STORM CLOUDS
August 1-17, 2011
Sibulan
In Africa, rain is classified as either “short rains” (downpours) or “long rains” (downpours of Biblical proportions). We’re lashed by long rains for a week straight, turning the roads into muck and our campus into a lake.

I venture over to the main campus one afternoon and watch a gust of wind sheer off what remains of our embarrassing stage roof. Razor-sharp shards of tin slice through the air with decapitation intentions, and the principal orders all students at that end of the campus to stay clear.

Hooray. With the roof now nearly completely off and now posing a danger to students, maybe action will finally be taken to repair the eyesore.

Other storm clouds swoop in over our reading classes. One class is steadily becoming a nightmare to manage, with students running all over, talking, playing, reading fashion magazines, or looking at their cellphones while class is in session. Except for an occasional plea from my co-teacher to the class to settle down, nothing works. Finally, I go up to one boy who constantly changes seats and ask him where his seat is.

He points sheepishly to a desk two rows in front of him. I tell him go to his seat and stay there. “If you move from your seat again, you will stand up for the rest of the hour.” I hear a collective gasp. From that moment on, the classroom is polite, respectful, and, more importantly, attentive. I know volunteers aren’t supposed to discipline students, but for that brief moment I lose it. I have no illusions, however, that my comment will carry over to the next day.

This class has in just two months earned the reputation as the Room from Hell. Another English teacher tells me she has to psych herself up just to enter the room and often leaves hyperventilating. And she’s arguably the best English teacher on campus, having transferred this year to our high school from Science High, the top-rated school in the district, where she was named English teacher of the year.

Our school’s 13 school aides, who are not official teachers and get only a fraction of a teacher’s pay, are informed that the district has no budget for them, and they will have to go in two weeks. When one of them, a hugely popular math teacher, informs her 4th-year students of the news, many burst into tears. A gloom cloud now joins the dark and malevolent ones that already hover over our battered and muddy grounds.

My tennis game is as inconsistent as a Nicolas Cage bank statement. One day I’m all-world; the next all-toilet. But I’m really enjoying my tennis barkadas. One group always hangs out afterward, drinks Tanduhay, and samples exotic dishes. One night I’m served the honorary first piece of what they assure me is dog. I earn their respect by tasting it before they reveal the truth — it’s goat. Joke only!

I’m told by my counterpart that I’ll be the one to prepare the First Periodical Exam in Developmental Reading. I’ve never created a test before, so I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But it passes muster from all the reading teachers.

One wonderful new development has sprung up at school during lunchtime. As most teachers head home for lunch, a group of 2nd-year students co-opted the teacher table and benches outside the faculty room, and one day I join them. Soon I become a fixture. Now, if I don’t appear, they look for me.

It’s my most enjoyable part of the day. We talk about everything. From our favorite movies to which animals would win in a fight to brain teasers to card tricks to yahtzee.

One day our session stretches to two hours, and my 1:00 co-teacher lets me stay with the students when she sees we’re having so much fun. I teach them how to play Killer, and they instantly adopt it. We cut out pieces of paper (one is marked with an X denoting the killer), pass out the pieces, and form a circle. The killer must try to kill everyone before he or she is discovered. You kill people by winking at them. Non-killers must try to find the killer before they’re eliminated. It’s great fun, especially if you’re knocked off. Whenever I’m dispatched, I perform an elaborate, drawn-out death scene that would have made Brando envious (slight exaggeration).

One day I’m going home when I stop by the main campus to see what’s going on. I’m rarely there anymore since all my 1st-year classes are in the cramped second campus across the street. What I see are military formations with girls on one side of the basketball court and boys on the other. The male P.E. teachers are putting them through marching and saluting drills.

When one of the teachers spots me, I’m shanghaied into judging the best group, seeing as I’m a vet. The boys are goofy and play around. The girls are serious and make no mistakes. I give it to them. The teachers have them do it once more, with the winner allowed to go home early. The girls win again, and they shriek and jump and run over to thank me. The boys glower. Hey, gotta step up, guys.

My Visayan has deteriorated to such an extent that I haul out my old lessons and practice them with the teachers. They love it and start talking Visayan with me to force me to speak it. When I try to say I have “light skin,” they howl and tell me I just told them I’m a “killer.” 

