by borrowing the pronunciation of another which closely resembles it, instead of actually scanning all the letters before making out the sounds. For example, he would say “captain” for “capital,” “fish” for “fresh,” and “strong” for “wrong.” Some moments when I glance at him, I catch a glimpse of frustration. He goes on, however. The world should marvel at how he never gives up, ever, no matter how many times I let him read the same words over and over again until he says them correctly.
The third one seems to be too tall for his age. He walks awkwardly, as if his legs were too long they’re always bent. His hair glows orange when a patch of sunlight finds its way to his head. He frequently forgets to pronounce the “s” sound at the end of words, especially the plurals. And he stutters a lot. What I adore about him, though, is that when I ask him to read a paragraph for the nth time, I see neither furrowed brow nor a frown. He’s so focused on getting it all right. As always, his persistence triumphs over the printed symbols against a backdrop of boldly colored illustrations eating up the huge pages of the book.
Seven. She’s 17 and still in Grade 7. She stopped attending school for a couple of years after finishing Grade 4. Fortunately, an aunt of hers realized she had spare funds to send her niece back. She’s the kind of student who needs a very specific type of education, someone you would not casually encounter in a “regular” public school. You can tell by the way she stares. She made me feel like my flesh was tearing apart and my bones were splintering the first time we met. But her family has much bigger concerns than sending her to an appropriate institution that can cater to her unique needs. They are aware of what she is, and they are more than contented that she goes to school every day.
Eight. He’s there, and then he’s gone. And then he’s there again, and then he’s gone again. And, now he’s a dropout.
Nine. “I don’t want to study any further after I finish senior high school. It’s so hard. I’d rather be a farmer,” he declares, jaded eyes gazing at the far end of the classroom. “What do you really want to become?” I asked, hoping he’d start dreaming about a life of comfort, and somehow realize that pursuing a college degree is something he needs to seriously consider for it to come true. Instead he replied, “Nothing. I want to be a farmer.” “Then, you will find it harder to earn money if you don’t get a college degree,” I said with a tone of certainty. But, alas, his response had me conceding. There’s a great truth to it, and I know some who have become successful despite it. He said, “My brothers have no diplomas but they found work. They are fishermen, and they have enough money to live. Why, then, do I need one?” I fell silent. No one in his family has yet completed basic education.
Ten. He realizes how naïve he is at 21. Four years of training ran short of preparing him for the overwhelming spectacle that is the public education system. Ninety percent of the time, discussions back then revolved almost exclusively around the ideal classroom scene. Raised in a world light years away from the likes of broken families, drunkard fathers, joblessness and drug addicts, he grew up oblivious of the lives that lay beyond the fences around his home. His coming of age only involved beating deadlines on school requirements, and spending weekends hunched in front of a computer waiting for a new viral video to pop up on his feed. He didn’t have to worry about his baon. His parents provided everything he needed.
It has been so long since the moment he became aware of being so fortunate. But it’s only now that the whole thing is sinking in.
The heightened drama of teleseryes doesn’t compare to the story of each student that enters his classroom. For most, reaching the gate is already a huge feat. Being satisfied throughout the day is another matter. There are many things other than schoolwork that they need to deal with, more immense than handing in assignments on time and getting high marks in exams.
Absences are inevitable. Once the rice paddies sprawled all over town turn gold, a bunch of them have no choice but to miss school so they can help in the harvest, so they can come back to school. It can take a day or more than a week of not seeing any trace of their existence in the school premises.
But they carry on despite it all, and he can’t fathom how they manage to haul themselves up to the edge of a chasm that tries to swallow them. They are so tough, tougher than their teacher.
A hundred daily lesson plans later, he wonders what other lessons his students have prepared for him to learn for the rest of the school year.
Ulysses Gaygay, 21, of Ilocos Norte, is a teacher at Florentino Camaquin Integrated School.
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