Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading between notes

NOW, notebooks are in the news, their prices monitored by parents and authorities, their covers and binding scrutinized by non-government organizations for harmful substances like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and lead.

But after school starts, notebooks plummet from the view of the public, the monitoring bodies, even students and mentors.

It’s a reality that may explain why we are a nation of 15 million illiterates.

According to a 2003 study conducted by the government, 11 million Filipinos were found to be functionally illiterate while four million lacked basic or simple literacy.

These were the findings of the Functional Literacy, Education, and Mass Media Survey (Flemms) conducted by the National Statistics Council, the Department of Education and the Literacy Coordinating Council.

Using the Flemms definition of terms, the four million pure illiterates cannot read or write in any language or dialect. The 11 million functionally illiterate lack the reading, writing and numerical skills needed for day-to-day survival or relating.

What’s the link between an ordinary notebook and the ability to solve problems, follow directions and fill out forms?

Notebooks are hardly used independently by young people.

From elementary to college, notebooks are generally used by students to copy board notes made by their teachers or classmates. The pages almost always reflect exercises students make during class or assignments they perform at home.

These activities are all required of students. When do the pages show a student’s own research to deepen class discussion or freewriting to explore personal insights on a subject?

At the end of school, the unused leaves at the back of a notebook are stark reminders of what might have been: of math exercises that a student could have done after class to understand better principles and formulae; of essay drafts that might have rewritten and expressed better one’s ideas in one’s own words.

In the lower years, notebooks guide parents in participating in their children’s education. Dutiful mentors scan notebooks during dismissal or while waiting for their children to finish tutorials or dinner. A classmate’s notebook is borrowed when a student is absent or blackboard notes were not completely copied.

But the older the student, the more personal should be the stake in one’s notebook.

This presumes that by high school, the student should be independently reading and learning. Reading promotes a habit of highlighting read words or phrases, either because these are memorable or are not understood and must be looked up. When one does not own a book and cannot freely note on its margins, a notebook becomes an essential companion for a reader.

Classroom textbooks and lectures, too, have their limits, with the explosion of information on the Internet. Using online access, a student may leap from the reading and assimilation of other people’s ideas to self-articulation and interaction with other Netizens through a web journal or a blog.

According to the 2007 i-report, “A Nation of Non-readers,” Filipino students are less competitive because their learning is rarely self-driven or internalized.

Lacking functional literacy, a person is limited in his options for employment and vulnerable to crime. Educational statistics show that illiteracy leads to closed doors and dead ends, with 85 percent of juvenile inmates in the United States functionally illiterate and 16- to 19-year-old girls with below-average reading skills having six times more chances of having illegitimate children than their reading peers.

Use that notebook, please.

( 0917-3226131

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 30, 2010 “Matamata”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Online odyssey

WHAT takes the place of postcards in the age of emails?

I once stepped inside a classroom that created, for United Nations Day, a mural of postcards from all over the world. It made a pretty quilt.

Since the postcards were pasted against a “sinamay” background, the loose weaving of the fiber made it possible to read some of the notes written by the postcard senders.

“Here in Walawala. Wish you were here.” The messages I browsed rarely varied from this version but then, postcards are shrinking, insipid cousins of letters.

Still, there is no letter that is not enhanced by the enclosure of a few photographs, with the stories behind them.

When my older son left home again this summer, I was confident that, with digital technology and online chatting, the days would quickly pass and I would be back again at my full-time job of living with a teenager.

This son was only in his sixth grade when he asked if he could join other students on a study-tour in Xiamen, China. After telling my son I would think about it, I took a deep breath and thought and read up and consulted and thought some more before giving him my consent to travel, some three years after he first asked.

The summer my son studied in Xiamen was also the summer I learned to chat. Other things I indirectly found out about were China’s firewalls (no Facebook, no YouTube, a censored Google), limited access to the Internet and webcams (only one Internet café, with no webcams, serving the university where he studied), and curfews (I typed a too long response, curfew was enforced and my son went offline).

This summer, with some 3,000 nautical miles between us again, I’ve graduated to navigating around Google maps.