We get a memo instructing us that school the next day will be suspended and all elementary and high school teachers in the district must attend an all-day “Teacher Appreciation Day” in which awards will be given out to the best schools and instructors. It proves to be the worst eight hours of my Peace Corps experience.

When we arrive, more than 300 teachers are crammed into a long, narrow, stifling room on hard wooden chairs where for the rest of the day we’re forced to listen to intermidable speeches, introductions, certificate readings, and a three-hour death-by-PowerPoint presentation listing every year-end statistic for every class in every elementary and high school in the district.

As the speaker drones on, oblivious to the fact that no one’s listening anymore, the rest of the room drowns her out. Then the VIPs arrive (mayor, vice mayor, district supervisor, PTA president, principal of Sibulan, special guests, etc.), and they each speak for 15 minutes. At last, the awards are given out, the reason we were all called together in the first place. That lasts 10 minutes. Science High, as expected, cleans up. Never again, I vow.

BOOKS! BOOKS! BOOKS!
August 17-18, 2011
Sibulan
I’m sitting in the faculty room Monday morning getting ready for my first class when the principal steps in and informs me that two boxes from a “Dave” arrived over the weekend and are in his office.

I’m elated. An acquaintaince of mine in L.A. had shipped them off to me a couple of months ago by boat and their arrival was imminent. “Dave ” is Dave Kinnoin, a singer, songwriter, and overall good guy who builds houses for impoverished families in Mexico.

I’d only met him once when he visited the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics where I used to work (he published children’s songs for the firm’s character education program). We had lunch, and when he learned I’d applied to the Peace Corps, he asked if I needed anything for the trip. I thanked him politely and said I was fine, not wanting to impose.

I didn’t hear from him again until a few days before my departure when I got a small package in the mail. Inside was a Swiss Army Knife with a note saying it might come in handy one day. It has, several times.

After I arrived in the Philippines, Dave sent me an e-mail every few months asking about me and repeating his offer of help. I always declined, saying I was fine.

When our reading program got up and running, I requested book donations from Books for Peace and Darien Book Aid, mostly for remedial reading textbooks/workbooks and reference materials like dictionaries and thesauruses. But what our kids also needed were books for pleasure to stimulate a love of reading.

So when Dave sent his next offer of help, I bit. I sent him a detailed list of what we wanted: young adult novels for teens in the reading level of middle-school kids in the U.S. The genres the kids like most are mystery, adventure, horror, romance, sports plus teen magazines and comics. Dave’s one-word reply was: “Done.”

The next time I heard from him, a few months later, he was leaving for another house-building project in Mexico, and he said that he, his wife, a few friends, and his local library in South Pasadena, California, had rounded up “about 100” books, and he would ship them upon his return.

When he got back, he sent me an e-mail that the shipping fee for the books was over $1,000.

My heart froze. I hurriedly sent him an e-mail, praying he hadn’t already sent them off. I would never have forgiven myself if he’d shouldered such a cost. I told him that my nephew had recently sent me a care package from California through FOREX, and the massive box had cost only $40 to ship. I urged him to check it out.

The next day he replied in all caps: “THANK YOU! I JUST SAVED 1,000 DOLLARS! WHOOPEE!” The total shipping cost for both massive boxes was $140. They must charge by the size of the box, not the weight. I’m still not sure how it’s so cheap, but keep FOREX in mind when your friends or loved ones or book donors want to send you something: http://www.forexworld.us/BoxesTraditional.aspx

One of my reading co-teachers and I rush across the street to the main campus. When we walk in, we’re taken aback at the size of the containers. Dave told me he’d shipped “about 100” books, but these boxes are humungous. I’m dying to open them, but we decide to let our students do the honor.

At 2 p.m., my co-teacher and I, followed by 50 excited youngsters, cross the street and enter the main campus, where the juniors and seniors are practicing volleyball in preparation for the upcoming city intramurals.

The principal’s office swells with bodies. I’m grateful that the principal is out so we won’t disturb him. I get a knife and slit open the first box. The kids all lean in as we clear off the bubble wrap. I’m apprehensive. What if the books aren’t what we wanted or expected? What if they’re in poor shape? What if, horrors, he sent us 100 copies of Tale of Two Cities?

