September 2, 2012
The day after I received the painting estimate for the tennis court, I show up at the court for my regular Sunday play. I greet everyone as usual but can’t bring myself to look anyone in the eye. I sit apart from the others at the end of the bench. My insides are a cauldron of turmoil. I want to be anywhere but here. Today is the day I must tell everyone that I won’t be funding their tennis court.
The cast-iron sky augurs rain so I hope only a few players will show up to make my apology easier, but everyone’s here. They’re laughing and joking as usual, and the first two doubles pairs take to the court as if nothing’s out of the ordinary. I expected them all to ask me if I’ve made my decision, but nobody mentions it. The issue isn’t on their minds at all.
After play, we retire as usual to the park, borrowing chairs and tables from the Korean market owner across the street. Losers buy the beer. Others pick up skewers of BBQ chicken, peanuts, or street food from vendors to share with the team.
I’m not hungry. In my tennis bag is my Peace Corps Handbook outlining why volunteers are prohibited from using personal money to fund community projects. It gets me off the hook for paying for the paint for the tennis court, but it won’t absolve me for promising the team I’d do it. I initially said okay because the first estimate was $200. The final estimate then ballooned to nearly $1,000.
I wait for a lull in the conversation and stand up. “I have an announcement everyone,” I say. Everyone looks up from their beer. I see from their eyes that they realize I’ve made my decision.
“Before I say what I’m going to say about the tennis court, I want to apologize to all of you, and especially to your president,” I say, looking directly at the newly elected officer, a stern man who’s never warmed up to me.
“When I was first asked about funding for the tennis court, I said I’d pay for it, which caused a lot of excitement,” I tell them. “Unfortunately, I spoke before thinking. Since then, I learned that not only is such a gift against Peace Corps policy but it could have caused serious consequences at my school. My school needs a lot of repairs, some to my own classrooms. Those repairs are only half of what your bill is for painting a tennis court. How could I justify to them why I gave so much to repaint a court when I could have repaired two classrooms for the same price?”
Several players nod their heads. The president, however, cocks his. “But Sir John, we never asked you for the money. We asked if you knew someone at home who could help fund it.”
“You’re right. That’s why this whole thing’s my fault. I promised to fund it myself without knowing that I couldn’t and shouldn’t. For that, I owe you all an apology. I won’t be able to pay for the paint, and I’m sorry for raising your hopes.”
Silence. Awkward glances. Shrugs. Finally, someone says, “That’s okay, John. No problem. It’s nice that you apologized. And to the president. That’s good. It’s all right. We understand.”
I let out a big breath of air. Everyone picks up their previous conversations. The president orders more beer. Laughter resumes. That’s it.
Except for Edmund. One of my closest friends, who still wins championships at the age of 73, leans over and says, “This means, of course, that there will be no tournament for you.”
They’d promised to hold a farewell tournament in my honor before I left.
“The reason for the tournament was to dedicate the new court with your name on it. But since there’s no money for the paint, there won’t be a tournament.”
I’m a little taken aback. I assumed the tournament was always a go, whether or not the painting was done. Probably just sour beans. But I understand. I’m the one who cooked them.
September 4, 2012
Today is a big day. Teacher’s Month will officially launch with a Mass at church followed by a parade. It’s also Teacher’s Day in which students give their favorite teachers cards or presents. And it’s my farewell ceremony in front of the school and municipality.
If I was nervous in front of the tennis team last night, I’m petrified today. I’m scheduled to sing a solo (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), sing a duet (“The Girl Is Mine”), perform a dance number (“Billie Jean”), and give a farewell speech to the students, partly in their native dialect.
In the morning I meet with my duet costars — Nesty, Cleo, a gay male teacher aide, and a pretty fourth-year student – for our final rehearsal. We nail it. I’m certain we’ll be a smash. The song is simple, I don’t have many lines, and we’ve planned some surprises that are sure to get laughs.
The dancers and I still haven’t been able to rehearse together, however. We were supposed to meet up on Sunday but that’s traditionally family day, plus it was raining, so none of the dancers’ parents allowed them to leave their houses. I do meet with Axel the choreographer, a fourth-year student, who briefly runs me through the number.
The dancers will come out first and do their routine. At a certain flourish by Michael Jackson in the song, I’m to enter. The dancers will part, allowing me to pass through them to the front of the stage. There I’ll do a freestyle solo for a minute or so. When I’m done, I’ll point to the dancers and we’ll all finish the number together. Simple, but without a rehearsal to smooth out the movements, anything can happen.
