MY FINAL SCHOOL YEAR BEGINS
June 4, 2012
It’s the first day of my last school year in the Philippines. It’s with a combination of excitement, sadness, exhaustion, and anticipation that I step through the campus entrance gate under a white-gold sun. Neither I nor any of my original batch of volunteers, except for the handful who will extend their service for another year, will see any of our new students graduate because we will depart this beautiful, unforgettable country after the first semester.
It’s sad knowing that we won’t be able to know which of our new students will have improved and by how much by the end of the year, to congratulate them on graduation day for their achievements, or to know which ones moved on to college or landed good jobs.
When we all arrived in August of 2010, we spent our first three months in training and didn’t step into our first classrooms at our permanent sites until November, halfway through that school year. Although we were able to see our students graduate that year, we missed greeting them in the beginning or witnessing their ups and downs and progress throughout the year.
Neither scenario is satisfactory from a teacher’s point of view, but if I had to choose, I would prefer my present situation: getting the students in the first half of the year rather than the last.
Not helping matters is that my first two weeks are chaotic and disorganized, with class times, rooms, and coteachers changed again and again. But the wait is worth it. By the time the smoke clears, I’m assigned to only section A classes (the best students) in year one, two, and four. And all of my coteachers are the ones I wanted.
BUT FIRST, A WEIGHTY MATTER
June 5-10, 2012
At school one day, several teachers at lunch comment about my weight. “Sir John, you’ve lost more pounds. Are you okay?”
I know I look awful. I’ve resembled a skeleton since Halloween, but I hadn’t noticed any further deterioration. That’s understandable; it’s hard to tell how much worse you’ve gotten if you always look the worst.
I borrow a teacher’s weight scale and step on it. I can’t believe my eyes: 120 pounds. Cheap scale. Old and dusty. Can’t be accurate. I’ve been in the low 140s for several months now (my normal weight is 165-170), but I couldn’t have lost 20 more pounds.
I hurry over to the local health clinic next to the Municipal Hall because they have a more professional scale, the kind where you slide weights across its top to read your weight. This one reads 135. Assuming this is accurate, it still means I’ve lost 10 more pounds.
All my adult life, my weight has remained fixed. No matter how much I ate, my fast metabolism burned it off. No matter how sick I got, I rarely lost weight, or if I did, I gained it right back.
What has caused such a sudden weight loss? I was sick when I returned from my Southeast Asia vacation in April and suffered weeks of on-and-off diarrhea and dehydration. Could I have picked up a parasite or amoeba that took up residence in my intestines? I was also depressed for weeks, so much so that I seriously contemplated leaving the Peace Corps. And my appetite this year has gradually deteriorated. Just the other day I had a bowl of cereal in the morning and a bowl of yogurt in the evening. And that was plenty. I felt no hunger pangs.
Normally I text the Peace Corps whenever I have a medical problem. This time I hesitate. I’ve had so many health issues during my service, I fear this one could be the last straw. Especially if it turns out to be serious. I do a Google search for “causes of unexplained weight loss” and three scary possibilities pop up: Addison’s Disease, Celiac Disease, or Cancer. The symptoms of each match mine precisely.
The Peace Corps could decide “That’s enough” and medically separate (terminate) me. When volunteers are separated, the process is immediate; you have only a few days to pack and fly to Manila for your flight home. Virtually no time to say goodbye to your school, students, friends, host families, barkadas, etc. Already multiple farewell parties and ceremonies are being planned for my scheduled October departure. To have to leave without saying goodbye to everyone is too tragic to imagine.
When I discuss this possibility with my teachers over lunch, one – who was also my last host mother — pleads with me not to call the Peace Corps. “You have to finish your term, John. You mustn’t be sent home. If that happens without you saying goodbye to anyone, no one will understand why you didn’t do it. That would be your legacy, what everyone will remember. Also, Jedmay and Jerlin [her daughters] will be so sad that you didn’t say farewell or give them a chance to say goodbye to you.”
