FLIRTATION BLUES
June 1-7, 2011
Sibulan
I increase my tennis playing and notice an improvement in my game. I’m winning more games at the 7th Day Adventist court and almost holding my own at the elementary school court with the advanced players.

After tennis with the latter group one afternoon, Domy notices me observing an attractive woman working at the tiny cafe next to the Korean sari-sari store. Before I know it, he’s over there talking to her. Loud laughter. The rascal.

The next thing I know, he’s gesturing for me to join him. I amble over, and Domy formally introduces me to Billa, a slender, dark-skinned lovely. He wasn’t making a play for her; he was telling her about me. Domy’s a treasure. 

I’m out of practice and am tongue-tied; she’s shy and looks uncomfortable. As we nervously try to communicate, Domy keeps up a steady stream of laudatory comments about me to reassure her of my character and interest. I’ve never heard such bull.

To her credit, she isn’t buying any of it. In fact, after a few minutes, I sense she doesn’t want to be there. She finds more and more excuses to go into the back room. I end up talking mostly with her married girlfriend, who Domy’s suddenly interested in.

From what few things she says and what Domy tells me, I form a  few impressions of Billa:

  • Pros:  She’s 37, unmarried, without a boyfriend, and a knockout.
  • Cons: She dropped out of high school, has a 14-year-old daughter, doesn’t know how to speak English and says she doesn’t want to, and seems uninterested in me at best or turned off at worst.

So naturally I ask her out. I’ve been invited to a teacher’s wedding two weeks from now, and ask if she’d like to accompany me to the reception, which will be held at a beach resort in Sibulan.

Billa makes a face and retires to the back room again. Domy reassures me. “She wants to go. Ask her again.”

Billa’s girlfriend chastizes me. “A first date should not be in a public place. Take her to a movie, a restaurant, somewhere private instead.”

“Don’t worry,” Domy says, putting his arm around me. “She likes you. But don’t wait around. Act quickly.”

“She’s not sure about you,” her girlfriend tells me. “You must do something to impress her. Bring her a gift. Say something about yourself. But go slow. Court her. This is all too much for her right now.”

Billa never returns from the back room. I return to my tennis group and while they sip rum and beer and talk of easier things, my mind is elsewhere, in turmoil. I had promised myself before coming to the Philippines that I would not get involved with anyone who was not educated. Besides, life is too short to play “hard to get” games. I did that in high school. I’m attracted to mature women who are attracted to me. If I sense there’s no interest, I move on.

I move on. 

FIRST DAYS OF SCHOOL
June 8-11, 2011
Sibulan
At our Remedial Reading Program meeting prior to the beginning of school, I and the other four reading teachers are shocked to hear from the principal that our new reading classes will now be given to all first-year students instead of just the poor readers.

After the meeting, I look at my counterparts. “So why did we spend three weeks assessing each first-year student on their reading abilities?”

They shake their heads, as confused and disappointed as I am. All that work for nothing. Now each of our reading classes will be a mixture of good readers, middle readers, poor readers, and nonreaders. To whom do we target our lessons?

To make matters worse, we won’t have any reading textbooks for another couple of months until my shipments of donated Peace Corps books come in. No one seems concerned at these developments. No one asks what the lesson plans will be for the first week of classes. No one asks what we’re going to do. I will be the one who panics.

The next day the Peace Corps informs me that I’ve been chosen to be one of a handful of Resource Volunteers who will greet the new Peace Corps trainees when they arrive in country on July 3 in Manila. I’m overjoyed. This was the assignment I most wanted, to see the newbies come in at 2 a.m. like we did — wide-eyed, nervous, excited, exhausted — and wondering if they made a really bad mistake.

I remember hearing the Peace Corps HQ staff and Filipino trainers talk about that weeklong Initial Orientation. About how they’d read our bios and were curious to see us in the flesh. “Oh, he’s much taller than I thought he’d be.” “Oh, she’s so pretty; she’ll drive the boys crazy.” “Oh, he’s so funny; he’ll be a good teacher.”

They also noted who they thought might make it through their two-year service and who might not. First impressions are critical, and we didn’t realize how minutely we were being observed.   