The rest of the morning I practice my solo song. I know it by heart, but this morning it inexplicably falls apart. There are only four simple verses, but I keep mixing them up. The words are right, but my brain puts them in the wrong places. It’s fighting me, and I don’t know why.
This goes on for two hours. I pace and gasp and pull out my remaining hair. Teachers ask what’s wrong and I ignore them. I repeat the song in my head over and over again, trying to shove the lyrics back where they belong, but my brain won’t let me. It’s like a street dog whose stolen a bone and won’t let me have it back.
Finally I cease worrying about it. I know what can happen if I obsess too much on my lines. My only other performance in front of an audience was in high school when I had to interview a chicken in the play “The Egg and I.” I only had ten lines, but my part didn’t occur until the end of the two-hour play.
Naturally, I spent those two hours pacing backstage and repeating my lines and praying that I wouldn’t forget them because my parents were in the audience, my teachers were in the audience, my friends were in the audience, my crushes were in the audience, and my bullies were in the audience. I kept imagining what would happen if I forgot my lines.
Not surprisingly, when I finally walked on stage two hours later, I froze. Have you ever been electrocuted? I have. In my backyard. We were playing badminton, the ground was wet, I was standing in a puddle, and I grasped the light pole. I felt nothing. There was no pain. One moment I was watching the game, the next I was standing rigid, unable to move. All my motor functions had shut down. The only senses that worked were my speech and hearing because I was screaming like a gutted pig.
I experienced the same sensation on stage. I knew my lines, but my voice box had lost power. My teacher urgently voiced the words a few feet away offstage. I couldn’t utter them. When the audience began to stir, I finally snapped out of it and my lines tumbled out.
So I put the song out of my mind. Maybe if I don’t worry about it so much, my brain will do the same and the lyrics will magically return to their correct place by the time I step on stage.
I buy some oranges for the priest and have them wrapped and join the teachers at the Mass. The entire school is there. The students are surprised to see me because I’m not a churchgoer, but I want to attend this final one before I go home. Afterward, everyone pours into the street and the parade begins. I walk with the teachers behind the students. We circle the town, then finish inside the outdoor Quadrangle.
The Teacher’s Day events are enjoyable, with dances, songs, and speeches. Every teacher is introduced and sits on stage. Then students line up to present them with gifts. The line for some stretches all the way across the pavilion. I’m not one of the regular teachers, so I wait to be called. When the announcer signals me, she’s frantic.
“It’s your dance number, Sir John!”
“Why aren’t you backstage!”
I wasn’t able to attend the run-through of the program last week, so I’m not aware of the order of each event. I grab my dress shirt I bought over the weekend for the occasion and rush backstage. Lined up are my dancers, all ready to go. They each give me the same “So there you are!” expression. Sorry girls. I quickly strip off my Peace Corps polo and put on my shirt. The music starts, and the dancers disappear.
I wait for my cue. Correction. I try to remember what my cue is. Axel played it for me only once. It’s about 20 or 30 seconds into the song. After a half a minute, I hear what sounds like a big musical crescendo and Michael’s voice. That must be it. I rush out on stage to the squeals of hundreds of students.
And run smack into the back line of the dancers.
They’re supposed to part to let me through! Instead, they’re still in the midst of their number. I’ve come in at the wrong time. I look like a fool standing there, the crowd whooping as they see me, but I’m unable to move. Should I return backstage? Absolutely not. But standing here like a moron is worse. I hide behind a tree prop instead. If anyone’s videoing this, I hope they burn the original.
Finally I hear Michael’s voice and a sudden rise in the beat, and the dancers part. I enter again, passing through them effortlessly. In front of me are screaming girls, flashbulbs, and a sea of faces. I’m a rock star!
I have no plan of what to do because I can’t memorize intricate dance steps. I can only improvise and go where the beat takes me. Judging by the crowd, I seem to be doing all right. All the teachers are on their feet taking pictures, even the principal.
Finally I’ve had enough and gesture to the dancers, who rush forward and resume their steps. We try to get students to join us, but nobody does. The music fades away, and the dancers run backstage. When I start to follow, the announcer grabs my arm and tells me to stay.
A single chair is placed in the middle of the stage. I’m told to sit in it. Instead of students coming up to greet me, a beautiful girl in a skintight purple gown does. Holding a microphone, she proceeds to sing a tribute to me. I’m sweating bricks, so a student thankfully rushes up and fans me. Three other singers follow with different song tributes.
