Ni JOHN THIMOTY A. ROMERO
I am very aware that my decision to teach in Mindanaoan mountains weakened not only yours, but of Dad’s and Lolo’s seemingly frail hearts. You’ve already visualized me in areas you thought were far greater than where I am today: studying abroad, high-paying universities, straight pursuit of post-graduate studies and the like. You thought I’d take on the world given my education.
Your primary concern is my safety, and believe me when I tell you I have already triumphed in that battle with you. Even before I studied in Manila, you strongly disagreed with my first ventures in the harsh city. I would get robbed, you said, and eventually I did get robbed of two netbooks (my apologies to Dad, since I know that that still aggravates him). But I went anyway. And I continued on.
I did not want to be just a teacher, I wanted to become a great teacher. That gave me all the reason to affirm my choice of university. I wanted to take control over my future, not to have your expectations predict it. I wanted to feel the excitement of plunging into an unfamiliar pit, to be versed in it and to consistently beat all points of adjustment. I know my adventurism triggers your worries, but I’m afraid I got this sense of bravery and curiosity from you.
Luckily, I am pursuing at least a portion of what you expect me to be. I am taking on the world, and I am not alone in that quest.
If there is one thing that brought me to my transcendence, that would be political activism. I know that not a bone in your body agrees with my beliefs, and how you and Dad have ostracized me to a certain point, but I did it anyway. It was not easy. It was part of my depression and daily anxieties when I was in the middle of my senior year.
I bore that grinding pressure, the thought that you despised your own son just because of his beliefs, while keeping my stature as a publication leader and a teacher. Though I acquired great wisdom in that pressure; it did not grind me into dust, but polished my maturity to that of a diamond through brute force. I had to take it all in, I had to embrace reality. Otherwise, I will lose my sanity.
For you it may seem like lunacy in its prime, but for me, my political belief shaped me into the man of principle I am today. This was the greatest sign that I am keeping my conscience in the healthiest state, that all the morals you taught were applied. As a citizen, you always loved to volunteer and help people in need. I took pride in having our neighbors recognize you as the better healer compared to my other aunts who are actual nurses, while you were a reflexologist. You even adopted a family with an unfortunate lifestyle, made them live in our house, gave them sustenance in all respects in exchange only for their friendship. You always chose to help other people first, even if it means compromising your own family. At first, I viewed that as selfishness, but eventually I understood your choice of action. You saw a greater need and an even more urgent calling in helping other people. Your conscience was always left with the utmost purity, together with your industriousness.
I wanted to show you I understood your sacrifice, and I understood your dedication.
If you worry about my basic necessities, then rest assured that your maternal caress remains even in Mindanao. In a teacher’s training seminar I have met mothers; they were farmers in fields that make coffee beans, all aspiring to become teachers. I participated in that event as a resource speaker for the Philippine Educational System and the Role of Teachers in Society. However, their states of living denied them any educational opportunities. But what almost brought me in epiphanic tears is their passion to teach the poorer communities, even if they, themselves are poor.
In the middle of a lecture activity, I told teacher Julie, an active participant in most discussions and trainings, “Mas kapugay-pugay nga po kayo Teacher Julie, eh. Kasi kahit hindi po gaanong kaganda yung pamumuhay ninyo, ginugusto niyo pa rin pong magturo sa mga mahihirap na komunidad.”
She, and all of her co-teachers replied:
“’Di ba sir ganoon naman talaga? Sabi niyo nga, hindi tayo nabubuhay para sa sarili natin. Kaya kung ano yung tinuturo ninyo sa amin, gustong-gusto naming gawin sa pamamagitan ng pagtuturo sa mga komunidad.”
“Alam na rin kasi namin sir kung bakit kami naghihirap. Kami man, binabawasan pa yung mga kita naming sa kapihan para lang mabayaran yung utang namin na laging nadadagdagan kada buwan. Pero gusto naming ituro rin sa kanila yung dahilan, na may nagsasamantala sa kanila.”
“Ganoon naman talaga dapat ang pagtuturo. Dapat nagseserbisyo ka sa mamamayan.”
I held back tears to keep my composure, but I really wanted to embrace them for their dedication. I felt hypocritical. These people are so selfless and true to the community. Even if I am the one with a bachelor’s degree, I believe that they are my true teachers.
For a teacher grounded in social reality, the greatest merit is the appreciation of the community, their triumphs, aided by the school which you helped develop. I never saw people who dedicated their futures for the sake of serving others.
Then I was reminded. I first saw that horizon in you.
That was not the last encounter I had with teacher Julie. You never knew me as someone who can tend to his laundry by hand. I was accustomed to washing machines and Laundromats. As I was minding my business at the looming shadows of the coming dusk, Teacher Julie, accompanied by Teacher Rita (also a fellow farmer at the coffee bean farm) approached me.
“Hindi kayo marunong maglaba, Sir, ano?”
I only managed a weak smile, hiding myself in petty shame.
To my surprise, she asked me, “Tulungan ko na po kayong maglaba, sir. Para po makakain na kayo,” and then took the initiative in filling basins with water, all to my petrified state.
I did not know how to respond. I presumed both saw themselves inferior since I was the one discussing and simplifying sophisticated topics, therefore the teacher of the highest authority. But then I realized, they have a level of maturity that breaks free from favors with expected returns. They did not view themselves as inferior, and they did not see themselves obliged to serve someone superior. They helped me out of the pure intent to help. That, and that alone. They helped out of generosity, the greatest form of purity.
Believe me, Ma. I am in good hands. I am in an environment in which people will allow me to grow by my own terms, and to support me all the way in my pursuits to help their communities. Here, I see the true meaning of dedicating yourself to the people, rendering all of your talents and skills to their interest. The effort reciprocates with an ever-growing resolve to teach those who are denied opportunities for schooling.
My decision is to remain in the countryside, to help provide as many schools as possible, encourage all communities to work together to attain education for all. This, unlike any other interest, does not have any political shade. The service is determined by the dedication of the volunteer teachers regardless of their political and economic status, with relevant inputs to erase discrimination in all its forms inside the classroom and even in the society in which we all dwell.
I want to see these communities grow. I want to be there as they stand tall and embrace their identity as the Lumad. Although you still don’t understand my conviction, deep inside your heart, I know you will accept my beliefs and how I practice it in reality.
I want all of you to be proud that your son decided to become a dedicated teacher of this country’s tribes, as well as those who are denied of their rights for schooling because this just goes to show how well you have raised me as a citizen with morals and an ever-pure sense of generosity and service.
I will assure you, I will not return as a dead, empty corpse. Instead, expect your son to return successful in his pursuit, doing what his conscience dictates and living his life for other people, as how it should be for everyone. Expect your son to return with no regrets, victorious, and ever happy.
The author is a graduate of the Philippine Normal University, and was a former editor-in-chief of the student publication The Torch. He now works as a teacher of the Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services, Inc. (CLANS) in Sitio Dlumay, Upper Suyan village, Malapatan, Sarangani Province. He teaches Blaan children Grades 3 and 4.