January 4-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
I cannot conceive of going to class today or facing students again. Ever. I lie in bed unable and unwilling to get up. My mind is buffeted by Typhoon Indecision, Tsunami Outta Here, and Volcano Pauli sa Balay (Return home). I sincerely contemplate resigning from the Peace Corps. It would be very easy. One call to my regional manager and it would be done. A ticket would be issued within minutes. I’d spend the day packing, hop on the afternoon flight to Manila, and be on a Delta airliner by dinnertime.

So what’s stopping me?

I honestly don’t know. Stubbornness probably. I’m not a quitter. What would I say to my students, teachers, Peace Corps staff, fellow PCVs? What would I tell my neighbors, my barcadas, my tennis pals, my street kids, my host families?

My friends and family back home would be overjoyed, but if I gave up now, I would always know deep down that I didn’t have the right stuff. That the 17 months I’d spent here had been for nothing. That the achievements I’d dreamed of accomplishing would never happen. That whatever good impressions I’d initially made would be forever sullied. That whenever anyone in my town ever brought up my name, they would forever include the addendum: “…the one who left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.”

I drag myself out of bed, rage and desperation burning my lungs, no options available. I shave, shower, get dressed, and plod to school, dreading every step bringing me closer to it.

The first thing the teachers in the Faculty Room say is, “What happened to your tooth? It fell out again?”

I almost turn around and go back. But I don’t. I listen to what they did during the Christmas break and tell them about my trips to Siquijor and Mabinay. The aftereffects of the typhoon are still being felt. One teacher knows a policeman whose house was flooded during the crisis. As the water overflowed the street and rushed toward their house, he ran inside to alert his family. But he didn’t want to panic his mother because she has a serious heart condition and such a shock could be lethal. So instead of shouting, “A flood is coming! Grab your things and run!” he sang softly: “The flood is coming, so grab your things…Take my hand, and we’ll be all right…La-la-la-la-la.”

My original counterpart takes over my classes for the week to whip the students into shape, and she replaces one teacher permanently. In my most difficult class, the worst in the school, half the class is absent as usual. She instills “martial law” by having them stand at attention and repeat our names over and over. She threatens to contact their parents, send them to the guidance counselor and principal, and drop them down a grade level if they miss one more class without a valid excuse.

It’s a long day. Rain batters the campus with fury. The teachers make me promise when I leave the Philippines to send them boxes of chocolates from time to time. I tease them, saying they’re always asking for treats whenever I travel to Manila. “You’re like a nest of baby chicks begging its mother for food: ‘Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!'”

That becomes our running gag for the week. When I go home, they tell me, they’ll send me an e-mail every month with no text, just the subject line: “Tweet, tweet, tweet!” and I’ll know what to do.

I visit the principal and tell him I want to approach the local Rotary Club to ask them to adopt one or more of our classrooms and help repair the dilapidated conditions. He gets very excited and takes me over to the teacher who’s in charge of renovations. The teacher promises to give me data on which rooms are most in need, what repairs each requires, and the estimated cost for each classroom including labor.

The next day all the district supervisors surprise us with a visit, spending the day monitoring classes, touring the campus, and observing our operations. We assemble in the afternoon to hear our “report card.” And it’s not good. We must improve our students’ grades, beautify our campus, clean up our accounting of funds, and keep students on campus.

I reconnect with the supervisor to whom I made a courtesy call on my first day in town many months ago. She’s a sharp, witty, attractive lady and still single, from what I’m told. She’s as funny as ever and we part smiling. Later I learn that the guard at the gate greeted her by jokingly saying, “Sir Wood’s looking forward to your visit, ma’am” to which she reportedly replied, “I’m flattered!”

So plans are made. I tell my closest teachers of my intentions, and they bubble with glee. We concoct a plan to make another courtesy call to her office soon. Officially to thank her for visiting our school, unofficially to give me an opportunity to ask her out. I’m warned, however, that she’s reportedly in a relationship. The odds are slim, but that’s okay; it takes the pressure off. The anticipation lifts my spirits somewhat.

