February 1-5, 2012
Negros Oriental
After my success with Mad Libs last month, I spend a couple of days preparing a Jeopardy game for my classes. My categories are Parts of Speech, Spelling, Vocabulary, and Sentence Structure. Students can select topics worth 100, 200, 300, or 400 points, with the most difficult questions worth the most points.

Classes are divided into four teams. I arrange the questions and answers in reverse Jeopardy format: I give them a question, they provide the answer. My co-teacher Susan and I feel it would be too difficult for them to play Jeopardy the regular way by giving them the answer and making them provide a question.

The exercise ends up being even more successful than Mad Libs. Our section A class is all over it, the competition fierce. Students stand up, give the sign of the cross, and plunge ahead — choosing the easiest 100-point spelling questions. C’mon kids, you’re smarter than that. Show some backbone, take some chances. Who wants to win?

The first student who dips his toe into the realm of difficulty (Parts of Speech, 300 points), gets a question about pronouns, and his team collectively groans. For an instant I honestly think the poor boy’s going to faint. He promptly loses 300 points for his team, who berate him nastily. Great, now no one else will step up.

But I’m wrong. The next team’s best student chooses Parts of Speech for 400 and nails it. Game on!

My co-teacher loves but also hates it. She loves the game but is shocked at some of her best students’ answers. I read a sentence to one boy and ask what kind of sentence it is (Answer: complete or declarative). He thinks a while and then proclaims confidently, “Sedimentary.” Susan  nearly has a coronary.

The next day we give them a spelling test. Afterward, we ask them to use the words in sentences. When that elicits yawns, I up the ante. “Who can use two of the words in a sentence?” Instantly their competitive juices start to flow and hands are raised. “What about three? Who can top that with four?” And so on. By the end of the class, the winning student uses seven of the words in perhaps the most ridiculous sentence ever concocted. A good exercise to add to any of your spelling bees in the future. 

The next day all the district supervisors return to our school and monitor classes. My 7:40 class is observed by two of them, and our lesson goes very well. My counterpart had photocopied a lesson for the class about how to distinguish “Fact from Opinion” in text, especially advertising.

I meet with them later in the principal’s office and ask if there’s any truth to the commonly held perception (that I and other volunteers have observed and overheard from teachers and principals) that DepEd pressures schools, principals, and teachers into passing students, whether they’ve mastered their subjects or not.

I’m told there’s no such pressure. “We want them to pass, but legitimately” one supervisor tells me. “If their scores aren’t good enough, teachers must reteach them.”

I reply that some teachers say there’s no time to reteach. “They tell me the curriculum is so tight that there’s no time to repeat lessons.”

“That isn’t true,” another supervisor says. “There’s time allotted in every teacher’s schedule for make-up time. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, many teachers have free time during each day when they don’t have classes. That time is theirs to do grades, prepare lesson plans, or other tasks.”

When I relay this information to my teachers, they agree except for the available time. “Yes, we have free time, but the students don’t. Or if they do (because a teacher’s absent), it’s unplanned so their free time may not coincide with ours. And not all students who need remedial teaching are available at the same time.”

So the issue persists.

A new fingerprint identification machine is installed on campus to more closely monitor the comings and goings of teachers. We must now check in by placing our finger on the machine every time we arrive and depart, even during lunch. The teachers are fuming. I think it’s cool. I’m not timing in; I’m breaking into a DefCon5 level fortress on a Mission Impossible assigment. Okay, okay, but it works for me.

Posters are placed around campus spotlighting the top ten students in the third year, and one student’s name surprises me. She’s the oldest daughter of my previous host family. She’d once been a top student at the city’s best high school, Science High, but her grades slipped and she was no longer eligible to attend there. So she transferred here.

I take her aside and tell her I’m so proud of her. She’s speechless. 

“What happened?” I ask.

She beams at me and says, “I-I don’t know. I guess I’ve been inspired.” Good for her. Whatever did it seems to have rejuvenated her. Earlier this semester, my counterpart, who supervises the school paper and our entries in the national Press Com contest, told me that she’s the best writer in the school. When I relay that to her, she says she hadn’t heard that and is very moved.

