Sunday, March 16, 2014

Level up

WHEN my mother tells our relatives that I am studying in Manila, she gets one intriguing comment: is she not yet fed up with school?

Despite the jokes and stereotypes, we are a people that value education.

My generation laughed at Miss Tapia’s efforts to introduce learning in the chaos of Wanbol University in the 1970s sitcom, “Iskul Bukol”.

Yet we wince when we hear celebrities like Erap Estrada and Melanie Marquez torture English and publish their malapropisms. When we are not conversant about a subject, we sheepishly joke that we were “absent” on the day the subject was “discussed in class”.

I’ve been teaching for nearly three decades because I think education is the great leveler.

Learning can abolish the inequalities that differentiate people. For one, studying with other people outside of one’s family or social circle is already an education.

The acquisition of knowledge and skills to improve one’s life does not only take place in classrooms and libraries. One learns just as well from experience and apprenticeship.

Character is not only honed by grades and awards but also by mistakes and detours. One can accumulate information but meaning is created best when knowledge is shared with and fed by other minds.

Nothing creates value like learning. Even just the dream of becoming who you want to be has the power to transform.

I remember accompanying Sun.Star Cebu chief photographer Alex Badayos to an inner city named Mahayahay some years ago. The sitio is dwarfed by high-rises, warehouses and shopping complexes.

Mocking the optimism of its name, the sitio is a tour into an urban planner’s dream mired in a nightmare. One side of Mahayahay is a parody of Venice, if Serenissima, the City of Canals, floated over a stagnant pool of seawater, rain, trash and human waste.

Far from romantic, the place still crawled with children. A few days before we came, a toddler fell into the Mahayahay lagoon and drowned while its mother washed clothes nearby.

Alex and I visited the community twice. From morning till early afternoon, we did not see the men. I thought they were at work. Sleeping, I was corrected. The place was busy at night. Rooms were rented for pot sessions or short time. Alex dared me to return at night. I said I liked the place better when the men were sleeping; women, children and dogs, the only ones out.

In another part of Mahayahay, where pathways took the place of bridges, babies and toddlers were as thick as flies in an open dump. We asked a young woman, weighed down by two infants hanging from her narrow flanks, the ages of her children. She didn’t stop with the two she was cradling; she included five or six others, not naming them or saying their ages but rattling off the years she gave birth. She forgot the year of one and counted again.

At a deadend, we came to a small room, which led into another tiny room. A family occupied each of the rooms, separated only by a dirty yolk-yellow curtain. A young woman was washing clothes in the room where her family lived, ate, slept.

A man, cocky and red-eyed, recognized Alex as “The Photographer” of Superbalita. The family breadwinner worked as a dispatcher in a nearby jeepney terminal. He monopolized the talk, gesticulating at Alex and sometimes glancing at the girl’s thighs revealed by the wet housedress. Why did the men of Mahayahay remind me of night creatures, sleeping or prowling, red-eyed, in daylight?

Alex’s fan was interrupted when his wife and a girl in uniform entered the room. They came from a foundation that sponsored the girl’s studies. The mother was very proud of her scholars. She pointed to the other daughter, who stood up from washing clothes. She wants to go to college, declared the mother. The man of the house had stepped out of the room, silently.

What course is your interest, I asked. The young woman wrung soap suds from her hands and smiled before answering: “Mass Com.”

It’s been years since I’ve returned to Mahayahay. I doubt it if I can find my way inside. But I remember the children in uniforms, crossing the bridges patched up from salvaged softdrink cases, the lagoon beneath them, on their way to school.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 16, 2014 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial-page column

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