In our chats, my son mentioned that he went for a walk around the neighborhood without my sister or her family for company. After I violate the rules of chat and send questions of novel-length, he directed me to I joined him on a virtual walk from Walder Road to Judd Avenue and then to Norman Avenue and back home.

That first virtual journey was refreshing. It took some time to get back to my sister’s virtual home in that digital neighborhood, about an hour longer than the real walk my son took.

Still, for someone who stumbles on her chat history only by clicking maniacally around her Gmail homepage (and that’s on my good days), I’m learning by fits and starts.

At a certain age, children shoot up so fast, their nest-bound parents get light-headed just looking up at them and, with difficulty, telling them apart from the celestial bodies and UFOs.

As with stargazers, parents learn to put together a constellation of meaning from flickering pinpoints that may or may not be messages homing in.

Among the photos he emailed is one that shows him holding a snake. As soon as he went online, I got all chatty: Is that snake drugged? Is it defanged? Is it real? Is that you holding the snake? Where is my sister?

As with the other instances, my son took me step-by-step in decoding the time counter in photos: See? That’s me feeding the joey. That shot was taken nearly an hour after I posed with the snake. What’s imminent danger?

Because I recycle postcards as bookmarks and markers, I sometimes ponder at the disjointed messages left in the cards I’ve cut up and left in books I reread.

Those postcard bits are almost as cryptic as a teenager’s chat, or as clear. Our mobile call caught him while he was sheltering at the Opera House during a downpour. Where are you going next? Chinatown. What are you going to do there? Looking for new hopia flavors for Dad.

I took so long to respond, he buzzed to check if I’m still there. Ma? Wait, ‘Ta, I’m downloading Google maps.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 23, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, May 15, 2010


THE FLY that walked like an underwater trapeze artist in my “utan Bisaya” transformed lunch into a spectacle in the south of Cebu, but I am getting ahead of my story.

When my mother sent us off on an errand late last week, we welcomed the break.

After the view outside the bus window exchanged walls jaded with campaign hangover for open spaces, I realized how toxic the city had become for weeks, even months.

The hubby thrives on long drives. I am enamored with sleepy towns.

But it must be a hard and fast rule that the sleepier the town, the more tumultuous the local hates and loves.

Politics had not yet released from its grip the towns we passed but there were signs of life, ordinary and uneventful and timeless, resuming.

When the mid-morning sun became too fierce and penetrated the tinted windows of the bus to blaze on the shiny hairless pate emerging from the seat before me, the passenger pulled close the shades.

The panorama I was savoring was drastically reduced to a sliver.

Yet my luck held out because that narrow view served like a camera’s eyepiece, sharpening details I would otherwise have ignored or missed.

So, while taking a curve in Carcar that’s a chokepoint for traffic because of a nearby mall, I espied a roadside shop. The trade of the owner had something to do with glass and aluminum, the latter being a material I have an intense apathy to.

Arranged on a window sill were three or four miniature buses. There was a crude handmade look to the forms. Dangling from a peg was a skewed hand-lettered sign advertising toys for sale.

Our bus flashed by. The view of bright paint and miniature details resembling the real buses plying the southern trail so electrified my mind’s eye, it felt as if I were a kid gazing up at the toy buses, silently willing my parents to buy one and make it mine.

Whose were the hands that made these toys? What compels those hands to craft toys when cheap imports and noisy gadgets flood the market and minds of kids? Who found deliverance in aluminum?

A side trip to Simala introduced us to the business side of pilgrimages.

In a roadside bakery, we looked for bread that was either hot or did not host a game of soccer for bluegreen-bellied flies. The siopao seemed like a tasty candidate.

Anticipating the steaming white mounds with their sweet asado, we were surprised when the bakery attendant suddenly stabbed each siopao with the tip of a catsup dispenser. She then handed over our siopaos, looking unharmed except for a red dot.

When I next glanced at my husband, he gave me a ghastly red grin. Mine outTwilighted his. Given the crowds flocking this formerly sleepy side road, now the intersection leading to a local shrine, the bakery must have created the catsup injections to cut on cost and waste.

This hands-free enjoyment also benefits diners competing with flies divebombing anything made of flour and butter.

