SMOKING MAD
July 1-2, 2012
Negros Oriental
On the way home one day, Carla, one of the most popular math teachers, takes me aside. “I have a secret,” she says softly. “You can’t tell anyone. Promise?”

“Of course,” I answer.

“Isabella got married.”

This is huge news. Isabella, a longtime math teacher here, has endured a difficult and protracted courtship with a foreigner for many years. Carla is a teacher aide, not a full-time teacher. As a result, she’s been teaching here for several years, waiting patiently for a math teacher slot to open up. Because all of our math teachers are years, if not decades, away from retirement, Carla’s best shot was for the foreigner to pop the question and whisk Isabella away to Finland with him.

Which, apparently, is what happened.

“I’m so happy for you,” I say.

“Thank you,” she says, “but her position won’t officially open up until she formally resigns. And she hasn’t done that yet. Because of all the troubles they’ve had, she might keep her options open in case the marriage doesn’t work and she has to come back.”

“So where does that leave you?”

“In limbo. But at least things are looking better than before.”

I’m happy for Carla. And optimistic. She deserves a permanent slot here. Of the 20-plus teachers whom I observed during my first few months, she was in my top five.

The next day at school, I walk across the street from the school entrance to the small shop that sells school supplies to the students. As I approach, two male students see me coming and slink away suspiciously. Both have just lit up a cigarette.

I walk up to the shop and spot three glass cups on the counter next to the manila paper, Pentel pens, and notebooks. In each cup are a handful of single cigarettes. Adults buy packs; students can afford only singles.

I look at the salesgirl, who looks like a dog caught with its muzzle in a cookie jar. “Did you just sell cigarettes to those students?” I ask her in disbelief.

She hesitates, then nods.

“Do you know it’s illegal to sell cigarettes to students?”

Frightened, she says nothing. Behind her, a middle-aged woman, probably the owner, listens but goes on with her work.

I lose it. “I’m a teacher at this school,” I address both of them, my voice rising. “I care about my students. You don’t. You just want their money, and you’re willing to give them cancer to get it. Would you sell cigarettes to your own children?”

They say nothing. “I’m going to the police to report you. I hope they arrest you and shut down your store.”

Finally the owner speaks up. “Okay, okay, go now!”

I’m fuming when I reach the police station just down the street. The two policemen at the station speak excellent English. They tell me they’ll remind the shops in front of the school not to sell cigarettes to minors. That won’t cut it.

“If I may, sir, I would prefer to make a formal charge.” They’re very polite and do so. As I recount what happened, the two ask me questions about myself. They’re surprised that I’m living here and teaching at the high school, even more so when I tell them I’m a volunteer and work for no salary.

When the officer finishes his report, he shows it to me to see if it’s accurate. It is, and I sign it. They assure me they’ll observe the shop from now on.

When I return to the school, I tell the salesgirl that I just made a police report and they will be monitored. I notice the glass cups containing the cigarettes have been moved off the countertop.

As a result of the report, I’m late to my English class. I apologize to my coteacher and students and explain why I was late. I warn them about the shop and preach for a few minutes about the dangers of smoking.

The next day on my way to school, I see boys lined up in front of the school supply shop buying more cigarettes. The difference is, the salesgirl is now selling them from under the counter. I start to go over there but check myself. I’ve done my good deed. I don’t want to cross the line and make a scene that I may regret.

THE MIRACLE OF ENGLISH
July 3-17, 2012
Negros Oriental
At lunch several students from my second-year class join me at the Faculty Room bench where I’m sitting and they ask me a ton of questions. They ask where I live and can they visit me sometime. I say sure.

“Today, sir?”

It’s not one of my tennis nights, so I say okay. “I have card games, board games, cable TV, and badminton racquets. You won’t be bored.”

They run back to their room excited.

I finish preparing the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game that we’re going to hold later this month for them. All the questions will be on English grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. We’re going to give prizes (a Scrabble game, a Transformers backpack, and a Transformers skateboard donated by my friend Dave Kinnoin) for any student who answers one of the top three questions worth 250,000, 500,000, or 1,000,000 “pesos.”

About ten students from the class follow me home that afternoon. They marvel at my house, all the books and magazines, and the cans of soup I got in my last care package. Half of them grab the badminton racquets and dart outside. The others want to play the Life Adventures board game. I open a jar of chocolate trail mix, and they finish it off in no time. Afterward, we take pictures on the porch, and they wave goodbye.

One tiny girl from the neighborhood remains, her mouth smeared with so much chocolate I fear she’ll have the world’s worst tummy ache afterward. She asks if I have any more chocolates.

“No, honey, I’m sorry I don’t.”

She ponders that. “Where are they?”

“In America. My family sent them to me.”

Light in her eyes. “Can you go to America and bring them here?”

The next morning, as I walk past a private elementary school on the way into town, several kids on the second floor greet me by name as usual.

A boy on the first floor, who can’t be older than 7, calls out, “Hey, you have a lot of fans, dude!”