When they’re done, it’s time for my song tribute to the students. My solo.
I’m handed the microphone. I walk up to the front of the stage, mentally playing back the first three lines so I’ll get off to a good start. The lines I remember, but for the first time the melody escapes me. What the hell! I can’t hear the tune in my head. The “Leaving on a Jet Plane” chorus is different than the verses. All I can think of is the tune to my duet, “The Girl Is Mine.” I panic and step back from the stage. C’mon, c’mon…how does the song start?
The audience is restless. The teachers are all looking at each other. The announcer whispers if I’m all right. I nod. She reminds me that it’s my turn to sing. I nod. She asks if I have background music. I shake my head. She gasps. I’ve chosen no background music because I want to sing the song slowly at my own pace.
Well, I can’t stand up here forever. Maybe if I start, it’ll come to me. I have no choice. So I begin the first line, “All my bags are packed…” What comes out isn’t what John Denver recorded; it’s more like a Bavarian funeral dirge.
When I start the second line, “I’m ready to go…,” suddenly the melody clicks and I thankfully leave Bavaria. I do okay until the second verse when my brain snatches its bone back. For the rest of the song I transpose lines numerous times.
Twice, in desperation, I have to take out my cheat sheet that I prepared beforehand, but doing so just makes it worse. Teachers throw me the correct lines a couple of times. I think I omit one entire chorus but I’m not sure. By the end, I’m so unnerved, ashamed, humiliated, and angry that the emotional release I wanted so much to finish with is ditched because I just want to get the fucker over with.
As I stomp backstage, head down, the announcer grabs my arm again. My duet is next. Good Lord.
Fortunately, this is the highlight of the day. The act goes over flawlessly, and the crowd really gets into it as Nesty and I take turns pouring our heart out for our dream girl, only to watch in disbelief as the gay teacher aide picks her up and leads her offstage. As we shout at each other for losing her, the gorgeous student strolls past us in short-shorts, gives us both the eye, and sashays offstage. We stare at her for a beat, then pick up the chase once again, running after her singing “That girl is mine…No, no, no, she’s mine…Yes, she’s mine.”
The culmination is my farewell speech to the students. I close it by addressing them in Visaya:
Your smiling faces, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn have been an inspiration to me for these two years.
Ang inyong mapahiyumong panagway, kadasig, ug dakong tinguha sa pagkat-on nahimong akong inspiration sulod sa duha ka tuig.
I cannot tell you how much joy you gave me each day in the classroom.
Dili ko makasulti ninyo unsa ka dakong kalipay ang inyong gihatag nako sa matag adlaw sa klasehanan.
I hope and pray that each of you will achieve your dream and that you will remember that I was a brief part of your life.
Ako nanghinaut ug nagampo nga ang matag-usa ka ninyo makakab-ot sa inyong mga damgo ug nga kamo makahinundum nga ako nahimong hamubo nga parte sa inyong kinabuhi.
Because I will never forget you as long as I live.
Tungod kay ako dili makalimot kaninyo samtang ako may kinabuhi pa.
Each line triggers applause from the audience. I close with a quote from the Philippines’ greatest hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, about his beloved country:
I have always loved my poor country
and I am sure that I should love her until death.
Happen what may, I shall die blessing her
and desiring the dawn of her redemption.
I break down near the end because Rizal’s emotions mirror mine. I’m told later that many students and teachers wept along with me. When I finally step away from the podium, the students rush onstage and give me cards and flowers and letters.
Nesty and I retire to the Korean market afterward for much-needed drinks. For the first time in two weeks, I relax. The weight of the performances are finally off of my back. I vow to never to it again.
FILIPINO PET PEEVE #37
September 5, 2012
There are three types of ants that I’ve observed in my house, all of which I don’t hesitate to nuke because they piss me off. The first are microscopic ants that get into everything because they’re so small that only particle physicists can detect them. I loathe these cretins because they like to flaunt how easily they can crawl into literally crevice in my premises. I’m quite certain that when the Peace Corps proctologist reaches into my inner sanctum at my final health exam, he will mutter, “Well, lookee here, guess what I found.” Bastards.
The second are regular black ants, who don’t do anything out of the ordinary, but they’re ants and they’re trespassing, so I kill them.
The third are hyper-frantic black ants that move at the speed of light, are super paranoid, and have serious munchies. Ants on crack! They streak around like their pants are on fire. Ants on fire! They scatter in all directions like bats out of hell. Ants from hell! Once they start, they’re harder to stop than a Lewis Black rant. Ants on a rant! Up close, they resemble tiny Usain Bolts with antennas. Ants set new world record! Death to them all.
