By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Paylut, Eskwelahan sa Oma, Circa 1967-1973 (Last of three parts)
posted 4-May-2011  ·  
1,794 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

In the hands of students, a school is liable to evolve a world all its own and quite apart from the intentions of those who established it. When I recall the VPES, what comes to mind is a wonderful, magical world of childhood bliss. It is only after a while that I realize, almost with surprise, that the adults have actually managed to sneak into this theme park of my childhood some such huge grown-up aspirations as "education." At the paylut they have done this feat quite well. A pilot school anyway becomes one because of education that is "superior" above all the rest.

In this third part, I pay tributary dues to the agents of education, the teachers, who infiltrated our paylut in order to fulfill their adult commission, indeed like missionary zealots intent on converting indulgent pagans into their grim religion, but in the process hugely enhanced the possibilities of our juvenile adventures. They took on appropriate personas, styles and mannerisms thereby blending well into the conjured world that is the elementary grades school. They became colorful characters that provided us with the thrills. Some of them were deliciously hideous and dark with their grotesque schemes, but most assumed benign, delightful and even heroic qualities to supply the proper balance that allows happily-ever-after eventualities. In both cases we loved them, our teachers.

First, the antagonists. Really, there were only a few of them; they would not take up all fingers of one hand. I will not mention names, but the GP (genuine pilot-er) of the 60’s and 70’s will recognize them. Early on in our primary grades we had already heard much from those who came before us about these legends that were the kontravidas of the comic book epic we were living through, and we eagerly anticipated our turn at becoming their pupils. When the time came, we were not disappointed; indeed we had a grand time savoring the excitements they offered. They traumatized our young, delicate egos? No such thing! We were pleased no end with their mock battery; we smiled inside while receiving their harmless inflictions, knowing it was all part of the experience. When we emerged from the intermediate grades, we had enough to add to the legacy of folklore that we gladly passed on to the next generation.

Our top sweet (tor)mentor was an elderly lady who presided over a classroom that accommodated the universe itself, both in macro (solar system, constellations) and micro (atoms, molecules) configurations, all mixed up with flora and fauna, land and water forms, rocks, simple machines, smart contraptions, an assortments of chemicals. All of God’s output in six days plus products of humankind’s own tinkering for 250,000 years, represented in one classroom. Her dominion puts Harry Potter’s own to shame! She would usually come to school in appropriate frizzy hairdo and the glittery, outlandish eyeglasses to evoke that sinister glare. In some occasions, she had two sets of anteojos on (the other one on the forehead), she appeared as a four-eyed savvy of karunungang itim, and all to our dark, pervert delights.

She did not teach us short and crispy oraciones however. Instead she indulged us with endless sermonizing about anything under, above, in and about the sun, indeed covering the entire breadth and depth of the universe itself: presyo ning lukad, presyo ning bandala, lives of people we knew, lives of people she made us know, everything that can be cooked up on earth as well as those in the heavens. She was tireless in this singular preoccupation that one time while we were having flag ceremony on the pavement, our epic talker had an early start engaging the hapless floor sweepers assigned that day in her universe-room. Her verbal emissions were loud enough to escape out of her cosmic boundaries and interspersed with the strands of our Lupang Hinirang, like some commentary on the sorry state of the bayang magiliw, so much so that we were all about to die with subdued laughter as we approached "ang mamatay nang dahil sa ‘yo!" Oh, what would the paylut be without her?

But equally we would not imagine the paylut we knew without this other larger-than-life character who gave us pains not in the ass but on our sideburns. He was too a sinister wizard but he specialized on vegetation. I knew him more up-close than most pupils because he made me caretaker of a closet-full of implements that Adam himself might have used in fulfilling God’s injunction as he was being banished from Kamurawayan: that henceforth he will have to live by the sweat of his brows, meaning he must make bungkal the lupa. This guy was really of gigantic proportions. We imagined him to be perhaps taller than the Almighty, and we looked up to him and wondered what lies beyond those twin luyang that were his nostrils that dilated wide when he unleashed godly fury, we constantly feared he might inhale us into his system which could itself be the very place of eternal damnation. But I swear that his reputation for cruelty was grossly exaggerated. Having had the privilege of close interaction with him, I saw the kindness behind the insufferable façade. He would give me some luscious petchay to bring home for my mother’s rinauya. He knew my father who too was a teacher.

But let us move on to the creatures of light. As I have already intimated, there were a good number of them at the paylut, these benign ones who animated the dominion with their tireless labors, pleasant dispositions, intelligence and creative schemes in keeping us their wards occupied, amused and yes, educated. But I shall single out three teachers who like storybook fairy godmothers bestowed me with special spells that proved decisive when I finally embraced adult life. If indeed the elementary school is a theme park, acquiring education is none but the very process of disengagement from it and increasingly become part of the adult world outside its confines. And this starts quite early during the first grade when they make you answer the question "Ano ang gusto mo maging paglaki?" You have to choose any one item from the menu of roles acceptable in the adult world of harsh reality, and you have to learn to like it as if it is the most desirable thing to pursue.