But what I remember most was the overwhelming smiles and warm greetings we got from the Peace Corps staff, the Filipinos, and the Resource Volunteers when we staggered off the bus in the middle of that rainy night. It was something I’ll never forget and instilled positive vibes about the country and the Peace Corps from day one. Now I get to be part of that and hopefully leave a similar impression.

Volunteer BJ Stolbov from Luzon sends out a speech he wrote and presented to his school about why learning English is important. It’s so good that I print it out. I want to read it to my students on the first day of class.

I also print out some short stories for the students to read, and the lessons go over well. I recite the speech about English, and the students listen raptly, their jaws dropping when I describe in detail how their lives could change completely if they speak English.

At the student assembly for the first- and second-year students, a note is passed to me during the ceremony asking if I could give the closing remarks. Yikes. This is typical of the Philippines. You can be called on at any time to speak, dance, sing, tell a joke, or any foolish thing whose sole purpose is to forever cement your reputation in the community as a moron.

Luckily, I know the English speech by heart and present it to the student body. I evoke the same reactions as I did in my classes: wide eyes and stunned expressions. Even the goofy, spiked-haired boys in the back stare at me intently as the words and images sink in about how radically their poverty-stricken lives could change if they learn to speak English.

After the speech, our guidance counselor rushes over and gushes: “Oh, Sir John, that was such a good speech. The students were really listening to it! Can you please give it again to the third- and fourth-year students at their assembly next week?”

FIESTA!
June 12-13, 2011
Sibulan
Sibulan’s annual Fiesta is approaching, so naturally I must attend the Miss Sibulan beauty pageant. One reason is that one of my students from the senior class last year is a finalist. I’d seen her on campus a week ago and she looked trimmer. She told me she’d been practicing her talent competition for over a month to get into shape.

When I arrive on pageant night, the principal waves me over and informs me that the girl had to drop out from the competition.  

“Why, what happened?”

“She’s attending St. Paul University, which is Catholic. The nuns informed her that St. Paul students are prohibited from taking part in beauty pageants.”

Don’t get me started, I want to say. Instead, I just shake my head.

“She’s not only on scholarship there,” he says, “she’s a full scholar. It’s too bad, but she understands what her priorities are.”

The town is all spruced up for its annual celebration, with streamers draped over the streets, new paint everywhere, hukay-hukay booths and food peddlers overflowing the park, and a calendar of events at the Quadrangle.

I stroll through the hukay-hukay booths (piles of clothes at ridiculous prices) surrounding the park and grit my teeth when I approach the Loudspeaker Guy. The Loudspeaker Guy’s booth is always in the middle of the park. It sells the same things as everyone else, but he hooks up a tiny loudspeaker above his wares and turns it on full blast.  How loud is it? Students from a college for the deaf 6 kilometers away routinely call the mayor’s office to turn the bloody thing down (slight exaggeration).

But that’s not the most annoying part. What spews forth from the loudspeaker is the same thing:

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!” (20! 20! 20! 20!)

Over and over and over again, nonstop, all day and all night. You can’t hear yourself think. Your dental fillings loosen. Your head clangs like church bells. Your body twitches in places you didn’t think could twitch.

Okay, we get it, Loudspeaker Guy. Everything in your booth costs 20 pesos. For those who are too dense to understand, he dangles tiny signs over his goods with “20” scribbled on them.

Well, since Loudspeaker Guy has chosen to mess with my mind, I fantasize messing with his:

“Excuse me, sir, but how much is your stuff?”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“Yeah, but what about this one?”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“That one, too?”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“Even this one?”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! Are you deaf? EVERYTHING is VEINTE!”

“Surely not everything.”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“Okay, calm down, sir. I’m just confused. I’m wondering why, for example, this worn t-shirt is the same price as this nice new polo shirt. Are you saying they’re both–”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“What, sir? I couldn’t can’t hear you. Maybe it would help if you TURNED DOWN YOUR F—ING SPEAKER!”

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“Okay, enough. Let’s talk mano-a-mano here. You SAY everything’s veinte. But I know you can haggle. Like, for instance, this pair of shorts. I know you’d take 15 for it.”

By now, anchovie parts that he’d had for lunch start hurling out of his mouth. “Go away, you crazy man! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“What about a bulk discount then? Like if I buy 5, can I get the sixth one free?”