When I compliment her mom, one of our MAPEH teachers, for her daughter’s accomplishment, she shakes her head with thankfulness. “I know, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Later, that day, she tells me her daughter came up to her excited and said, “Uncle John congratulated me!”

During lunch, I’m sitting with other teachers munching a banana when one of my co-teachers greets us, stares at me quizzically, and says, “What are you doing?”

I look around. Then back at her. Then down at the banana. Then back at her. Got no clue.

“You’re eating that…raw?!” 

Never heard that one before. Apparently, the particular variety I’m eating — the short, thick, stubby kind — is only cooked or boiled by Filipinos. I don’t like boiled bananas because cooking them leaches out most of the sweetness. I munch away. A banana’s a banana.

That evening the wind blows like nothing I’ve heard before. Then rain splatters my house like a swarm of locusts. I peek outside to see if frogs are pouring over the wall. Not yet. I scrounge around the house looking for a Bible but can’t find one. Might be a good time to review the Book of Revelation.

Little do I know how close we came.

February 6-7, 2012
Negros Oriental
The next day, February 6, teachers and I are sitting on the bench outside our Faculty Room a few minutes before lunchtime when a series of jolts vibrates the bench.

I’m an old hand at this sensation, once living in Japan for a year and in California most of my life.

“Earthquake. Get up. Get the kids outside,” I hear myself saying. The teachers scramble to classrooms, from which frightened students are already starting to pour.

In the courtyard, a MAPEH dance lesson is in session. The teacher instantly and correctly instructs her class to crouch on the ground and cover their heads.

I walk down the courtyard, waving students out of their classrooms. One bunch of students cowers just outside their doorway, afraid to go into the open. I motion to them to get away from the building.

The shaking isn’t violent. It’s a slow roller, like being on a boat in the ocean. But  it’s not stopping. My head swims dizzily.

Back at the bench, teachers are holding hands, heads down. Students everywhere are crying. Everyone’s crossing themselves. The campus is eerily quiet. We wait for it to subside.

But it doesn’t.

After several minutes, it seems, I mutter, “It’s still going on!”

The next hour is a blur of emotions. One teacher streaks across the campus, sheer terror on her face, shouting in Visayan. The only word I understand is “tsunami.” That’s the magic word. Instantly, students bolt toward the exits, shrieking and shouting and crying and clutching themselves. 

The pier and ocean are just over the wall at the end of the courtyard. I mentally size up a thick-trunked tree in front of me. Would it withstand such a wave? Would I have time to reach its middle branches before the tsunami reached me? I shake my head at such foolishness.

The rolling finally quits. Students start to leave in droves. We let them go. Parents arrive and whisk their kids out quickly.

I have a headache and feel seasick. But we appear to be in no danger. The buildings didn’t crumble, the ground didn’t crack open, trees didn’t come down. It felt like a 5.0 quake to me; such temblors usually do minor damage, if any. But that’s in the States. Here in the provinces, with shoddily constructed nipa shacks and buildings, especially those along the rivers and in mudslide-prone hillsides, even a 4.o quake can be lethal.

Thirty minutes later, the school is deserted. We slowly file out of the campus, but not before stopping at the fingerprint monitoring station. A few laugh at the long, nervous line of frightened teachers waiting impatiently to press their fingers on the machine. Would we still be expected to check out if buildings were tumbling down around us? Several teachers say to hell with the monitor and book it.

One teacher says she heard the river in Dumaguete that overflowed in the recent typhoon is flooding the outlying areas again. Another rumor is that a tsunami will hit our shore at 4 o’clock. My pedicab rider on the way home says the quake was 9.8. I want to tell him that if that were true, none of the buildings around us would be here and the two of us wouldn’t be having this conversation. Fear has supplanted reason.

When I get home, the only damage my house incurred was that my Super Crunchy Skippy Peanut Butter fell on its side. I wonder if Peace Corps will reimburse me for the dent.