BEST-EVER BIRTHDAY PART II
September 6-13, 2012
I’m so mentally exhausted the day after my performances that I call in sick and rest. The following day I buy farewell cards, gift bags, and wrapping paper for my favorite teachers’ presents.
Jody, one of the Peace Corps scholars who will coordinate the Check My School assessment of our school, invites me to speak to 100 business students at Foundation University, and I accept. The topic is something I’ve written about before: how to dress for success, how to create a winning resume, how to ace a job interview, and how to get the life you want.
I pay a visit to my first host family in Dumaguete to say my final goodbyes. Unfortunately, young Denzel, whom I was so fond of during my stay and with whom I often hiked through the coconut forests near his home, was taken back by his mother a few months ago and now lives in Manila.
His mother, my host mother’s niece, had him when she was 15 and abandoned him for almost ten years. My host mother Arding and her daughter Realyn took him in. But they’re concerned because they’ve lost communication with Denzel’s mother and don’t know where he is or if he’s all right. They fear his mother may have gone back to drugs and alcohol.
“I miss him,” Arding tells me.
They cook my favorite dish, carbonara, which takes all afternoon to prepare. During that time, we reminisce. After dinner, I present them with a framed collage of our times together that I cobbled together from my digital photos. Arding says it will have a permanent place on her mantle. We take pictures, hug, and I depart for the last time.
As I step into my 7:40 a.m. English class on the morning of my birthday, my second-year students shower me with confetti, and I’m led to a chair in the middle of the room. All the desks and chairs have been moved against the walls. For the next hour I’m entertained by a wave of singers, dancers, lullabies, serenades, testimonials, cards, and gifts of fruit. When I join them dancing, students from other classes run over to see “Sir John” get his groove on again.
When it’s my turn to speak, I tell them that when I was asked what classroom level I wanted during my last year, I requested their class “because you’ve been my favorite students during my service. You’re the class I’ve been with the longest – all of last year and the first half of this year.”
I tell them that I love each one of them, that I learned how to teach because of them, that I’ll never forget our lunchtime talks outside the Faculty Room, and that I look at each of them as if they’re my own children. I tell them that my one regret is that I won’t see them graduate. I tell them that I want to follow their lives on Facebook and email wherever they go because I want to know what happens to them – where they go to college, what jobs they get, who they marry, when they have kids.
When I finish, every student, boy and girl, is crying, their faces buried in their handkerchiefs. My teacher is wiping tears away. I’m choked up, too. I don’t know how I get through it.
When the class is over and I go outside, I see another surprise. My last host mother, Bombeth, has put up a large “Happy Birthday, John Wood” sign on the bulletin board in the middle of the campus. The board is overflowing with handwritten messages, cards, notes, and well wishes.
Last year I wrote that it was my favorite birthday ever. This one tops it.
September 14-30, 2012
I polish my Foundation University speech, my farewell speech to the teachers, and my English Quiz Bee and Spelling Bee contests. I wrap the rest of my presents and compose personal notes to each recipient.
One day at lunch I have a long talk with Susan, my favorite coteacher. She confesses that she never wanted to be a teacher. Her wish was to work in business. But her husband talked her into teaching because it paid more than office work.
“If you had a chance to do it over again, would you have still followed your husband’s advice?” I ask.
She shakes her head vigorously. “I grew to love teaching and became good at it,” she tells me. “And I love the students. But I wouldn’t do it again.”
Then she drops a bombshell: “I’m going to retire early, at 55.” That’s only a couple of years away. I’m surprised.
“If you’d gone into business,” I say, “you would’ve been as good or better than you are as a teacher. I can see you as a manager or director of an office. You’d be efficient and approachable. Your door would always be open. You’d be one of the staff, not apart from them or above them.”
I present my business speech at Foundation University on a dark, gloomy, rainy day. I don’t want to wear my nice clothes as I slog through the mud and rain to the university because the first part of my speech is about how to dress for success. So I pack my good clothes in a bag and wear jeans and tennis shoes to the campus, then change there.
The school is hidden from view, tucked away on a side street away from the main highway where all the other universities in Dumaguete are located. I love the campus. It’s a vast expanse of green lawns, lovely buildings, tons of trees, and small shaded nooks and enclaves for studying or snacks or just contemplation. The auditorium is packed when I arrive, and I chat beforehand with the student council and staff members who organized the event.