At lunch that day, the second-year students crowd around me again on the table outside the Faculty Room. They ask about the Vietnam War and what it was like. The best student in class, who’s always said she wants to be an accountant, surprises me by confiding that her real dream is to be on a SWAT team. I tell her you only go around once in life, so go for it.

Then I add: “Just don’t try to be rich. That’s unattainable for 96% of the world’s population. Instead, try to find what you really want to do in your life. Then never give up until you achieve it.”

We meet every day at the same place and talk about everything. I bring in magazines and share interesting stories and pictures. We play Uno and Pictionary. They’re so eager to speak and ask questions that their initial shyness and self-consciousness around me evaporates.

After a week, one girl tells me that she didn’t used to be good at English, but when she talks to me, she feels fluent.

The Peace Corps calls and says my request for early termination has been approved. Volunteers are allowed to leave one month early if they have no ongoing projects and their site approves it. I’m ecstatic. The last day in my town will now be October 13. I’ll fly to Manila on October 14; undergo four days of processing, final health/dental exams, exit interviews, etc.; then fly home on October 19.

In my fourth-year developmental reading class, we read a story called “The Class President” about a highly contested high school class election. It’s hard to motivate fourth-year students, but they really get into this story.

When they finish, we hold our own election. Five students are nominated, and we give each candidate a week to prepare. Their supporters are to make posters, buttons, or slogans, and the candidates have to prepare a speech. Then they’ll have a debate, and everyone will vote with real ballots and a ballot box.

When the students leave the classroom, a few hold up mock posters that they’ve already scribbled. One candidate’s followers chant a rhyming slogan on the way out. I watch as they spread across the campus, hollering the names of their candidates over the din.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a huge hit. We’re given two hours for the contest. The atmosphere is so electric while we’re setting up that I’m afraid the students may ignite.

As my coteacher and I expected, no one reaches the top three levels. But to our surprise, all of the top students flame out early. I chalk that up to nerves, the big prizes, and all the hype leading up to the game.

The highest tier reached is 50,000, and we award that student 100 pesos.

The next week, five practice teachers (fourth-year English majors from nearby Silliman University) visit our school to begin 10 weeks of observations and coteaching.

One young woman is assigned to my first-year English class. She blends in well and knows her stuff, and literally takes over the class her second day when our coteacher doesn’t show up and we have to plan the lesson on the fly.

THE NUTRITION MONTH MYTH
July 18-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
The month of July is designated Nutrition Month in schools across the country. During this annual celebration, students compete in contests ranging from posters to slogans to essays to cooking. The event has always riled me because although schools go all-out to promote good nutrition during the observance, what many practice is the opposite.

Our school operates two daily on-campus canteens that sell snacks to students. They do a thriving business. Other than one or two exceptions, however, the products contain not only zero nutrition but border on being harmful: Coke, Sprite, chips, cookies, candy, gum, donuts.

I remember the high school I taught at in Thailand prior to coming to the Peace Corps. The school had no campus canteens, but lining the street outside the school grounds were dozens of food stalls selling the same junk food. The kids swarmed them at all hours.

When I was in the Army in the Sixties and visited Thailand, everyone in the country was slender; nobody was overweight. But when I was at the Thai school in 2009, more than 50 percent of the kids were obese.

Whenever I suggest that our school offer more nutritious snacks for the students – carrots, yogurt, apples, bananas, mangos, Yakult drinks, nuts, milk, fruit juice, etc. – I just trigger laughter.

“Nutritious food is expensive,” they tell me. “Families can only give their kids a handful of pesos a day, and that has to cover lunch, snacks, and transportation.”

Unfortunately, that’s true. More than half the population of the Philippines lives on just 50 pesos a day. Poverty affects everything.

But what if they could offer healthy foods at reduced prices? Surely many growers, producers, and town markets, who’ve never been able to get their products through school administration doors before, would jump at the chance to sell their foods in bulk to schools. By doing so, they could cut sweet deals to make  their foods affordable.

This is by no means a Filipino problem. Back home, it’s an even more serious issue as youth obesity has skyrocketed in recent decades. Whenever progressive schools have tried to replace their daily menu of pizza, hamburgers, tacos, and ice cream with healthier food, the reaction has usually been chaos.

The students revolt and refuse to eat the healthier stuff. The cafeterias lose money, the administration eventually caves, and the junk returns.

I say to hell with spoiled students, ignorant parents, wishy-washy administrators, and greedy junk purveyors. Give kids healthy food at prices they can afford. If they scream and protest, tough. If their parents demand a return to the status quo, ignore them. If Coke and Sprite and Nestle and other fat and cholesterol dealers threaten to sue, refer them to the media.

In time, the issue will die down, the kids will accept the new diet, their weight will drop, and their health will soar.

Now look at what I’ve done — worked myself into a lather. I have only two more months here. Is that enough time to germinate this idea into a campaign? Or am I hopelessly naive about how things really work in my town? 

Let’s find out, shall we?

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