Aftershocks continue the rest of the day. Peace Corps sends all Visayan volunteers update alerts throughout the afternoon and evening. No need to evacuate, we’re told. The tsunami alert level is just 2, which means the sea may elevate slightly and become rough but there will be no tsunami. That’s no help to Kim, one of the family members with whom I stayed with on my trip Mabinay last month.

She texts me saying she’s afraid and can’t stop crying. She’s never felt an earthquake before. I try to calm her down with multiple texts but she remains in a panic state. I run out of load texting her and trudge down the block to get some. The store is closed. Can’t be. They close at nine and it’s only six. I walk into town and find every place boarded up.

“Tsunami’s coming,” I’m told again and again. “Everyone’s with their families or at church.”

I finally find one shop open, but they have no more load. “Everyone’s texting their families,” the proprietor says. “Next shop might have some.” It does and I head back home, texting Kim along the way. I pass the house of Nick, one of my tennis partners, who invites me in. We share some Tanduhay and some snacks and talk about the quake.

As we do, a sudden aftershock rocks the house and everyone hurries outside and holds hands while the street dogs bark at Mother Nature and spooked cats dart across the street in all directions .

Back home, emails and texts flood in from PCVs across the country asking if I’m okay. My Peace Corps warden (a local volunteer in charge of monitoring everyone in the area in times of emergency) asks if I’m okay. Even Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., emails me, requesting my immediate status and whereabouts.

By now it’s official: according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, the quake was magnitude 6.9. Ground zero was the town of Tayasan, 90 kilometers north of me.

When I tell a Luzon volunteer, B.J. Stolbov, that it felt no more than a 5, he emails back: “That’s so Californian — 6.9, no big deal!”

My counterpart texts me: no school tomorrow. Classes will be suspended at all public elementary and secondary schools in Central Visayas until every school building is inspected for safety. Wow, that could take a while.

