By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Paylut: Eskwelahan sa Oma, circa 1967-1973 (First of three parts)
posted 15-Apr-2011  ·  
1,824 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

I joined the Virac Pilot Elementary School in 1967 as a grade one pupil. Back then, the old folks referred to that school on the northern edge of the poblacion as eskwelahan sa oma. And why not? During the first weeks of the school year, teachers told us " Mag- bring bolo." So first thing in the morning we would disappear into the grasses taller than us and cleared our own playground. When seated inside classrooms, all we could see when we looked out of the windows were expanses of rice fields, with an occasional carabao swarmed with dugwak (herons). Folk lore has it that the hard-working beast is really a teacher and the birds his pupils. Eskwelahan sa oma, indeed. My cousins from Rawis chided us that we were "mga para-gabi." But we didn’t mind. The paylut after all was the premiere elementary school in the province. Topnotch, the best.

In those days, the VPES was one of only two public elementary schools in the poblacion. It served the entire Ilawod, the three sans (S. Roque, S. Pedro, S. Jose), plus Salvacion and Gogon. The other school was the Taytay Elementary School that catered to the Taytay area. Starting 1968 however, the large VPES studentry began shrinking as portions of it went to feed three new elementary schools. Those from Sta. Elena became pioneers of the Juan M. Alberto Elementary School (later on the JMAMES), while most of those from Ilawod joined the revived Virac Central Elementary School, and the Gogon kids were made to attend the Gogon Elementary School. Only the first two to three sections of each level were made to stay at the paylut. Good thing I stuck it out with the school so that I am a full-blooded pilot-er.

My grade one teacher was the legendary Miss Tabligan. Back then, the current practice of giving kilometric names to children was not yet in vogue but my parents, ahead of their times, gave five of us eight siblings with compound names. So the feisty Miss Tabligan had trouble with my Ramon Felipe Sarmiento Jr. identity. "Ay, duwang dupa! Tapos na su iba mag-eksamen, ika dai pa tapos magsurat ning ngaran! Ano ka, Ramon o Felipe?" she blasted at me while her famous pencil-lined brows jumped about her heavily powdered face. I told her meekly: "Junior daa tabi ako," to which she retorted, "Ay, yata Felipe ka." The prospect of being Felipe all my life bothered me no end; it reminded me of the local children song, "Si Pilipi para-gabi, sa itaas ning San Roki" and the image that came to my mind was the guy every kid in paylut feared: Adot. The next day, I told Miss Tabligan that I will be simply "Ramon" and so Ramon I became until my fourth year high school where I had to bring back the full glory of my name. Miss Tabligan may not be the gentlest of teachers, tabangan siya nin Diyos, but parents sought her for their children’s education. I say that our training with her gave us a robust grounding, especially in English grammar and math.

Aside from that unique Tabligan experience, my first year at the paylut was remarkable for three vivid memories. First was when I was struck down by H-fever (similar to dengue) during an epidemic. I was confined at the old provincial hospital where patients overflowed into the pasilyo. I was reduced to skin and bones and stayed out of school for an entire month. Second was a particularly happy occasion, the showing in town of "The Sound of Music" at the old surot-infested sinehan ni Dadoy. Up to now, I would watch that film if I needed to prop up my spirit. Then in February of 1968, a teary-eyed Miss Tabligan led us out of classroom in a single file, and we walked the distance to the new capitol. There we viewed the remains of former Governor Juan M. Alberto who was assassinated at the GSIS Building in Manila. It was the first time I saw a dead person.

Every school is unique, not so much because of the academics, but more so of the adventures offered outside of books and classroom lessons. Kids, naturally creative and curious, have the genius for conjuring up opportunities for that extra thrill within and the immediate surroundings of the campus. And so at the paylut, the pupils had created an almost magical world of juvenile bliss, one that could only be possible at the eskwelahan sa oma. Foremost, there was the natural environment around the school that offered all sorts of adventure during recess time or after classes. The sapa, pre-pollution days, was where the more daring ones would go for a quick swim before heading home for lunch. Some would even venture into the more challenging and dangerous tampongan. Tibgao on the other hand offered lush vegetation where groups would raid for tagbak flowers favored for their sweet nectar, or curumbot, or bayawas, or even steal pineapple, santol and igot inside somebody’s lati (Hala, huyana si Perpekto!). During rice harvest time, the mountains of hay on the nearby fields were excellent practice ground for tumbling, or wrestling, or else for recreating the fight scenes of karate movies starring Roberto Gonzales and Tony Ferrer. But in case an FPJ movie or a war epic had just been shown in town, the boys reverted back to the campus itself for staging badil-badilan making use of the entire silong of the main building as the battlefield, with the San Francisco hedges, the Rosal bushes and aguho trees around, offering endless possibilities for all sorts of strategic maneuver.