Three days later I get another boost — a care package from my former officemates back home arrives, and this one is the best yet: chocolates, trail mix, soups, cereals, Log Cabin syrup, card games, magazines, red velvet cake mix, and a football.

I bring the football to school, hoping to intrigue the students with this new sport. But when I try to toss it to them, they run away. They’ve never seen one before and are afraid of it. Finally, a couple of boys step up, and I throw it to them. They throw it back. I show them how to throw a spiral. A big crowd watches in wonder as the strange new object soars through the air. More boys want to play. I form small teams and make a few plays for my teammates. One player actually scores a touchdown when his stop-and-go leaves his defender standing still.

My next-door neighbor’s five yapping dogs wake me up at 3:30 with their barking, which doesn’t let up for two full hours. They wake up all the other dogs in the neighborhood, which go nuts, and undoubtedly every family for a quarter mile in either direction.

The next day I bang on the owner’s gate, which sends his dogs into hysterics, and a very, very old man staggers out. He takes a long time to reach the gate, even longer to unfasten it, and opens it a crack. What stares back at me looks like a withered Japanese man with a wispy beard. I introduce myself and explain that his dogs’ barking in the early morning disturbs my sleep and is there anything he could do. He says he’ll try to lessen the noise by leashing them to the other side of the house. Virtually everybody keeps their dogs outside on ridiculously short leashes. Hmmm, perhaps that’s why they’re so agitated, but I say nothing.

I don’t hear the dogs for the next two nights, but the third night they’re back and the problem returns. Exasperating the situation is that I’ve run out of ear plugs and no store or pharmacy sells them. Most salespersons don’t even know what they are. I send out an all-points bulletin to my family and friends to send me ear plugs ASAP.

In the meantime, I go to sleep under a cloud of fear: when will I be jarred awake again? How much sleep will I get tonight? How badly will it affect me at school the next day? I fantasize ways to cure the problem: spray the dogs with my hose; toss rocks, arrows, or poison-tipped darts over the wall; buy a gun. One teacher suggests I offer the dogs rat-poison treats through the gate.

I don’t like any of these ideas…Well, okay, I like them. Actually, a lot. In fact, one of them could really be — never mind. No, let’s not get carried away here.

Speaking of dogs, another thing that, over the 17 months I’ve been here, I’ve had just about enough of is my daily dose of  testicles. When I think back to my civilian life in Los Angeles, I can’t remember going a day, a week, a month, or a year ever seeing a pair. Which is pretty much the way I prefer my days to go.

Not so here. Imagine confronting not 1, not 5, not 10, but 20 pairs of balls each and every waking day. Now don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. I adore them. But with so many street dogs on every single block, you’re seeing as many bouncing balls in an average workday as a Dodger equipment manager, except these have fleas on them, not “Spalding.” Hell, there’s even a sports channel here called Balls.

But I digress.

I go to town with one of my tennis partners and buy a new racket and some badminton rackets and birdies. We have lunch at Coco Amigos and watch the passing parade of old white men and teen hookers. I wonder how many of their balls have fleas.  

I tell him about my vacation in Siquijor, and he chastises me for not inviting him. “That was my playing ground when I was younger,” he winks. “I know everybody. I could have introduced you to a few ladies.” Now he tells me.

He recounts some of the affairs he had during his early years, including one that almost ruined his marriage. He’d been seeing one woman for more than a year before his wife discovered the liaison. “She burst into the restaurant where we were having dinner and demanded I choose between her and my querida.”

He shakes his head at the memory, agony etched into his face. “I, of course, chose my wife,” he says with emotion. “When I did, the girl grabbed a steak knife and tried to…” and he makes a slash across his wrist. “I stopped her, but it was awful, awful, awful.”

He never saw her again. Often wonders where she went or where she is. “It was a period in my life that I would not wish on anybody.”