Some flies, though, beat the competition by going amphibious.

For late lunch, we stopped by a roadside place that had the local equivalent of an extremely rare three-star Michelin rating: there were enough customers to reassure that the food was safe for humans but not too many diners to keep us waiting, drinking the dust and fumes of passing traffic.

Fried food is comfort food for anyone born in this country. When you’re on the road, though, fried food is often displayed in a cage where the sociable flies are playing a hard game of pingpong or he-said-she-said.

So we opted to order dishes ladled from the covered cauldrons. While I was about to take a first sip, I saw a fly dive into our soup. It made no sound at all, making me presume the fellow had been practicing quite a bit.

When my husband asked me why I was smelling the soup, I told him I was following Hairy Houdini traipse along the leafy green stems. In the clear broth, the confident fellow crawled over a submerged leaf, from end to end, before disappearing under.

I looked around, surprised by the absence of applause. Everyone was eating. I picked up my fork and spoon. Death by drowning in a sleepy town reminded me of my own mortality but at least I wasn’t eating vegetables for a last meal.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 16, 2010 “Matamata”

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Mother, may I?

ON May 10, I wonder how many of us will honor our mother.

I’m not confusing dates. I know that Sunday, May 9, is celebrated as Mother’s Day.

But on Monday, when we select the next women and men to lead the country, for better or worse, we may be subtly influenced in our choices by an institution since nursery days: mothers.

More than any election within recall, this one harnesses a lot of mother power to push candidates for public office.

Former President Corazon Aquino is hailed by many as the “Mother of Philippine Democracy.” Even those unable to swallow this moniker will agree that the devout Catholic and wife of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino left Malacañang Palace unblemished by any taint of corruption, a distinction few past and present occupants can lay claim to.

Cory’s son, Noynoy, is the standard bearer of the Liberal Party (LP). He has enjoyed being at the lead of election surveys, seemingly unfazed by accusations that he is only basking in the reflected affection Filipinos reserve for his parents, twin democracy icons.

Perhaps only speculations about his psychological incapacity have clung persistently to Noynoy throughout a hotly contested race. But even this has not reduced to a travesty the LP’s campaign slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap (translated as: there will be no poverty if there is no corruption).”

Playing to the gallery but seemingly drawing a different reaction is Curita Villar. The 86-year-old mother made her first public appearance on TV to defend her son, Nacionalista Party standard bearer Manny Villar, the only billionaire running for the presidency and the only candidate hounded by charges of corruption and ill-gotten wealth.

Villar, who said he was born in Tondo and had to drop out from first grade to help his mother hawk seafood, also anchors his platform on the eradication of poverty and corruption through “Sipag at Tiyaga (hard work and perseverance).”

Yet, the most visible presidential candidate (courtesy of a well-funded campaign in mass media and the Internet) has been smeared by many controversies. He has tried to elude allegations of breach of ethics as a law-maker and businessman, particularly in the C5 scam.

The testimonial of Villar’s mother, Curita, may have done more harm than good to clear Villar from the mudslinging. Wheelchair-bound and squinting, “Nanay Curing” cried and petitioned the Virgin Mary to “bear witness” that her son “was not lying” about their early poverty and his desire to ease the nation’s poverty during a press conference held in late April.

Excerpts of the press conference with Nanay Curing were shown later as a TV ad.

Yet replays of a piteous Nanay Curing may have affected viewers in ways unanticipated by ad sponsors. For Filipinos, more odious than neglecting one’s parents is exploiting them.

To this accusation, one of Villar’s sisters reportedly retorted, “Who used their mother first?”

Indeed, in a political campaign, when is it acceptable to cite one’s roots? When is a candidate “passing the torch” and continuing an honorable tradition? And when is it “milking your mother for mileage” or something even less polite?

Another presidentiable, Sen. Richard Gordon, disparaged the use of mothers as a campaign strategy. He claimed that his own mother, who sold native cakes on the streets, was even poorer than Villar’s mother.

By deciding not to inject his mother’s struggles in his campaign, Gordon said he acts on this belief: “I stand on my own strengths.”