We even had secret hideouts back then. Once, while making a compost pit, we discovered the remains of a GI roof blown off by the last typhoon. We used dried grass to camouflage it and made a bedding of hay inside. We called it kweba-kweba, fitted it with a small opening where only one person can enter at a time by crawling. Inside, we hang around and told stories boys tell themselves. On another occasion, we made a "secret garden" but this time with only a really few chosen close friends. It was located in the middle of an expanse of tall and thick weeds and bushes, in an area that was intended to be part of the sports complex. One reached the place only after a round-about route. There we made a nice clearing, fixed it with stone flooring and ornamental plants. The focal point was an altar where we enshrined the bust of Jesus which I molded from clay. We called the place "grotto" and during weekends we brought snacks and had picnics.

It was in that grotto where Carlo Arcilla and I tried to hypnotize Solomon Tabligan Jr. Caloy, now the Director of the National Institute of Geological Science at UP, was already a budding scientist then and had been reading about hypnosis. You see, the perya (called Everlasting Productions) was in town and we all idolized the statuesque Madame Lord, the magician who induced pretty ladies into deep slumber and made them float on a sword. One late afternoon, we tried to test Caloy’s new knowledge on our classmate Solomon. In no time, our specimen went sleepy upon Caloy’s mumbo-jumbo. Then he passed out and dropped to the ground with a loud thud. Caloy and I went euphoric about the success of our experiment. But like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we did not know how to wake him up. So Caloy frantically consulted his encyclopedia through the dying lights of dusk. He got it that we might bring Solomon back by applying a sudden and drastic sensation, like pain. I went looking for something to use to inflict the pain and found a piece of dos-por-dos. We were about to hit Solomon when he suddenly sprang awake. The brat pala was conscious all the time and was taking us for a ride, loko talaga that Solomon (tabangan ning mahal na Diyos). Who knows, that incident perhaps dampened Caloy’s liking for psychology and made him look in the direction of other sciences, ultimately zeroing in on geology. Ako naman, I developed interest in the theatre.

The magical paylut that we inhabited was not all about space; it was equally created by the characters that animated it. Surely there were the teachers and other school personnel who have their own colorful personalities, and there too were the classmates and other pupils who contributed specific nuances to the over all tapestry. But the most unforgettable ones were not at all connected to the official aspects of a school. I have already mentioned Adot and Perpekto. Adot was a farmer and paylut being eskwelahan sa oma acquires a specific flavor because of him. He was not communicative, seemed he had a world of his own, but a lurking presence in the rice fields surrounding the campus. My recollection of him was of being eternally in white shirt and kalson-silyo and worn karagumay hat. We would spy him tending to carabaos, or squatting intently on the sagop, or else lonesome under a shed in the middle of the oma manning the noise-makers to scare the swarms of maya. Everybody feared him, but for no apparent reasons; he was not known to eat people, anyway. My only close encounter with Adot was when I and some classmates tried to gather ubod from the growing rice stalks. Adot suddenly materialized from nowhere and chased us. In our haste, I dropped into the mud of the paddies. Adot got at me but didn’t make any physical contact, merely harassed me with a rain of saliva and invectives. When in 1969 bulldozers came to fill up the paddies between VPES and the capitol with sand to become part of the sports complex, Adot was said to have shed tears. After that, we didn’t see much of Adot.

Perpekto was really scary because of sheer size, and by the way he constantly smiled to himself and talked without having someone to talk to. He was mostly seen in the back peripheries of the campus near the grandstand, as it was said that his family owned properties in Tibgao. In rare occasions that he was in and about the buildings, pupils kept distance. But some of the teachers knew him and would casually greet him. He actually had college education, except that he was not able to get over the rejection by the girl he loved. Those of us from Ilawod did not really fear him, in fact some consulted him for their math homework.

My personal favorite was Kikay the midget from Danicop. She was also called "Bakay" because she was always carrying on her head that karagumoy container half her height . She was a peanut vendor who roamed the entire poblacion but would be at the paylut during recess. She sold the best roasted and boiled peanuts. She had a sense for the environment as she cleaned the area where the children scattered the peanut peelings. Pedring the janitor would endlessly make fun of her, but she didn’t mind; she just wanted to do her trade and make a living. Miss Tabligan used her as an exemplary illustration in teaching her pupils that "coffee is for adults, milk is for kids." Look at Kikay, she told us, "saday pa ga inom nang kape kaya dai nagdakula." So we developed an aversion to coffee, and would regularly compare our own height with Kikay taking note of our progress, and duly attributed it to milk. Years later, when we were much taller than Kikay and confident enough to sip coffee, we just realized she was not anymore plying her trade route. We heard she was already too old and sick. It was somehow the end of an era in our lives. We knew because during rare occasions that we visited the paylut, the steps on the stairs going up the main building seemed to have gone shorter , the halls narrower, and the barandilla lowered to the level of our waistlines. And we wondered: did they cut the flagpole by half?

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