I’m torn. Weighing above all is the knowledge that if I don’t inform the Peace Corps of my condition and leave the Philippines — and my condition turns out to be a serious or life-threatening condition — there would be no record of it with the Peace Corps so they may not be responsible for my continued treatment. I may have to foot the entire bill. I decide it’s better and smarter to tell the Peace Corps about my latest development and hope that they don’t send me home.
I text the Manila office, and they refer me to a doctor at my local hospital. When I see her, she wants me admitted immediately so tests can be taken. This doesn’t bode well. Not just for my health and future in the Peace Corps but because our town’s annual fiesta is just a few days away, with many parties planned. As I’m the Peace Corps celebrity, I’m expected to make an appearance at every house. My worrying probably lops off another two pounds.
Not knowing how long I’ll be at the hospital, I pack for a week. All private rooms are taken, so I’m taken in a wheelchair to the general ward.
On that note, I want to know which moron thought up this hospital policy, which seems to be common practice around the world. I can walk quite well, thank you, but having an orderly weave you through the lobby, hallways, and elevators like an invalid is humiliating.
In the elevator, an elderly woman looks down at me, gives me a sad, caring look, and crosses herself. I want to jump up and say, “No, no, what are you doing! I’m not dying. Look, see, I’m as healthy as a wheat-grassaholic. I’m only in this stupid chair because some idiot in Accounting thinks it reduces claims against the hospital. Hey, if I’ve got a broken leg, then wheeling me around makes sense. But I’m here because I’m losing weight, so give me a milkshake.”
But I digress.
When we pull into the room, it’s full of beds, patients, and a dozen kasamas — spouses, family members, or friends who stay with patients, get food or medicines for them, and keep them company. The room hushes as we enter, and everyone stares at me. Foreigners have money. They get private rooms. They don’t stay in the ward. I imagine they’re wondering what misalignment of planets or unforgivable administrative snafu has transported this poor unfortunate foreigner to the hospital’s darkest corner.
I think it’s cool. I greet them in Visayan, and their confused expressions blink into smiles. I get settled, prop up my bed, stretch out, and read a book. After 30 minutes, I’ve blended into the background and no longer prompt stares.
In the afternoon, a young Filipino named Ruel, a son of one of the patients, wanders over and asks what I’m in for. Funny, that’s what prisoners are asked. He must feel sorry for me being alone and having no kasama. He ends up spending a couple of hours with me. We talk about everything. He’s very religious and asks me what I believe. I tell him, and we agree to disagree.
Ruel once had dreams of traveling abroad but no longer does. He was a working student and hoped for a college degree, too, but his family can’t afford it. He struggles to get by now fixing cars part-time. He has a girlfriend who lives an hour away, but he doesn’t want to marry her until he’s financially stable. He doesn’t know when or if that will be. Sad story #344 since I’ve been here. I hope the young man escapes the pervasive poverty that settles over this land like a perpetual bank of fog.
During the next few hours, a succession of nurses, each one more attractive than the last, take my vital signs, draw blood, and take me for X-rays. In the afternoon, my doctor tours the ward and says she’ll try to get me a private room.
She must have clout because two hours later, a male nurse bearing the ubiquitous wheelchair stops at my bed and says he’ll take me to my room. I consider telling him I’ll go only if I can walk, but he might refuse. I sigh, bid farewell to Ruel and the other patients and kasamas with whom I’ve had the brief pleasure of knowing, and allow myself to be wheeled out. As we exit, I exhibit my most peppy, alert, upbeat, and healthy posture and expression. It doesn’t work. Everyone in the hallways and elevator looks at me forelornly, or worse, avoids my gaze altogether. Staring at imminent death could rub off on you. Philippine Superstition #118.
My private room is spacious with air-conditioning, a flat-screen TV, cable, a hot-water shower, a flush toilet, a view, and an American menu. Soon my own kasamas arrive. Akesa, from my original training cluster, bikes over from Dumaguete to drop off a cheese pizza. How sweet. One of my English coteachers, Susan, and her husband Bong-Bong, bring apples and oranges. Real oranges! The first ones I’ve seen in-country. They tell me everyone at school is worried that I may miss the town fiesta next week.