The first book is a gorgeous Mulan art book from Disney, still in its original shrink wrap. Beneath that are 10 Hardy Boys hardbacks in pristine condition. My teacher and I look at each other. With that, the feeding frenzy starts. The looks on the girl’s faces are priceless when they pull out a half dozen Gossip Girl books. The boys ooh and ahh at the graphic novels and adventure books. I shake my head at their condition, their appropriateness, their sheer numbers.

I take pictures of the madness. Groups form. One girl clutches a book to her chest and won’t let go. Two boys huddle in a corner, leafing through a cool-looking magic and detective workbook. A half dozen kids swarm around a California high school yearbook, staring with fascination at what American kids look like.

The total count comes to 256 books plus 35 CDs of Dave’s songs for teens, all character-related messages about respect, honesty, responsibility, fairness, and caring.

Within a few days, word gets out about the shipment, and 3rd- and 4th-year students wander in inquiring about borrowing copies. Our values-education teachers request Dave’s CDs for their classes. And my co-teacher and I make plans to form a Book Club.

PARTIES! PARTIES! PARTIES!
August 19-31, 2011
Sibulan
Four teachers invite me to accompany them on a road trip to Cebu City where they have to renew their teaching licenses. It’ll take place at the end of the month over a six-day holiday weekend (no classes on Thursday and Friday for intramural meet, the weekend, and then two national holidays). I’m pumped; it’ll be my real vacation since coming here.

Another day, as I head home from school, my tennis buddy Nick hails me from his porch and tells me to drop by his house later for a dinner party for his son-in-law who’s visiting from Australia.

When I get home, my landlord, the Hong Kong bartender who will live in the back portion of my house for a few months, is in the midst of a dinner and videoke party in the alley beside my house. I can’t say no to the woman who so graciously allows me to rent her spaciously furnished house at the Peace Corps rate, so I quickly shower and join the fun.

Great food: grilled fish, baby squids, and sour fish soup. I’m immediately introduced to an attractive woman who greets me with a wink and a “How young are you?” purr. I’m captivated. Naturally, she’s married.

After a couple of hours, I pay my respects and walk briskly down the dark road toward Nick’s. As I do, he and his wife zip toward me on a motorcycle. He stops and I apologize for being late. He says it’s okay; his party never materialized because his son-in-law’s arrival was delayed.

The next morning I hook up with my son Alex and his girlfriend on Skype, and it’s great to see and hear them after so long. He says he has tons of mail he needs to talk to me about, but we don’t get to it, spending the time catching up.

That afternoon I play my best tennis in a while, and afterward Nick and I walk back to his house where he, I, and his son Sherwin attempt to solve the world’s problems for few hours.

The following day I cook chicken and rice and add cucumber/onion/tomato salad to the mix, then take it to Dumaguete for a one-year anniversary potluck party at Jacques and Alana’s. It’s good to see the local gang again, and we eat, drink, and play games. 

We talk about plans for organizing a 50th Peace Corps anniversary event in Dumaguete, a basketball camp for girls, a world map project, and of course chika-chika.

I hear the fourth “confirmation” of what Ceres liner drivers are rumored to do when involved in pedestrian accidents in rural areas. Because death benefits are much less costly than hospitalization, they reportedly back over them to make sure they’re dead.

Then someone tops that. “You know that gambling is officially illegal in the Philippines, right?” someone says.

“What about cockfighting?” I ask.

“I said ‘officially,’ but like many things, some customs are ignored by authorities. The rumor is that the law is waived in only one instance — during a wake.”

A collective “Huh?”

“For that reason, people who want to gamble rent caskets to get around the ban.”

We close the evening by sharing our individual experiences after one year in country. Some are emotional. Some confess that they never thought they’d ever call themselves teachers but are proud to do so now. Others tell of special children who made a difference in their lives or vice versa. Still others describe how much they’ve changed or challenged themselves or become stronger.

One wanted to have a real Peace Corps experience: live in a mud hut, teach under a tree, adopt a hyena — an African Peace Corps experience. The Philippines (the Posh Corps) is a far cry from the scenarios that the brochures tout. Nevertheless, no one regrets his or her experiences.

Collectively, we agree that next year will be hardpressed to top this one. Second year, here we come.

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