The next week at school is a busy one. I write an article for the school paper on differences I’ve observed between the Philippines and America and judge two classrooms’ speech choir performances (in a speech choir, a group recites a speech, its members speaking at different times with different voice inflections). The two best student leaders do surprisingly poorly with their groups. When my coteacher and I critique their performances, the girls burst into tears.

I fly to Manila for a quickie dental appointment. My tooth is cemented back into place, this time with a resin bonding agent also affixed. They assure me the tooth will hold firm this time. I feel more confident until a volunteer at the Pension hostel tells me the same dentist affixed a crown for her that so far has fallen out three times. Well, so much for that.

We begin oral reading assessments of all first-year students, and in my first class we discover seven non-readers. Can’t read one sentence. I thought we had only three. In my worst class, we find even more. Two students, however, inexplicably soar above the others.

One girl has a hearing impairment so severe that she must sit up front and her teachers must stand to her left so she can hear them. And one boy has a speech and motor impediment that makes him practically unable to speak. Yet they’re the best students in the class.

I’ve grown particularly fond of the boy, Ner. During his oral reading test, he’s clearly anxious, his face a rictus of tension, but also something else: resolve. How can he do an oral reading when he can barely make a sound? I feel like a heel even giving him the test. 

But his effort is the stuff of legend. Amidst his stammering, he pronounces every word perfectly. During the end of the paragraph, his voice starts to give out from the exertion he’s expended, and his voice drops several octaves into Barry White territory as he struggles to grind out the last two sentences. It almost brings tears to my eyes.

When I mention him to another English teacher, she becomes emotional, too. “Oh, I love that boy!” she says. “He tries harder than anyone. When the other boys used to make fun of him, I got very angry. ‘He’s better than all of you!’ I shouted. ‘You should learn from him, not tease him!’ They don’t bother him anymore.”

I bring my red velvet cake mix and cream frosting, which was included in my care package, to our Culinary Arts teacher, who has two ovens in her classroom. She bakes it for me, and I dole out pieces to the teachers around the campus. None of them have ever tasted red velvet before, and afterward they make me promise…no, they demand…that I ask for 20 more boxes the next time. “Lami!” (Delicious!) they all cry in unison. 

The next day I play Mad Libs with the students as my energizer. It ends up being my most entertaining exercise to date. They’ve never played it before, so when I ask them to “Give me a crazy noun, give me a crazy verb ending in ‘ing,’ give me a silly adverb,” they don’t know what I’m doing. It’s only when I insert their words into a prearranged script do they understand.

When I read the story aloud to them, with such passages as “Barack Obama then curiously licked Taylor Swift’s pampers,” the thunderclap of shrieks and howls is so loud, I wonder if students on Cebu island across the strait are muttering, “What’s so funny over there in Sibulan?”

I look at my coteacher, worried that I may have gone too far, and she’s in hysterics, too. In fact, she suggests we do it again. Now that the students know how their words will be used, they come up with even more outrageous ones, which, when the story is read, evokes the longest sustained reaction I’ve heard in any classroom yet. Everyone has tears in their eyes. I think Mad Libs is a keeper.

The next day I observe students practicing the traditional tinikling dance for their MAPEH (Music, Arts, Physical Education, and Health) class. It looks imposing to say the least. I always wonder how dancers emerge from it without being permanently hobbled.

The tinikling is a pre-Spanish dance that involves two people beating, tapping, and sliding large bamboo poles on the ground and against each other while one or more dancers step over and in between the poles. It’s scary because the barefooted dancers must step up and down quickly or the heavy poles will slam against their ankles.

The dance, which originated here in the Visayan islands, imitates the way the graceful tikling bird skillfully maneuvers between grass stems, runs over tree branches, and dodges bamboo traps set by rice farmers.

As I watch, I hear cries behind me from the teachers, urging me to try it. Hey, I thought you guys were supposed to look after me! When the students hear the shouts, they join in, and the dancers stand up and wave me forward. By now, all the students have run to their classroom windows facing the inner courtyard to watch a 63-year-old guy fall on his butt. Gee, don’t they see enough of that when their lolo‘s have too much Tanduhay?