As a child, I often played with friends a game called “Mother, may I?” Players competed to be the first to advance across the room by asking a leader for permission to step forward. “Mother, may I take three giant steps forward?” one may call out.

The decision for the “mother” to allow her “children” to advance by giant steps or baby steps or not at all was entirely arbitrary. The player to advance the fastest won and acquired the right to be called “mother.” Steeped in the lovely illogic of childhood, my friends and I loved this game.

On May 10, may God spare this country from everything but a clear-eyed love for the Motherland.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 9, 2010 “Matamata”

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Fr. Paddy

LAST Friday, at about 3 p.m., I took a last trip with Fr. Paddy.

We were a motley group slowing down traffic along Mango Ave. Some were in shoes, many in slippers. The sun beat down democratically on all our heads.

From passing vehicles, I heard snatches of campaign jingles. A driver poked his head out of a stalled taxi, perhaps confused why our group was not in uniform or chanted no name. I didn’t hear the reply but apparently, the answer satisfied him. “Ai,” he said, ducking back his head. “Mga taga- Redemptorist!”

How wrong he was. I didn’t know anyone in the group except for Fr. Paddy.

Truth to tell, I didn’t know Fr. Paddy like the others did. Earlier at church, a woman whispered loudly to a friend across the aisle how she had asked Fr. Paddy to tell her mother she had cancer when the speaker could not carry out the task urged on her by the doctor and her younger siblings.

When I met Fr. Paddy in 2004, he didn’t even want to speak to me.

It has become a habit, whenever I’m getting a mass card at the Redemptorist Church, to glance at and reread an illustrated poem written for Fr. Rudy Romano, who disappeared during the Marcos regime. One day in 2004, I glanced at the other dingy notices tacked around the Romano poem.

I was struck by several invitations to join a group meeting anonymously to address an addiction for drink, drugs or sex. It seemed a good story, though I didn’t really believe that spiel about anonymity.

When I pinned the rector on the phone, he turned out to be a journalist’s nightmare: a good story that doesn’t want to be told.

Fr. Paddy, when I finally sat across him in the monastery, lit a cigarette. It wasn’t the only stick he lit up while I tried to explain why readers would be interested in a story about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Just when I wondered if my eyes had melted and merged with the green ooze that was formerly my lungs, he said he could tell me what AA was because he, too, was an alcoholic. But talking about AA was not the same as joining the group, he said.

Though uttered very quietly, his words split me. Part of me was shocked but avid: a self-admitted alcoholic member of the clergy? A scoop about the underside?

Remembering that first meeting—a priest obscured behind a veil of smoke, a writer obscured to her own heart— I’m grateful that Fr. Paddy didn’t give up on me that day. Nor on the night I came back and waited outside an office while he asked his AA fellows if they would take me in.

Six years later, I still find it hard to write about that night. Unlike conventional therapy, an AA meeting never has observers or experts. If there are health professionals joining an AA meeting at all, it is because they admit they are addicted to drugs, drink or sex.

As I wrote in “Deep-sea fishing,” the Mar. 7, 2004 “Matamata” column, the real test for an addict is to admit he is one. Some would rather die or destroy loved ones than admit they are out of control.

But those who take that impossible step, that leap of faith, make their first step to healing.

“… the meeting began with each one giving out his first name, followed invariably by ‘alcoholic’,” I wrote in 2004. “When it was my turn, I was at a loss, wondering if I should append ‘journalist’ after my Christian name and whether my doing so would mean that my profession was a disease.”

Looking for Fr. Paddy last Friday morning, I entered a strange door but found myself in the same room where I was privileged to join the AA circle all those years ago.

A lot had changed. I missed a sign once posted in the room: “Duc in altum (put out into the deep).”

In the center of the room, surrounded by flowers and candles and not his characteristic cigarette fumes was Fr. Paddy Martin. At the age of 71, he had embarked on a new apostolate, so to speak.

Walking with his community to the Carreta cemetery last Friday afternoon, I realized why just knowing him healed. I walked alone but didn’t feel alone. For having known him, I knew myself better.

“Padayon (go on),” Fr. Paddy.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 2, 2010 issue of “Matamata”