“I no sell to you!  You stupidest man I ever meet! I call police if you ask another question! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

“But I’ve only got 19 on me. Can I owe you one?”

At that, he rips out the loudspeaker and chases me across the park with it. I’m elated. The city council will hail me as a hero for ridding the community of a menace. Loudspeaker Guy will never be seen in Sibulan again. 

The next time I travel to Manila, I pass a block of squatters on a sidewalk who, instead of holding out their hands to beg, flip on tiny loudspeakers next to them that blare: “VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

On June 12, Jose Rizal’s birthday and National Independence Day, all teachers and public officials are instructed to be at the park at 6 a.m. for the town ceremony. Someone please explain to me why 6 a.m. is considered a good time for a public ceremony. Nobody? Okay then, we’ll move on.

The mayor, vice-mayor, barangay captains, police and fire departments, municipal officials, and teachers from every school in the district are here dressed in their finest.

I’m one of the flower bearers who lay a wreath at the base of Rizal’s statue in the center of the park. The president of Negros Oriental State University gives a stirring speech chastising corrupt public officials and inept teachers (“The students in this country are schooled; they are not educated!”) Right on.

The most jarring event of the morning is a presentation illustrating the history of the Philippines flag. Apparently, the first versions featured a KKK symbol over red background. The flag was the symbol for the Katipunan, a secret revolutionary movement that opposed Spanish rule in the Philippines and led to the Philippine Revolution.

The three “Ks” stood for Kataas-taasang Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Supreme and Venerable Society of the Sons of the Nation). The red background symbolized blood as members of the Katipunan signed their membership in their own blood. 

Although the Filipino KKK emblem preceded America’s by a good hundred years and stood for different things, it’s still uncomfortable watching those letters waved ceremoniously around the park.

At noon a teacher picks me up in a tryke at my house for the first in a two-day whirlwind of fiesta parties at people’s homes. When we drive into town, the main square has turned into a madhouse. Thousands of visitors are pouring in like a tsunami. A line of easy rides (van-taxis) unload passengers every 30 seconds.

Dumaguete volunteers Akesa, Jacques, and Alana join the procession to witness the frenzy firsthand, and I give them a quick tour of the town, the pier, the school, and my rented house. They’re surprised at how many people wave and say hi to me. “Hey, I like your small-town atmosphere!” Jacques says.

Neighborhood kids scurry in to borrow my badminton racquets, and my house owner’s daughter comes by to borrow the videoke machine, which she and some neighborhood boys roll down the street. Ungodly sounds emanate from the house next door for the next two days. I should have locked the damn thing up.

Next day, Akesa returns and we hit the first of four party houses. Someone please explain to me why every house in the Philippines serves the exact same menu during holidays when guests routinely go from house to house? Wouldn’t it make sense for each house to be creative and lay out a different menu so visitors won’t have to stuff themselves with the same lechon, spaghetti, and fruit potato salad at each stop? Nobody? Okay then, we’ll move on.

REMEDIAL READING IS COOL?
June 14-30, 2011
Sibulan
Our principal gets a 50,000 peso grant for our Remedial Reading Program and purchases a reading assessment kit that he once used years ago. It’s a color-coded system of booklets with stories in them and comprehension questions. When a student masters one level, he or she moves up to the next color level. There are 12 levels in each color and 12 colors.

I introduce the kit to my reading co-teachers, and they buy into it quickly (not much of a choice since we have no textbooks). To say our first week using the system is a hit is an understatement. The kids go nuts. And not just one class. Every class. One reason is that the system encourages the students to chart their own progress.

By day two, they’ve all created lavishly illustrated folders and Reading Progress Charts. It’s stunning to see how they’ve taken ownership of their work. They can’t wait to see how quickly they move up their chart.

But I never imagined what would happen when I showed up for reading class one day, forgetting that that class period had been switched to science, and saw the students milling around outside the classroom. When I asked them why they weren’t in their classroom, they told me their teacher was absent.

Then they all crowded around me and said — and I’m not making this up — “Can we have a reading class instead, sir John? Please!!!”

I never thought I’d ever hear my students, when presented with a choice between goofing off for an hour or having a reading lesson, not only choose the reading lesson but beg for it. There’s not a price tag that could possibly be put on something like that.

Oh wait, yes there is.

“VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE! VEINTE!”

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