” Why must summers be so penitential?”

graduates 2This is the last line of Michael Tan’s column today in Philippine Daily Inquirer. It is not just a question but a plaintive plea coming from an educator, a chancellor of a prestigious  state university. His column today tackles an all too familiar situation – the  financial burden of acquiring a college degree in a third world country like the Philippines.

It is a common story replicated thousands of times among the poor. Parents sell their land and farm animals to raise enough money to send their children to college. For them, a college diploma  means to unshackle the curse of poverty. It is also mostly for this reason that ten million Filipinos are now working abroad as medical professionals, teachers, engineers, seamen, hotel employees, laborers, maids, and entertainers. They persevere through homesickness, cold temperatures, discrimination and even abuse to send their children, siblings and other relatives through school. A college education is given prime importance in our society, woven  tightly into the fabric of the Filipino psyche, that it gave birth to ” Anong natapos mo?” ( an abridged question meaning ” What college course did you finish’?)

The hardship of sending children to school is evident during the summer months of April and May. Michael Tan writes, ” This is the time of the year when after paying income taxes families have to scrounge for funds to pay off end-of-school-year debts, so students can be promoted to the next year’s level, or even to graduate. Others are  now finding ways to get funds together as private schools starts enrollment in May.”

It strikes close to home.  The hubby recently raised the funds for our son’s tuition fee just in time for enrollment next week. Our seven-year old studies in a Jesuit run private school with an excellent reputation and a beautiful, sprawling campus. But we have to pay very high tuition fees for Joshua to be educated well. I worry if we will be able to afford the tuition fee and its annual increases every year. Friends who have successfully put their children through college assured me that we will be able to survive  by God’s grace.

My son, at this moment, is blissfully playing his video games, unaware of my worries. I look at him and I  tell  myself how lucky he is to be studying in a good school. Last year when he was being obstinate about his studies, I told him in a fit of frustration how his Daddy is working very hard so that he can study in Xavier. He defiantly answered, “I did not ask to study in Xavier. You and Daddy want me to study there!”  His words stung me and I should not have made him feel guilty. But what does he know?  He is only seven. And what do I know?  I  am 54 and yet only in my seventh year as a parent.

Times flies fast. Soon he will grow up and, hopefully, appreciate the summers of opportunities that have been laid out for him. I am keeping my fingers crossed.



A Great Teacher is a Blessing

The hubby and I just attended the last Parent Teachers Conference (PTC) in my son’s school. On the way home, we discussed about our son’s grades and the teachers’ comments on his conduct and effort in school. We acknowledge that we are the teachers’ partners in our child’s education.

What do I do as a parent? I have chosen to be very hands  on with my child’s studies. As early as in pre-school, I made sure that Joshua has a set time for play and study. I did not need to read a  parenting book to know this. I learned it from my own Mom who helped me develop good study habits. Now that Joshua is in grade 1, I control his TV time and even his video games are reserved only for the weekend. I buy him books and educational toys. Just recently, the hubby bought a telescope for Joshua because he wanted to observe the  moon and the stars. I encourage our son to do this because I know that basic astronomy will be taken up in the grade 2 Science class.  This summer, he will take up basketball and, hopefully, some art lessons. I also plan to bring him to an interactive children’s museum in the city.

But I can only do so much as  a parent. His teachers play a crucial role in developing his mind, emphasizing values and discovering his potential talent. Teaching is a noble yet demanding profession. Many are called to be teachers but few are cut out to be greatly revered. Lucky is the child who ends up with a technically proficient teacher. But blessed is the child who has a teacher with the unique ability of knowing each of his students well  beyond the grades in the report card. A passionate teacher who challenges his students yet creates an inspiring, and loving environment for learning deserves admiration.

I was blessed to have been taught by an amazing  Literature teacher in third year high school. I remember her fair skin, and  chinky eyes hidden by atrociously thick glasses. The first thing that I noticed about her was the husky voice and her graceful, swan like neck. English Lit was considered a boring subject in our high school but she made it alluring for a class of clueless 15-year-old girls. I would wake up excited to attend her class, ready to imbibe the beauty of the written word. Yes, she taught us all there is to know about poems, short stories and novels and their authors. But she was not the type who just wants us to pass her subject. She was adamant that we should have fun first in her class. For her, the grades were of secondary importance.

One time, she asked the class to write a short story on any topic. I wrote a  descriptive story about  a family with the mailbox as the narrator.  She gave me a high grade on that one. I floated with happiness on my way home. She wrote frank assessments of my succeeding stories and told me I have a knack for writing.  Read more books, she advised. Write, write, write. Be original.Discover your own style, she egged me on to write.

Because of her  wonderful influence on me, I decided to take up journalism in college. I became a feature writer of the college magazine and a book/play/movie critic of the university’s student publication. I have never really thanked her for mentoring me. Oh sure, I did the perfunctory thanks but I was afraid to say what was in my heart. In my naivety, I thought gushing in front of her might embarrass both of us.

Last year just on a lark I typed her name on Facebook. Lo and behold there she was!  I introduced myself and poured out my long-delayed heartfelt thanks to her. She was pleasantly surprised and, of course, could not remember me. ( That was 40 years ago!) But she was gracious about it and was flattered that I looked her up.

I wish for my son to receive the same blessing that I had. A teacher who has the exceptional gift of making you believe in yourself. 


Sixteen Years of Adventure

February is the month of our wedding anniversary. On the 28th, the hubby and I will be celebrating our 16th. I know it is a cliché but allow me to write it here. How time flies!

Rommel and MarissaWe met in a Catholic community for single men and women and were friends for three years. We dated for ninety days and got married five months after.  I was 38 and he was 41. I was hesitant to get married so quickly. I felt we needed to know each other better and save up for the wedding. He said we will never really get to know each other unless we live under one roof. And, he added, as long as we keep the wedding simple then we would not worry too much about our finances.