I sleep well, despite being awakened after midnight and at 5 a.m. by a nurse taking my blood pressure and asking how many times I peed and “pooed” since the last time, how much, etc. But she’s so pretty I don’t care. She also needs to take my temperature, but she says the hospital doesn’t have a thermometer, so I must buy it. Excuse me? How can a hospital not have a thermometer? I tell her to buy one and put it on my bill. Strange.
My doctor sees me in the morning and says I have no evidence of amoebas or parasites, but I am anemic. She prescribes a vitamin with iron and an appetite stimulant. The American menu is wonderful, but they don’t bring silverware with it so I have to use my hands. How can a hospital not have silverware? Strange.
I get up to take a shower, but there’s no soap, towels, or toilet paper. How can a hospital not have… Never mind.
Teachers Susan and Donna visit me and bring hot soup and silverware. Yea! Then I give them money to go to a nearby department store, and they bring back fresh mangos, French bread, chocolate cupcakes, candy bars, soap, and toilet paper. Hey, I like this kasama tradition! Hear that, America?
The next day my doctor says my final test – thyroid – is normal and tells me my face has filled out a bit. I tell her I’m eating more. In fact, I’m ravenous. The pills must be working. She says my excessive diarrhea probably caused the weight loss and that I can be discharged today. Hooray. I’ll be able to attend the town fiesta after all.
MY FAVORITE CLASS
June 11-30, 2012
My first-year Section A class students are such an overwhelming delight that I can’t wait to see the kids every day. I’ve never felt this way toward a class before. I loved my fourth-year Section A class my first year here, but that was mostly because they were so brilliant and competitive. This class is just out of elementary school, so the kids are not only smart and bright but cute and playful and ask a million questions. It’s like a roomful of puppies.
One day I propose a debate as an energizer. They nearly jump out of their seats. I divide the class into two teams, and coincidentally, the two best debaters are on opposing sides. One of the girls says she wants to be a lawyer. I soon find out why.
I ask them to debate which is more valuable to society – computers or cellphones? Schools or hospitals? Forks or spoons? They’re so loud and argue their positions with such fervor that students in the main campus across the street could probably vote on who won. A crowd of students line outside our windows to gape at us. When I finally leave the classroom, I gasp to the students outside, “What a class!”
My first fiesta party is at Domy’s, one of my tennis partners and a former tennis legend in Negros Oriental. It’s a catered affair, and the food is some of the best I’ve had since being in-country. I end up sitting next to the vice president of Negros Oriental State University, and we talk about the education system for a good hour. She’s in favor of the decision to add two more years to the Philippines high school curriculum to finally bring it up to date with the rest of the world. She says she’s very strict with students who aren’t ready for college, and agrees that many students in the country “are schooled but not educated.” I like her a lot.
Next I head for teacher Loida’s party at the beach. I sit with a dozen Filipino men who joke and tease me endlessly. They’re all tennis players and urge me to join them. They’re a great, funny bunch and I really want to until they tell me they play at 4 a.m. before they go to work.
They offer me a glass of the local homemade coconut wine, tuba. It’s in a dirty plastic jug and looks like old, brown dishwater. I pause. I’ve heard about this traditional native concoction. Some say it has a kick like a donkey; others say its ingredients are questionable and could put you on your back for a week. The last thing I want is another scourge of the runs.
My eagerness to ingratiate myself with my newfound friends overrules my apprehension, and I nod okay. One guy pours it into a used shot glass and gestures for me to down it in one gulp. No chance to taste it first. I knock it back. The brew is so-so and has virtually no alcoholic content. I fail to grasp the appeal. Thankfully, I experience no ill effects afterward.
The next day I head for teacher Dona’s party a few blocks from my house. It’s pouring rain, and her directions are unclear. I end up walking in the wrong direction for a quarter mile alongside a deserted field. When I’m unable to reach her on my phone, I hop on an easy ride and go to teacher Susan’s house downtown. As usual, everyone’s singing videoke in the front yard. I sample some of the food, sing a few songs, but I’m unusually tired and go home early.
