Saturday, May 18, 2013

The empty shelf

I ALWAYS have the same rite to mark the closing of summer: I go through my boxes of books.

It starts with a pretext: my sons are required to read the classics. I have yet to meet a teenager who will spend time with Homer and Shakespeare without demanding pizza, cappuccino with extra whipped cream or some emergency measure of resuscitation. Asking teen boys to search for my 30-year-old copy of “Hamlet” is sending them on a heroic quest without any expectation of an epic end.

I undertake the mission for many selfish reasons. I know fully well my sons. I like Wiki plot summaries—for a tip on which movie to watch on the big screen. I think SparkNotes are “lifesavers” when you’re “confuzzled”: meaning, in the words of the website, “you don’t understand your teacher, your textbooks make no sense, and you have to read sixteen chapters by tomorrow.”

But nothing is cooler than the Book.

I have fewer boxes now after giving books away. I swear, though, after I open a box, there’s always a novel I have to reread. Or an enigmatic spine to be explored.

Although the high school reading list rarely goes beyond two required classics, the day is nearly done and I am still among the boxes, sweaty and dirty, turning pages, willingly detained by the clutch of a good story. Humdrum Homer and Zzzz Shakespeare have long been found, of course.

So it was an illuminating experience to spend nearly an hour in a public elementary classroom that served as a holding area for voters last May 13.

Half of the chairs needed repairs; the rest, replacements. A fellow voter ran home when the toilet turned out to have no water. The lone ceiling fan creaked and agonized like a hurting conscience that could not be silenced.

My thoughts then were not on the deliverance promised by the ballot. What pierced me was the poverty of a room where children spend at least eight hours every day for five days a week in about 10 months every year.

Limping chairs and a dry faucet did not embody the poverty as well as a single empty shelf on the wall. In handwritten block letters, the label read: “Mini-library”.

I had not been in any of the other classrooms. I had not seen the school library.

Yet the shelf, that abandoned shell, reproached me: how can learning take place when children don’t read? When they’re not lost in a book? When not even a torn cover or a dogeared page betrays some trace of life, an imaginary life, an imagined one?

On a low table were several textbooks. At least, these looked battered, as if an army had stomped over the pages, pillaged for information, and moved on to other conquests.

But as someone who devours fiction and finds required references paltry fare, the absence of story books in the classroom gave me pause: books transform a life; how does absence shape it?

Were the books taken home after the school year ended? When school opens in June, will there be new books to fill the tiny confines of this book shelf? Will lunch break and dismissal encourage a generation of browsers-turned-readers? Can there be a shortcut to learning more diverting than reading?

At St. Theresa’s College, many of my grade school homeroom teachers encouraged us to bring a book or two from home to be placed in the classroom’s designated book nook. The books were returned when school broke for summer. By sharing our favorites, we also anticipated fresh titles and new authors brought by our classmates. And there were book fairs and the mighty library card one raced to fill within the year.

It took a one-shelf library, so diminished it was empty, to remind me how this is a country where classrooms can cost more than they need to, where families that make do without basics will never part with pesos for a novel, and where children acquire an education without discovering a book.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 19, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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