My own answer to that question varied, depending upon what took my fancy. First I wanted to be a priest, then an architect, and later a medical doctor. Towards the end of high school, it became clear that none of those roles were imminently possible in my case and I had the vaguest idea of what I wanted to be maging even while I was already malaki. When I needed to fill up a classmate’s slum book, I would write "to be an artist" in the slot for ambition. But my friends chided me as they thought I wanted to be an artista. So I changed my tack and wrote that I dream of personally running my fingers on the surface of Michelangelo’s Pieta, in which case however my friends spied me with dirty suspicion. Now at fifty, and having become some kind of an occupational hybrid, I have a hard time explaining when people ask what I am. No one-word label for me: I am a teacher (mostly) but also a sociologist (some branch of biology?) and an anthropologist (a what?) who writes scripts for the movies on occasion (ay mayaman ka pala!). On hindsight now, what I finally became can be explained by the spells that three fairy teachers had cast on me way, way back at the paylut.

First among my trio of champions was Mrs. Victoria Alberto, my social studies teacher in grade five. She exuded intelligence, confidence and a light disposition. She was beautiful and somehow came across to me as one between being motherly and sisterly: an ambivalence that unexplainably worked. Early in the school year, I seemed to have impressed her when I was able to name the capital towns of different provinces in the Philippines in a diagnostic test. Little did she know that I accumulated such stock of knowledge because my father used to ask me to track down on the map the many typhoons that threatened our island-province.

From then on, my social studies teacher treated as some resident encyclopedist of the class, a role I had some preparation to assume. I had much earlier acquired the addiction to reading, but outside of my school textbooks (reading which was punishment for me). I devoured every piece of print material available such as books at home, my father’s subscription of Free Press, occasional Reader’s Digest issue, even the wrappings of tinapa and lawlaw from the market. I would travel once a week to my uncle three kilometers away for the Philippine Journal of Education (for the stories) and the Liwayway (for everything). I particularly favored knowing about history and current events; about places and peoples from far and wide, their habits and life-ways. But before Mrs. Alberto came my way, I did not know that knowing about the world out there could be good "school stuff." With the new realization she afforded me, I felt, as the cliché goes, empowered. Later in life, I would further realize that this preoccupation could be useful as an occupation. So I earn my living as a teacher who does anthropology and sociology.

Ms. Cathy Vargas, my music, art and P.E. teacher in grade six, had a terrible aura about her. But she possessed positive magical powers and among them was being able to make a bunch of rowdy, unkempt kids sing like angels in heaven. In what she did, she was the best in the province. Under her tutelage we learned how to read notes according to every specific, Italian-termed dynamics that attend each tone. She can detect the slightest miss in a chorus; she gave the worst censure to the sintunado: "Ano an ta ang boses mo napa-ilaya? Mangamonte ka sa Mina-ili? But it is not for music that I consider her my champion; she thought I was not good enough for the choral group of the school. Rather, the gayuma she applied on me has to do with visual art.

But like Mrs. Alberto, she did not exactly teach me how to do visual art: I had been sketching and molding clay for my own amusement even before I learned to write. It was her recognition of what I can do that did magic. Oh, she did not heap profuse praises, on me or anybody, but the way she beamed at my art works made my heart leap (oh she saw and she understood!). She would allow me to do projects outside of the prescribed exercises. While my classmates were filling up shapes with ground egg shell, I would be molding the relief of a lady carrying a jar for a papier-mache wall-hanging. I never felt greater affirmation than having my works stay on the display board for weeks. Well, I did not become a painter later in life, but I continued to sketch. But more than that, the discipline of practicing a craft, the attention to details (she was OC) and the aesthetic values that Ms. Vargas rubbed into me became effective principles to go by in whatever I would do, be they properly art forms or not. I must have gotten it from her that in all undertakings it is always rewarding to aspire for symmetry, harmony and gratification of both senses and sensibilities.

Completing my trio of champions was one whom I knew all my life: my own sister Estrella. Being eldest, she was idol to us her seven siblings, and we took into our hearts her every way and move: her achievements were ours, her opinions and preferences we emulated, her style and manner we aspired for. When I was in grade four, she joined my elementary school as a teacher, fresh from college and armed with innovative approaches to the profession. She became my teacher only when I was already in sixth grade (in math!), but ever since she invaded my paylut, I had spied on her from afar as she does her thing, seeing how kids were having such a good time around her. But I did not at all feel any jealousy; I basked at the privilege that this remarkable lady was my sister and the enchantment she afforded the other kids during school hours was a regular feature at home.

Manayting, as we fondly called my sister was such an immense influence on me on most aspects. But the singular mark she impressed on me was appreciation of the power of words and of stories. When we were very young, she alternated with my parents in telling stories during family bonding occasions, such as before going to sleep or while huddled under our dining table during a typhoon. Later, she would demonstrate the allures of the written word as I followed her stint as journalist in the local paper, as writer of oratorical and declamation pieces, as dabbler in poetry, and then as playwright. Now, in emulation of my sister, I would wear my eyes out before the computer monitor, straining my kawkawan to excruciation, and trying to mobilize the power of words, perhaps to effect some impact on those who might care to read and yes to earn some bucks, but mostly for the sheer delight of it. Such as in writing this piece on the paylut.

Looking back now, and considering the long-lasting effects of the spell put on me by three teachers-fairies, it might be said that I still inhabit the enchanted world of the paylut. Perhaps, nobody really leaves one’s elementary school. We all, in a sense, belong to the paylut.

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