Oh well, time to show ’em I can still bring it. I approach the poles tentatively. The students manning the bamboo look up at me, and I nod. They start rhythmically banging them together — pound down for two beats, slam together for two beats, pound down, slam together, pound down, slam together. Maybe I should have worn thicker socks.

A girl dancer motions for me to mimic her. I watch as she dips her toes just above the smacking poles, in time with the beat, readying herself before she jumps in. When she does, I go with her.

What I realize at once is that tinikling is not so much a dance as it is survival. My feet dart up and down with speed I didn’t think I had. My dexterity isn’t because of the beat but because I don’t want to wear casts for the next three months. I go backward, forward, side-to-side. I hear cheering in the background. Why am I not on the ground, writhing in pain? Like bull riders who, the moment they’ve withstood their eight seconds of terror, immediately bale out, I do the same. 

Huge applause. I swagger back to the teachers who’d pushed me into the arena and give them each a look. Then, feeling full of myself, I let my male ego out of its pen and saunter back toward the bamboo poles. The students squeal in delight. Why do men always have to do this? Not content with my minor victory, I have to do it again.

There’s no beginner’s luck the second time. My next attempt is short-lived when I miss-time the beat and trip up. The third attempt is disastrous. I come down on top of both sliding poles, roll off of them like a pair of shoes on a conveyer belt, and nearly end up on my back. This time when I walk back to the teachers, they each give me a look.

On Saturday, January 28, all class advisors and I have to register new enrollees from elementary school (there is no middle school in the Philippines). My role, and that of my coteacher, is to give oral reading tests to the incoming students.

Most students are average, with no glaring problems, but three are astonishingly bad. Cannot read the easiest word. They take a half minute to pronounce each word and then mangle it. We classify them as non-readers. Then we ask them the name of their elementary school. All say the same school, one of the best in the area.

My partner and I look at each other. That doesn’t smell right. Poor readers, we’ve found, usually come from schools in the hinterlands, not one of the top-ranked schools in the province. We ask who their English teacher is. Bingo, it’s the same one. We thank the students and hand in their papers.

Like detectives who’ve just solved a mystery, we high-five each other. Ever since I’ve been here, our principal and teachers have railed against schools that send us severely underqualified students who should never have been allowed to graduate. “We need to know which schools are doing this,” our principal once told us. “We need to know which teachers are passing these students off on us. We need to inform their principals and the district when this happens.”

I take the information to the principal and announce what we found. He gets up slowly and comes around his desk with a severe look on his face. Uh-oh, did I just overstep my bounds?

“Are you sure?” he asks me.

I show him the students’ scores. The average number of mistakes for the students that day was about 7 or 8. These three students totalled more than 30. In just one paragraph.

“We asked them the name of their school, the name of their English teacher, and their section,” I tell him. “In all three cases, they were identical. We may have narrowed the source of the problem to the actual classroom.”

He takes the information and returns to his desk. “I will call the district supervisor immediately,” he says.

Hooray! I return to the registration area and tell my coteacher the good news. As we pack up to leave for the day, the principal strides across the courtyard toward us. Here it comes. We’ll know in the next moment if the education system is working the way it should or if it isn’t.

“I just talked to the District Supervisor,” he tells us, “and she will contact the principal of the school. This may be a good thing for us.”

My coteacher and I let out a collective sigh of relief. Wow, something significant may have just happened here. Or the start of something anyway. We’ll see. But it makes me feel good about the long, hot Saturday afternoon I spent at the school. And the fact that maybe the next batch of students coming in will be screened a little better. Or a lot better.

I spend the next few hours at home grading essays and find that two students copied from each other, and essays from another pair are, in comedy club parlance, too hip for the room. When I type in one of their eloquent sentences into Google, voila, it pops right up.

I then proceed to flush all that optimism down the toilet.