I begin my presentation with an introspective activity in which the students close their eyes and are brought together with their future selves for a short conversation. The results are often a revelation to many and can be emotional.
It falls flat. No visible reactions. No one offers to share his or her experience. All I get are blank stares. The rest of my presentation is so-so. My material is good but the presentation is weak. That’s why writers write. We should never be allowed to speak.
My first-year students the next day are nearly in a panic that I’m going home in a few weeks. Some are already crying. I vow to eat lunch with them every day until I depart.
My counterpart tells me that she’s chosen five candidates for Peace Corps scholarships and asks if I’ll endorse them on their applications. I agree and spend one lunch interviewing them so I know why I’m referring them. All of them are in the top 10% of their class, are financially in need, and have performed community service. We barely make the deadline the day before I fly to Manila for my final medical/dental exams and our last official Peace Corps gathering: the Close of Service conference.
Everyone’s looking forward to it because it will be the last time many of us will ever see each other again. Because of that, our emotions will be a raw. Our original batch of 144 has now shrunk to 102. We’re the survivors. I’m proud that I made it to the end.
I’m eager to learn what to expect when I return to the States and how to reenter my culture all over again, which the Peace Corps says is often the most difficult adjustment.
A big typhoon is pulling away from northern Philippines as I arrive, but instead of thunderstorms and flooding, what greets me are clear skies and cool breezes. I get a dorm room with my old buddies, B.J., Brad, Steve, and Alex. I feel warm and content. I’m with friends. I’m away from my site for a much-needed break. I have ten days of top cuisine, hot showers, clean sheets, and precious camaraderie ahead of me.
Over dinner, Brad, who’s in his mid-twenties, tells me that his year-long girlfriend is subtly giving him an ultimatum: in six months (precisely the week when Brad’s extended service will end), she and her mother are planning to go to Ireland to start two-year contracts as overseas foreign workers. Hint, hint.
“She’s putting pressure on me to pop the question,” Brad says. “I really like her, but I don’t know if I’m ready to settle down yet. If I don’t marry her, though, I’ll always wonder if I should have. I don’t want that to haunt me. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
My medical exam the next day is uneventful, which is the best possible result. I have a sore, swollen thumb that I may have gotten from tennis, but the Peace Corps doctor says it’s probably the start of arthritis. “An X-ray wouldn’t show anything,” he says.
My weight loss also doesn’t concern him. “You’ll probably gain your weight back when you get home,” he says. “If you return to your regular American diet, you should slowly inch back up toward your normal weight. Just don’t try to gain it back quickly with high-protein diet supplements. They can harm your kidney, especially at your age.”
At my dental exam in the afternoon, the Peace Corps dentist says I brush too hard and the action has caused my gums to recede and exposed the nerves of some teeth. So when I come back to Manila for my final out-processing on October 14, she wants to repair the abrasions. She also says my temporary tooth is loose and will need to be re-cemented.
The following day my eye doctor says my eye pressure is 8 in both eyes, the lowest they’ve been in years. Awesome.
I return to the Pension hotel where we all stay and enter a marathon Monopoly Deal card game that doesn’t end until 3 a.m. Gossip is rampant. One PCV complained of a lump on her breast and two exams were conflicting. When she wanted a third opinion done in the U.S., the Peace Corps refused. So she flew home to get it. They found breast cancer. She was medically separated and is receiving treatment.
A second woman hurt her ankle, was treated and released. Later she developed massive blood clots near the wound and also had to be medically separated. She surprises everyone by arriving at Pension. “I wanted to see you all before you left for home!” she says.
She also came back to finish her project and to say goodbye to everyone at her site whom she’d been unable to reach because she was sent home so quickly. She’s currently looking for work in Palawan where she served.
A third woman from the batch before ours, who finished her service last year, committed suicide by jumping off a ten-story building in Portland. Those who knew her swear she wasn’t the type to do such a thing. The news leaves us all shaken and disturbed.
On September 30th, the day before our COS conference is to officially kick off with a sunset pool party at the U.S. Embassy along stunning Manila Bay (which I’m happy to report has been greatly repaired since the tsunami destroyed much of it last year), the Peace Corps alerts us that a major terrorist threat against American citizens in Pasay City, where the Embassy is located, has been uncovered. The Pension, where all 102 of us are housed, is a few blocks from the Embassy.
My sleep is fitful. Half my brain tries to sleep; the other half monitors the street sounds below my window.