OUR National Service Training Program (NSTP) in college meant two things: either you go to public schools feeding malnourished children or you teach them. I was, in every grace, schooled in La Salle, an institution that invests a great deal in education.
Where the mantra is to “teach minds, touch hearts and transform lives” and whose titular saint is the patron of all teachers, we were bred to be involved in nation-building, be it by way of spreading literacy. Because spreading literacy in La Salle was more than just subsidizing the tuition of the financially short so that they could go to school. It was a movement.
The school was the Hogwarts of public-education service, and it dedicated, say, a school bus that solely serves a particular purpose. Long before the heroics of Efren Peñaflorida was brought to the fore, this bus had gone every which way to teach children how to read. It was a mobile library, a full-blown Kariton Klasrum, “Learn to read, read to learn,” it said.
I remember dreaming to ride this bus on the reach-out in our NSTP class, hawking books as if I were hawking ice cream. That was one way of spreading literacy in style. I would wear an ermine gown a la Lasallian brother—all black or all white and complete with a rabat—and feel very proud of myself. I would egg the kids to find whatever would interest them in the shelves and urge them to take it home, and be kicked out from the university for giving away its properties.
But, turned out, on this NSTP expedition, it wasn’t all I thought it was cut out to be. No ermine gowns, no mobile library. Instead, our batch was squeezed into two jeepneys like a sorry bunch of mercenaries, bringing in just a limited number of books in a run-down public school in the outskirts of the city.
When you see the sorry condition of state-run schools like this, your first impulse is to blame the government. But more than the dilapidated armchairs and makeshift blackboards, I was wondering why three to four children were huddled in each book and what they did wrong to deserve this.
We were delegated to teach these children one to one, and I was assigned to a kid they called Johnny, who was surprisingly holding a tattered copy of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. “Where did you get this?” I asked, as I wrapped my arm around his shoulders and sat him down at a quiet corner outside the classroom. Since I watched the movie adaptation of the classic, I had since been scouring our school library and the Internet for the book to no avail. “Can you tell me what this is about?”
“A prison break,” he answered. Johnny, I later learned, wanted to be a writer, which was exhilarating to me because it was as if he and I belonged to the same team. So while the other teams discussed about cats climbing trees,subject-verb agreement, I felt we could be more advanced and teach this kid a real lesson.
“You know, I want to be a writer, too,” I confessed, as if it mattered one way or another. “I hate to break this to you, but Shawshank is not about prison break; it’s about bromance, pal.”
“You mean, Andy and Red?”
“How come?” he said, the way a superhero character might in a movie when he discovered his power for the first time.
“The writer didn’t just tell us about it.”
I went on and on and spoon-fed to Johnny everything that I learned from, well, not books but conversations I had with people, and contemplated upon thus far.
“Do you believe that God is an alien?”
“Do you believe that shooting stars become babies?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Do you believe that you can fly by loving someone then setting her free?”
“I thought you want to be a writer?”
“But, Kuya, Teacher Beth didn’t tell us anything about what you’ve just said.”
I read somewhere that, to teach children a lesson, you just don’t teach them how to read, you teach them to question what they read; they should not just read a book, but write their own book. It’s about opening yourself to infinite possibilities, that maybe sometimes your teacher was wrong, and you were probably right. I told Johnny that, more than abhorring identification tests and rote learning, he was not meant to just sit in the class in couch-potato passive mode, and, instead, wreck his chair and make mincemeat of his teacher.
Johnny asked how did I propose doing that. I didn’t have an idea, either, because I myself would cringe when suddenly summoned in front of the class to discuss. But, when I was in college, I was on the verge of failing my Statistics class for the second time, the moment of truth being when we were handed the final exam papers, which had only three problems on them.
Weighing that my attempt to second-guess would prove futile, I made sense of my cluelessness, crossed my fingers and, instead of problem solving, wrote an essay. “What should we learn this for?” it began. “Why should this stand in the way of someone who simply loves to write?”
Lo and behold, I passed. My Statistics professor looked always beside himself, but, I swear, when we met for the first time in a long time, he was really warm and friendly, even requesting to reproduce the notes I had written on those papers. When I asked how did it happen, he said that it was “because I do not know if I should grade the exam results or the short note you had. The choices were 0 percent and 100 percent. I opted to have the latter, that’s why you passed.”
It was hard to instill bucking the system in Johnny, when I myself, when I was his age, was too afraid to be outspoken. In quizzes, the answer key was gospel truth, and thou shall not debunk or think in contrast with the teacher, because you are in a room where you are just supposed to obey and listen, and to stand up without being told to do so was rude.
This I learned while I was growing up, because it is true that education begins at home, and that your parents are your first teachers. Here they shushed me with phrases like “Huwag kang pilosopo!” and “I’ve been there, done that, shut up!” when I try to stand up when they reprimand me. I call my folks dead-end conversationalists, who sort of miss out on a more meaningful bond between kids speaking up and parents patiently explaining with love and care where they go wrong.
If I were Johnny’s teacher or, indeed, if I should have children—and I would love to have naughty, annoying, impolite (if that’s what you call it) “philosopher” kids—I would teach them the value of argument and daring to disagree with any authority figure starting from me. But, most of all, I would never get tired of reminding them every time to speak softly.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano