COMMENTARY: When heroes become villains: The maleducation of Tagakolu children

MALITA, Davao Occidental (MindaNews / 13 December0 — Jeffrey wakes up very early each day full of anticipation: he is going to school! He does not mind the cold. The sun is not yet out and his father is still warmly bundled in his blanket. His mother is already up and preparing boiled sweet potatoes (kasila) for breakfast. She is aided by a cheap solar lamp made in China, which had cost them two goats and a chicken.

Jeffrey washes himself with very cold water and dries himself with his father’s old discolored shirt that now serves as a towel. He quickly eats his breakfast and puts two pieces of kasila in a plastic bag that is his lunchbox. He bids his mother farewell and disappears into the thin fog. He excitedly begins his two-hour trek to school in the mountains of Malita, Davao Occidental.

Jeffrey is Tagakolu and dreams of becoming a teacher one day like his teachers at school whom he looks up to and considers his heroes. Ironically, he is now in fourth grade but is still barely able to read and write. When he was still too young to go to school, he and his playmates would often pretend to be at class under the shade of coffee trees and he always played the role of the teacher. Becoming a teacher is the only thing that occupies his young mind. He does not mind the two-hour long trek to school passing through narrow passes, traversing the chilly waters of streams and rivers, plodding through mud, and sometimes tripping over rocks because he will be a teacher someday!

It is a Monday and Jeffrey is a little worried that their teachers might not be at school yet. Since the government had taken over the literacy school of the Catholic mission in their hamlet a decade ago, there had been a number of drastic changes. Their teachers now are not Tagakolu and almost always arrive on a Monday and leave on a Friday because they still have to come from town down the mountain.

There are days when the teachers do not come at all and they do not know why; their teachers give no explanation and their parents are too timid to ask. They are discouraged from speaking their Tagakolu language in school because their teachers are unable to understand and show no real interest to learn it. Many of his classmates would rather go to school on a Tuesday because that is when their regular classes actually begin and goes on till Thursday afternoon. Jeffrey still comes on a Monday anyway because their teachers always tell them that school days are from Monday to Friday. He believes everything that their teachers tell them.

Jeffrey enjoys school most when they have guests from the Department of Education. Everything is transformed: the school is clean, and their teachers are well dressed and do their utmost to feign love for teaching. They become bewilderingly extra kind to them, which they like, of course, but find rather odd. They also teach the children using pictures and Jeffrey finds it fun. It also makes it a lot easier for them to understand their lessons. How he wished that it could be always like that and not just an annual affair. In his young mind he makes plans to make learning fun each day of class when he becomes a teacher.

The school is quiet when he arrives. It is empty except for a handful of children. The sun is shining brightly now. The faded and tattered Philippine flag silently flutters up the pole, the wind its only companion. A skinny horse hungrily grazes in the school yard together with several rambunctious goats. He wonders which animal is responsible for the disappearance of the daisies just in front of their classroom. His teacher would be furious. He peers into a classroom where he hears the clucking of a hen. He spots it by a half-empty run-down bookshelf where it has built a nest.

At mid-morning he eats a kasila to appease his rumbling tummy. He and the other children play some games while they wait for their teachers who have not yet arrived. He eventually finds himself alone at noon. The other school children had gone home afraid to be caught in the afternoon rain.

The sun is by now blotted out by rain clouds that had seemed to appear from nowhere. He eats the other kasila he brought to school. It begins to rain. He glances at the road leading to their school hoping in earnest to see their teachers arrive. He only sees an emaciated dog scramble across it with a dead chick between its jaws oblivious to the hard pouring rain.

Jeffrey turns and begins to walk in the direction of their home dejected. He gently places the now empty plastic bag on his head to protect himself from the rain. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Fr. Joey Gánio Evangelista, MJ, heads the Malita Tagakaulo Mission of the Diocese of Digos in Davao del Sur)