Into TGL: Island Dreams

December 22, 2016

Ben Pablo

Tigman, Aborlan, Palawan, Philippines

(Island Dreams is part of a multi-story series documenting the author’s visit between November to December 2016.)

Tigman Elementary School is the most colorful place in town—carnation red flower boxes filled with santan line the pathways, leading up to green and yellow classroom walls that brighten up the schoolyard. Posters cut from colored paper fill classrooms, and the ice cream man serves purple ice cream in pink cones. When recess rolls in, tag is common. There are no playgrounds, only bare patches of dirt. Dirty school uniforms are rare, because few can actually afford them.

Less than a dozen rooms house all levels, from Kindergarten through 6th grade. The principal has no real office. He sits with his laptop beside the doorway of an empty classroom, his dirt bike parked out front. The Philippine flag rises near the main entrance, holes larger than coins visible on both halves. On one side of the school lie the town hall and basketball court, the beach and a few wooden huts on the other.

Teacher Cristina has a class of over 20 seven-year-olds, only four of them boys. On many days, there’ll be at least one or two absentees. Not all parents can afford the daily cost of sending their child to an already state-sponsored school. When a volunteer teacher takes the front, Teacher Cristina crouches in the back, where four students are clustered together. They don’t know how to read.

Rachel from California teaches English to 2nd graders, and I offer to help her out with her Monday lesson. Some of her students are in flip-flops. Others can afford sneakers, but not always in the right size. A girl in the front row stands out with a bright pink headband and matching bracelets. Few others wear accessories. But the difference of some having more than others doesn’t seem to matter. Not yet, at least. They all still play the same games and don’t leave anyone out. Some kids from a higher grade pass by with a remote controlled car. It catches the attention of the boys, and they beam out genuine smiles. Their amusement is innocent and seemingly without envy.

I head back to our beach camp for lunch, and catch some 3rd graders out front. They’re looking for “the woman with the helicopter.” I don’t understand what it means. After a few minutes of horsing around with them on the slackline, I realize that they’re referring to the drone. It belongs to Melanie from Sydney, who was away or asleep. I try my best to entertain them by teaching them how to build cairns. They can’t build one taller than mine, but some got a good hang of it.

Many boys fail to finish high school in Tigman. There’s a campus a few kilometers away, but some can’t even afford transport, which costs about two US dollars a day. Some lose their interest in academics once their horizons broaden. They make new friends from neighboring towns, and get exposed to new things—money, vices, and perhaps even gang life. Suddenly, submitting to the modest life of fishing doesn’t seem so bad. And when these teenage boys start going out to sea, they have to wake up at ungodly hours, often making them too tired to make the trip to school. There are way too many odds stacked against them.

I sit down with Teacher Cristina and ask her about her seven-year-old students, curious about what ambitions children in a small town like this have. Knowing that in the last several decades, many of the families here have relied on the sea to eke out a living, I wonder how much that’s changing. “The motivation remains to be money,” she says. “Now they want to be doctors, engineers, policemen, but they’re too young.” I remember wanting to be an astronaut and a professional wrestler when I was a boy. But like these kids, those dreams had to give way to practicality. “Now that teachers are getting better salaries, many want to teach,” Teacher Cristina adds. One of her own children wanted to be an architect, but they couldn’t afford further schooling.

Locals say that volunteers have been a welcome addition to their community. That interacting with foreigners helps children break out of their small town comfort zone. I agree. It seems to be one of the changes happening in the village. Not too long ago, it was common for only one or two kids in a class of 30 to finish college, but that number is said to be growing. “The graduates end up being the role models for kids,” says Teacher Cristina. “We invite them to talk during graduation.”

While many children in Tigman may lack financial support from their parents, I’m hopeful that they’re still supported in other ways. That whether a young man or woman finishes college or not, whether he or she ends up leaving this small town or staying to become a fisherman or married to one, that the families of these wonderful people remain supportive of each other. Perhaps one day, more of these kids could even have the choice of working in one of the tall buildings of Metro Manila (they envision the skyline when they think of the country’s capital). Until then, they’ll have to work hard inside their classrooms, and support each other outside.

Aida is 12. She sits her lanky body uncomfortably in a tiny plastic chair, because she’s still in Kindergarten. She tells me from memory that her mother Nancy has a birthday on March 5. She tells me Teacher Alex is beautiful. Aida is blind. There’s nothing for her in this town.

Monique from Amsterdam is teaching adjectives to a rowdy class of 3rd graders. They start by identifying the colors and shapes on the Philippine flag. A picture alphabet lined above the chalkboard illustrates the letter E with an eroplano (airplane). I sit with the thought of how many of these children may not ever actually get on an airplane, while I’ve been on eight flights this year alone. Hanging higher up on the chalkboard is a portrait of the President, just below one of Jesus Christ. The kids can identify them both when asked. A poster of the National Motto is also present: “For God, People, Nature, and Country.”

Power went out last night due to strong rain and winds. The sea rose to the doorsteps of the huts on the shorefront. Most fishing boats are stuck at bay. It’s an early showing of the unfavorable weather that hits this area around January. And as I sit here on a rainy Sunday afternoon, watching the angry sea, I wish many things for this town and its people. Too many to write. While I struggle with my own dreams and ambitions, I’m grateful for the reminders this town has given me—of the joys of a simple life, of our shared cultures and traditions as Filipinos, of being stronger together, and most importantly of hope. Hope still exists on each of these islands.

Ben Pablo

Filipino writer who calls the road home, eager to tell the stories of the world—from sea to summit, small towns to big cities, cultures old and new. Enjoys drinking IPAs while watching his favorite sports teams lose. Contributor at Lost at E Minor. Minimalist.

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