Bobby could have at least taken a bath. Or Ana could have chosen to change the clothes she had been wearing since Wednesday. It could have been possible Ryan didn’t have a new wound that the flies enjoyed. And Isyu for once could have finished taking notes from his previous class when I entered the classroom. That would have been a perfect Friday…
Perfection is an overstatement, a way unfit word to describe the physical appearance, the level of learning, the culture, and the lives of my students in Bendum. Theirs was a life far from perfection. Sometimes, when I look back, I believe it was truly far from what I ever imagined to be possible.
Work wise, I was a bit confident to be thrown as a non-formal educator in a far-away sitio in Bukidnon for my Jesuit Volunteer year. After all, I did study in a public school during my elementary years. I felt I knew a lot of realities about how deficient our educational system was that I would easily be able to relate with my students.
Didn’t I share old, almost-dilapidated books with my nearest classmate-neighbour who lived 5 blocks away from us? Didn’t I pay for those darn Science experiment exercise books we never really used? Did I mention being forced to buy peanuts in the middle of the class because our teacher had a small commission for every bag sold? And I won’t even start about how our adviser always got to bring home all the extra food from all our class events and parties.
No, teaching English and Math to Lumad children surely can’t be that bad. It will not be easy but I was sure it will not be as hard as how the previous volunteers described it.
Where do I begin? There were no textbooks to start off and no experiment exercise books of some sort. Some students neither had money nor food for merienda, and worse, no lunch. And food that the para-teachers themselves brought during events and parties were almost always just enough for everyone.
Perhaps a baby, crawling its way around his home, trying his best to eventually learn how to stand and walk is the perfect metaphor for my first few months of teaching Dawegs (clusters) K, D and E.
While trying to remember the different types of pronouns and manually solving fractions without the aid of a calculator, I had to learn how to explain it all in Binukid, the main dialect of the sitio and the language the children fully understood. It was difficult, especially since some of the words sounded very foreign to me.
The children weren’t exactly helpful because they really laughed at my mistakes. Almost every lesson had to be written either on a manila paper or on the board, as the students didn’t have books to bring with them at home to read. Some children successfully annoyed me even more when they chose letting out foul air to be their main talent.
There was also the battle for better nutrition for the children to help them develop better memory and longer attention span. A more stable source of livelihood for the children’s parents had to be considered, as I found some of the students eventually quit school to be able to help out in the farm chores. The struggle to connect the lessons I taught to their culture and lifestyle and to their values and traditions didn’t make the work easier as well. All of a sudden, things didn’t seem to be familiar at all.
I had my series of melodramatic moments of “Bakit ako nandito?” (Why am I here?) and “Ibalik niyo ako sa sibilisasyon!” (Bring me back to civilization) in Bendum. Packing my bags and quitting would have been the easiest way out. But believe it or not, I found myself in my students. I saw in their eyes the same thirst for education.
I felt in the words they uttered and the hugs they candidly gave, the same desire to learn to read, write, and understand. They were me – 10, 12 years ago.
They were also different. They had their own struggles I luckily didn’t have to go through. As months passed by, it was becoming more apparent to me that the health of the students and lack of materials in school were just peripheral problems. The core issue was really about a group of people deprived of their right to be educated. It was the struggle of a people to keep and uphold their beliefs and traditions alongside their need to learn how the “modern industry” works to be able to survive.
I left Bendum physically in March 2002. Up to now, the struggle of the community for alternative indigenous education and better livelihood is still ongoing. The battle is not even close to perfection. With the aid of an organization and generous sponsors, the people are striving hard to achieve a certain degree of sustainability and independence. It will, most probably, still take a long time. It will continue to be a hard road but with better education and a deeper sense of culture, I trust that they will get there – in a perfect time.
I, on the other hand, continue to keep my perfect little Bendum stories of hope, faith and love to guide me in all that I am doing. Hopefully, my little efforts outside Bendum are helping them in their struggle, in one way or another.