More than 40 people died. The quake damaged bridges, highways, public buildings, churches. It triggered landslides (burying 90 houses in two villages), toppled power and communications lines, and caused massive evacuations throughout the region. Rains, aftershocks, and unstable conditions in the mountainous areas hampered rescue efforts for days. More than 1,400 aftershocks rock the area afterward.
If that isn’t enough, Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. calls on the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to monitor the volcanic activity on Mt. Kanlaon. It seems that water in nearby towns has suddenly turned brown. Mt. Kanlaon is north of me, but far away.
February 7-13, 2012
Negros Oriental
I finally resume playing tennis after month layoff and try out my new racket. It’s fantastic, and I play better than I expected. But when I get home, the ball of my left foot is gigantic. I can’t understand why. I hadn’t stumbled or hurt myself during play, and I feel no pain. Yet it’s massively swollen.
Then I remember. During my vacation in Siquijor just after Christmas, I recall feeling a slight sting while snorkeling and seeing a tiny black barb on the ball of my foot afterward. But I couldn’t get it out of my foot and there was no pain so I forgot about it.
During the last week, though, I began to feel a numbing sensation at the ball of my foot. I’ve had numbness in my feet during my service, and I was found to have a nerve problem in that leg. So again I disregarded it.
But I can’t ignore the swelling this time. I text PCMO in Manila, and they tell me to go to Silliman Medical Center in Dumaguete. I go to the Emergency Room where they extract a vial of blood and pus. “There was a lot of fluid in there,” the surgeon says, “so we’re going to have to do minor surgery to remove the barb and clean out the area.”
After nurses ready me for the procedure, the doctor says those all-too-familiar words: “This may sting a little.” Funny, that’s what the sea urchin said.
What follows is beyond the meaning of the word “sting.” I think I count six shots in and around my big toe before I begin whimpering. Or praying. Or begging. I don’t remember which. Near the end of the ordeal, I think I tell him to forget the anesthesia and just cut me open. “Anything but another shot.”
He finds the sea urchin barb, plus a lot of blood clots. “Do you have a history of clotting?” No. “Have you had trauma to the area recently?” I tell him that on that day in Siquijor I had to step over a lot of sharp rocks trying to get out of the surf.
He packs the inside of the ball of my foot with what looks like a balloon that he says will collect and drain the blood, then he wraps it all up with gauze and tape. 
When I finally sit up, my foot looks  — and feels — like he’s crammed a softball inside it. It hurts like a mother and it makes walking nearly impossible. Somehow, I stuff it all into my shoe and hobble outside to a trike, then an easy ride, then a pedicab to my door.
The next day I return to the hospital to have the packing removed. It feels better afterward but I won’t be playing tennis for a while. 
February 14-17, 2012
Negros Oriental
The city inspects our school and declares one classroom too damaged to be used again due to cracks in its foundation. It will have to be destroyed once we get the funds to do so. Classes that were held there will now be conducted in the library.
My teachers are amused by my foot injury. “Don’t you know the local remedy for a sea urchin sting?” one says. I’m afraid to ask.
“Squeeze calamansi juice on it, and the stinger will dissolve.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Or pee on it. The vinegar is what does it.”
Another one adds, “But it has to be female urine. Male pee won’t do it.”
Now I’m sure they’re kidding. I think. Either way, I shake my head. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and inconvenience — and the Peace Corps a lot of money — if I’d just asked the Peace Corps medical office or a neighbor how to treat a sea urchin sting.
My foot hurts like hell all day, and I hop around like a hare with an ingrown toenail, but my mood soars when students flood me with valentines. One says: “Celebrate how truly special you are and how unique you are and loved by everybody.”
To help decrease the number of students who drop out, which is a serious and growing problem in the Philippines, our school announces it will initiate an Open School program next year. Students who must work to support their family or harvest crops will be able to come to school just one day a week. They’ll work on module projects that will supplant classroom time but will encompass the same curricula.
The principal invites me to attend the meeting as he wants me to be on the committee next year. During lunch, I speak with the District Education Supervisor and bend her ear about some of my frustrations with the education system. She’s very interested in what I have to say.
I tell her that many students in my English classes are given passing grades when they clearly can’t speak or write. Elementary school kids graduate who can’t read a word, and high school kids graduate who can’t speak a word. Students who continually cut classes are rarely monitored or disciplined. 
The supervisor surprises me by saying we should do everything in our power to keep students in school and to pass them. “If they’re not mastering their lessons, change your methods,” she advises. “Give them easier lessons and shorter tests to build up their confidence.”
“But what about elementary schools who pass on their poorest students to us, and high schools who pass on clearly unqualified students to college? Isn’t it our mission to encourage literacy? Letting students into the world who are functionally illiterate won’t help society.”
