by Rhona Canoy
SO… Recently I spent the day at a high school nestled in the mountains of northern Mindanao conversing with students and teachers, hoping to be able to share ideas with them about their living conditions and their future. I must say that the admiration I have for the hope that the students have, and the blind faith they nurture in our faulty educational system is deep.
No matter the subterranean level of the opinion I have for our Department of Education, once in a while I come across truly dedicated individuals who will (in spite of the inconsiderate misguided policies and limitations placed upon them) struggle against the odds to be able to serve their students. The word noble easily comes to mind. Like I’ve said in past columns, the harsh reality of life in the bukid is one we city dwellers never really understand nor to which we pay much attention.
The reality of having to walk long and lonely distances just to reach school, the lack of regular and nourishing meals to sustain them, the difficulty of having to struggle with lessons which are often incomprehensible because English is a foreign language is harsh indeed. The stories these students tell are heartbreaking and must be shared for us to even have an inkling of how disparate our lives are, and how much hope they have that education will make the difference in their lives.
“When I leave home, I have to use a torch to navigate my way down the mountainside because it is still dark,” said one. “The trail is rough and steep, and I have to remember where I hide the bundle of dried leaves and branches because I’ll need it to light my way home at the end of the day.” And she does this every single school day, all alone in the dark. The food that she brings to sustain her through the day is not enough even for a decent breakfast, so she always goes hungry. Some days, there is only a couple of boiled bananas and guinamos to tide her over.
“We live in a kubo by ourselves,” said the 14-year-old oldest sibling of four. “Our parents farm a small patch of land fifteen kilometers away, and it’s too far for us to walk back and forth each day. Our mother comes down to check on us every Friday afternoon, bringing what meager provisions she can give us.” These four children (for that’s what they are) have an allowance of P50 a week each to cover the cost of food, whatever school supplies they may need, soap for laundry which doubles for bathing. They’ve been pretty much living on their own for over two years now.
“Our mother has mental problems so we care for her when we’re not in school,” said another. “My father tills infertile land and is a violent drunk so we sleep out in the fields if we get home and find him in that condition. Otherwise, it can get physically difficult for us.” The strain of having a wife who can’t share the burden of poverty, the pressure of having to provide for his children’s needs on a scant income makes alcohol a welcome release and makes his children the target for his frustration and desperation.
“I have to struggle with my studies all by myself because my parents cannot read nor write,” said a girl with the saddest eyes ever. “They don’t understand anything of the stuff my teachers try to make us learn. Algebra, physics, English—all these things are alien to them, so I muddle through all by myself, by the light of a flickering kerosene lamp.” She hopes that an education will give her the chance to help her family’s life improve.
And these are only a few of the stories that break my heart. I wonder how many thousands all over our country tell similar tales of woe. But to see the hope in their eyes, to hear the laughter over a crude joke, to see them in school each day is quietly inspiring. Teachers who must work under the most ridiculous expectations handed down by the Deped Manila office are to be lauded. The policies and standards set are so disconnected from the reality under which these mountain schools must function.
Teachers and principals there are are burned out. Some feel helpless and want to quit, or are waiting to transfer to the urban schools where they must then work under a different set of conditions. And yet the mountain schools are blessed. The class sizes are smaller, from 30 to 40. Their campus is spacious, and this particular school has new buildings, which are being built all over the country. But not all their textbooks have arrived. And they only recently have installed a deep well, so the water needed for sanitation and for toilets to flush must be gathered and stored first thing each morning.
Yet, they all (teachers and students alike) keep trying to find creative ways to get the job done. And we who are too far away to have to face this harshness don’t give them a thought. So easy to say, “I have to worry about my own and my family’s survival.” All the while enjoying the availability of public transport, access to the internet, access to jobs and food supply.
These children are children of farmers, people who produce the food we all need to live. What value do we give them? We talk down their prices, treat them as inferior, and don’t see them with the compassion that they need. And my heart breaks. That’s how I spent my day, with my heart getting broken. But that small learning community in that faraway mountain school gave me the gift of seeing their hope, seeing their dreams, seeing their perseverance in the face of adversity.
They too are Filipinos. We cannot and must not forget that.