On the third and last day of the fiesta, I take a trike to teacher Bombeth’s house, where I lived for a month and a half almost two years ago. I bring a card game (Uno) and a board game (Sorry) that my friend Dave sent me in his latest care package. The kids love them, and we play well into the evening. My former host father, Wong-Wong, who’s a councilor for his barangay, says he wants to run for barangay captain next year. He’s very popular in his community and could very well win it.
When classes resume after the fiesta, Loida tells me that a few months ago one of the men at her fiesta party, a politician, was shot three times by a local clan because his campaign to help the poor threatened to defeat the clan candidate in the election. At the trial, a witness testified against the defendant. He was found murdered days later.
The politician now travels everywhere with six bodyguards, including to and from his early-morning tennis matches. He had none with him on the night of the party, however. When I ask Loida why, she says, “Don’t worry, Sir John. My house is safe. They would never shoot him there.” Really? How does she know?
I have an interesting Remedial Reading class with my favorite first-year students. The story I give them to read is about students running for class president. In the story, one student hands out chocolates to her classmates, hoping they’ll vote for her. I ask my class if this is right. They say no. They understand that it’s a form of political corruption.
When I ask them if it was okay for the students in the story to accept the chocolates, they unanimously say yes. When I ask why, one says, “I’ll take the chocolate, but that doesn’t mean I’ll vote for her.”
I explain to them that corruption can only flourish when those who are offered bribes accept them. People who take such gifts are as guilty as those who give them. The students’ jaws drop; they’d never heard that side of the story. With corruption so ingrained in this society, I feel good afterward. Maybe I’ve planted a valuable seed in some minds.
When I return from class, the teachers are chattering like hens. The rumor is that our librarian’s been arrested. She’s charged with slander and verbal child abuse. A single mother, she’s quite poor. I let her do my laundry when I first arrived at school after she pleaded with me to help her. I subsequently moved that chore to a local laundry, which does it cheaper and better. How will she be able to support her family now if she’s in prison?
The next day when I wash my hands at the sink in my first-year Section A class, the kids surround me and ask me what I like to eat, about my life, where I live, my family. I show them my son Alex’s picture and they all swoon (the girls at him, the boys at Alex’s girlfriend). They ask if I can eat lunch with them tomorrow. I say of course.
The next day all the teachers visit the librarian in jail, and I take over one of Susan’s second-year classes during her absence. It turns out to be a nightmare. The class is overflowing, with 63 students. Mostly boys. Most are older and rowdy and unresponsive. I recognize more than a few from my worst classrooms last year. The class is totally unresponsive to anything I try to do for the entire hour.
Later, when the teachers return, I tell Susan to please not put me in that classroom again. She laughs and apologizes and promises not to do it again. “I want to tell the students what you said. They need to know they were bad, and I’m angry at them for doing that to you.”
The librarian is convicted, the teachers tell me, because “she was too proud” to apologize to the family of the girl whom she allegedly abused verbally. “But she doesn’t mind,” one teacher says. “She’s the star of the jail! With all of her makeup and jewelry, and her white skin and red hair, she’s a celebrity there.” Her pride, however, earns her a six-month to two-year sentence.
In the afternoon, I use my new Remedial Reading textbooks for the first time since they arrived from Books for Peace in the summer. The students are so responsive that several beg me to extend the class so they can finish the first story! I would have never thought such a thing was possible.
I eat lunch with my first-year students for the first time, and they’re all over me, laughing and fighting over themselves to ask questions. They’re amazed that I’m not eating rice. They’re amazed that there’s no U.S. law that forces 18-year-olds out of their family’s house. They’re amazed that there are “gays like you in America.”
“Sorry, Sir. I meant that there are gays in your country who are white, like you.”
Run that by me again?
“Um, that there are gays who are white, Sir.”
After lunch, one girl comes up and says, “You’re a very good teacher, Sir. You’re the best because you explain things so well and always make it interesting. I’ll miss you when you leave. No one teaches us like you!”
What a class. What a country.