She smiles at me. “How many languages were you required to learn when you were in high school?”
I think back. English, of course. And Spanish, but that was an elective.
Students here must master three languages, she explains. And recently the emphasis is more on Tagalog, our national language, than on English. “We should have compassion and understanding for what our students are accomplishing. They’re trying as hard as they can with limited resources and often difficult or broken family situations. And remember, many students just aren’t good in languages. Instead, they might be very good in carpentry or math or the arts. Not everyone can excel in every subject.”
She says that one time she, like me, believed everyone must speak English well to succeed in the world. Then she went to Thailand and couldn’t converse with anyone. “I was completely lost. Nothing I’d learned helped me. I couldn’t even order food or ask directions.” She smiles ruefully at the memory. “After that, I realized one doesn’t have to be fluent in English to succeed.”
I tell her that  my real disappointment so far is that I have yet to achieve any noteworthy Peace Corps accomplishment that I’d dreamed of doing when I applied. She tells me not to frustrate myself. “You’re doing a lot.”
She asks if I heard about the man who wanted to change the world and discovered he could not. So he tried to change his country. He could not. Next he tried to change his province. He failed. Then he tried to change his barangay. He couldn’t even do that. Finally, he realized he had to change himself.
She looks at me. “Adjust your priorities, John. Make your mark on the kids you can.”
I thank her very much for her time and kindness, and we part cordially. When I leave, I feel inspired, rejuvenated, and humbled.
That afternoon, my counterpart, another English teacher, and I are summoned to the principal’s office. We don’t know what it’s about, but when we arrive, the principal is stern-faced. He asks me and the other teacher if we administered the oral reading assessments the week before to elementary students who were pre-enrolling for next year’s incoming class. We say that we did.
He asks to see our assessment score sheets. We retrieve them and return. “Is it true that you assessed three students from the local elementary school as being non-readers?” We nod yes.
“Well, it seems that one of the student’s parents is threatening to make a formal complaint. She claims her daughter can read quite well. She says we slandered her daughter.”
The other teacher and I look at each other, and I can see she’s clearly frightened by the possibility of a formal accusation. I wonder, too, how the Peace Corps might react if I’m drawn into a legal mess. I may have to alert my Regional Manager of that possibility.
Nonetheless, the teacher and I are adamant that our scores accurately reflected the reading level of the three students in question. We tell him the charge of slander is ludicrous. The students could not read the short paragraph they were given. Each one struggled over every word for 10 to 20 seconds, then grossly mispronounced it. We didn’t let them them finish reading, cutting short their ordeal after several minutes. Otherwise we would have been there all day.
We show the principal their score sheets. “Both of us listened to the students as they read, and both of us confirmed their level. The average number of mistakes for most students was 4 or 5. As you can see, each of these three students accumulated more than 40 errors, and they only finished half the paragraph.”
Still, he’s not convinced. “I want to see the scores from their reading comprehension and vocabulary assessments as well,” he says. “We need to gather as much evidence as possible in case a complaint is made. Our conclusion must be ironclad, without question.”
I offer a simple solution: bring the parents, the students, their teachers, and their principals together and give the students the oral reading test again in front of them. “That would be the easiest and clearest way to confirm our findings.” 
Two days later, my counterpart informs me that she spoke with the mother who threatened to sue the school for slander. After explaining to the parent the test rubric we used, which was developed by the Department of Education, and revealing her child’s score,which was confirmed by both myself, a native English teacher, and the other teacher (the region’s #1 English teacher last year), the woman changed her mind.
“She has no more  interest in pursuing the matter,” my counterpart smiles at me. “So you don’t have to worry, Sir John.”
February 24-29, 2012
Negros Oriental
I come to school and don’t see Susan, my favorite coteacher, in the Faculty Room. I ask one of the other teachers if she’s sick; she suffers from allergies and when they break out, her face swells up and the pills she must take make her drowzy and unable to come to school. I assume that’s what happened. I’m wrong.
“She’s at the hospital,” the teacher says. “Her daughter was hit by a gravel truck this morning crossing the street. She’s in a coma. It’s up to prayers now.”
I stand there speechless. The teacher has only one child, a daughter. The girl was just about to graduate from Silliman University, the second-most prestigious institution in the country. She was the pride of the family and the hope for their future. I can’t imagine how the teacher will recover from this. Their daughter was their life.
I’m in a daze the rest of the morning. I wander over to the main campus and inform my counterpart of the tragedy. She’s stunned. I break the news to the other teachers in the Faculty Room. They’re horrified. As we talk, I notice boxes and boxes line the walls, and two teachers are sorting their contents, which look very familiar. I walk up for a closer look.
They’re my new textbooks donated by Books for Peace! The ones I ordered two months ago! There are 11 large boxes in all. I look at the books; they’re all brand new. Wow, the students will be so happy. Finally, we have textbooks for our Remedial Reading program. We can now develop a long-range, detailed curriculum with actual lesson plans and activities. I’m so excited I want to tell Susan…then remember she’s at the hospital praying for a miracle.
My good news announcement must take a back seat to fate. I return to the second campus and am informed that the child wasn’t the teacher’s daughter but her grandniece. Everyone is relieved. I hurry back to the main campus and inform everyone to whom I’d broken the news earlier that it wasn’t her daughter.
Later that afternoon, we learn that the family’s prayers were not answered.
I teach Susan’s classes solo that afternoon and play Jeopardy again, which they love. Although their joy fills their rooms, I dread what I’m going to have to tell them, which will end the laughter. At the end of each class, I calm them down and inform them of the news. I ask them to bow their heads for a moment of silence in honor of their teacher who’s mourning at that moment. They’re very emotional afterward and crowd around me asking what happened and how she’s doing.
Tonight is the Junior-Senior Prom, and I show up at 7:30 with a bottle of rum and a bottle of wine. The president of the PTA waves me over and asks me to keep him company. He’s dedicated to the school and to his job. He’s also one of the funniest and most pleasant persons to be around. 
I marvel at how grown-up all the students look. They look so young and innocent in their school uniforms by day. Tonight they’re draped in Cinderella gowns and suits and ties. The girls have all been professionally made up by stylists. The boys have gelled their hair into wet pomades that swirl into points like licorice ice cream.
I spot my host mother’s daughter, and I barely recognize her. She’s absolutely stunning with a long pink dress, hair rolled up on top of her head like a majestic crown. 
We all wait for the speeches to end so the dancing (and drinking) can start. I dance with the teachers, and the students invite me to join their dancing circles. It’s well after midnight before I make it back home.
My PCV friend B.J., who’s been teaching in Cebu with Tudlo Mindanao, boats over to Negros Oriental to spend a couple of days with me. I meet him at the Dumaguete pier and take him to Kri, which serves the best burger in the Visayas, hands down.
B.J. excuses himself to go the restroom and passes through a private party in the next room to get to it. When he returns, he says someone wants to meet me. Seems that when he was walking back through the room, he introduced himself to a woman at the party and struck up a conversation.
“Who is she?” I ask.
“President of Foundation University (one of the largest in Dumaguete, which is renowned as a college town, boasting 18 private and public colleges and universities, including Silliman). She’s looking for someone to teach writing next quarter. Naturally, I recommended you.”
Thanks a lot, B.J. As if I don’t have enough on my plate. But I join the party and introduce myself to the president, a professional-looking woman in a starched red-and-white striped blouse and charcoal slacks. She’s been to California and even knows my small town. We chat about education and English.
She’s looking for someone, preferably a native speaker, to teach writing for a special class that will commence in June. I try to beg off, saying I’m already swamped with my work at the high school.
“Of course. But this class will be in the evening. Would that be possible?”
I reply that my Peace Corps service ends in November, halfway through the school year.
“Oh, that’s all right. We operate on the quarter system,” she says politely. “So you would be able to finish the quarter with no disruption.”
She has an answer to everything. I can’t think of anything else to say, so I ask for her card and we shake hands. I’m flattered to be asked, and it would be interesting to teach college students. But I’m exhausted much of the time now. I can’t imagine having to go into Dumaguete every night and teaching again. I would have no free time.
I’ll have to contact my regional manager, who I hope will tell me we’re not allowed to take on outside teaching assignments.
As it’s too late to take an easy ride back to Sibulan, B.J. and I go to the Ceres Liner bus terminal for a ride home. We’re met by a scowl from the terminal ticket manager. “You’re just going to Sibulan?” he asks incredulously. “Take a trike.” Which rhymes with and means the same thing as “Take a hike.”
We’re forced to hop on a trike back for 100 pesos; the regular easy ride fare is 10. I vow not to take a Ceres Liner again.
There’s a vigil in progress across the street when we arrive (a 94-year-old neighbor passed away a couple of days ago), and a huge crowd of people are sitting on chairs on the lawn and mingling in the street. I introduce B.J. to the family, and we view the body, eat some snacks, and chat with the neighbors.
B.J. sacks out on the couch, and in the morning I fix french toast and milkshakes and we tour the town. I take him to the pier, my school, the park, and over to the tennis court to meet my barkada who are  finishing playing.
We spend the rest of the afternoon planning the itinerary for our Southeast Asia tour we’ll embark on in early April (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). In the evening I take him back to Dumaguete where we have dinner, check out the boulevard, and return to the pier.
My coteacher resumes work on Monday and seems in good spirits, although she hasn’t had much sleep. They had a vigil at her house for several days and she didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. each night. Her students greet her sweetly and softly.
Welcome back, Susan.