We did have a simple yet elegant wedding. Many of our family members and friends were so generous with their time, effort and their financial gifts to make our wedding unforgettable. Even our Boracay honeymoon was paid for by my business partners! We felt truly blessed.

It is said that marriage is the perfect union of two imperfect persons. Amen to that. There were struggles during the early years. I had some difficulty in adjusting to the fact that I am now a “Mrs” no longer a ” Ms.” I was used to earning my own money, making my own decisions and going off to the beach with my friends at a snap of a finger.  I was so uncomfortable the first time I had to ask money from my husband for our household expenses. My work involved stage/production work which meant coming home late at night was not unusual.  One time he asked, ” What time do you want me to pick you up?”  I was so used to driving myself home that for a minute I forgot that I can ask him to fetch me.

I also did not know how to cook. Sure, I can saute some strips of meat and veggies. That was just about it. The hubby was brought up to be an alpha male. He is the eldest in the family, doesn’t cook and refrains from doing household chores. During dinner, you have to serve him his meal hot and ready. His mother was a wonderful cook and she even baked! I was glad she was no longer around when we got married or else she would have disapproved of me.  I had to learn how to cook though I admit I will never be a good one. I had to know my way around the wet market, be familiar with the various cuts of meat and learn how to haggle with the vendors.

I think we were meant to be together because we are opposites in a lot of ways. He hoards things.  I am merciless in  disposing of used or old items in the house. He finds it difficult to wake up early in the morning. I am up and about at the first ring of the alarm clock. I like things on schedule even during weekends while  he is more laid back. He is a carnivore and I, on the other hand, loves tofu and veggie salad.

But we both love books. The love of reading came naturally to us when we were both very young. The bookstore was our our place while we were dating. It is no surprise that our attic is now crammed with books. We are also crazy over supermarkets. Whenever I say this, my friends get puzzled and scratch their heads. I dubbed it as our supermarket fix. The hubby and I find it relaxing as we flit from aisle to aisle looking for the best deals or the newest products to try. We find it ridiculous in rushing to buy the groceries.

I was once asked why the hubby and I are still together.  God’s grace is the number one answer. He is the crucial third-party in our union. Our marriage is similar to a wild roller coaster ride. Through the years, there were  many “lows” like heated arguments and the stress brought about by my fertility treatments. But the scale was balanced  by the “highs” of our travels together and bringing up our smart and funny son, Joshua.  We have also learned to live with each other’s idiosyncrasy, and to appreciate the core goodness within us.

So what will happen next? We are still on that exhilarating marital ride, hands held tight, ready to continue with our great adventure.

” I thought girls are smarter than boys”

Joshua with his carOne time my seven-year old son asked me something which for the life of me I can’t remember now.  It was a surprising, out of the blue query which left me groping for the appropriate answer.  He was impressed with my explanation. ” Mommy, how did you know that?”  I jokingly answered, ” Girls are smarter than boys.” It stuck with him.

I am a SAHM so is it any wonder that I often receive the brunt of his curiosity.

” Do fishes blink?” He was observing Redi, his blue and black pet fish.

” Are all girls afraid of lizards?” God knows where this came from. He blurted afterwards that he does not like any of his girl classmates. I just hope he does not bring a lizard to school.

“Do they have homework?” We were watching a Globe Trekker documentary about monkeys. The presenter described baboons as intelligent.

” Where do they make the Ferrari?” I replied  ” Italy.” Wow! I want to go there someday!” ” Will you bring me and Daddy ?” Josh said without hesitation, ” I want to but by that time both of you might be dead.”

” What is a bomb made of?” Alarmed by his question, I asked, ” Why are you asking that?” He shrugged, ” I was watching a Jacky Chan movie on TV. A bomb went off.”

” Will my classmates be taller than me in grade 2?” He is acutely aware that he is one of the smallest boys in his grade 1 class. This frustrates him no end.

” How did my teacher know that I am smart?” He has average grades but he is smart according to his class adviser. Miss Yap sighs, ” He can have better grades  if only he will stop fooling around with his classmates during lessons.”

” Why are the paten and chalice in gold?”  The question was thrown at me during Sunday Mass. The Sacrament of the Eucharist  was the topic in his Christian Life Education (CLE) class that week.  I did not dare answer the question. After the Mass, we approached Fr. Joey, our assistant parish priest. For a minute he was stumped. ” What an unusual question!”

” What happened to the baby?’ His pre-school teacher just returned to class after giving birth. Joshua was staring at her belly.

” Are fairies real?” He was watching his favorite cartoon ” The Fairly Odd Parents.” I answered ” No”  and he got disappointed.

” How will Santa enter our house? The doors are locked and our house does not have a chimney like in the US.” My answer, ” Santa will knock and Daddy will open the door.”

” Will I own this house when you and Dad are gone?”  Me: ” Yes, of course.”  Joshua: ” Yehey!” Me: : ” Huh?”

I try  to answer his questions with a simple Yes or No but it does not always work. If I can’t there is Google. (Thank  you Lord for this high-tech blessing!) And if Joshua is still not satisfied with my answer, I would say, ” Ask your father.” Then in an accusing tone, he would pipe up, ” I thought girls are smarter than boys.”

Street children of Manila: Innocence Lost

You see them all over the country but they stand out mostly in the city of Manila. Barefoot street children with dirty faces,and ratty shirts. They are a ubiquitous lot, weaving in and out of cars during traffic, begging for money. You find them in the sidewalks sniffing glue for their daily drug fix or in jeepneys wiping passengers’ shoes in exchange for a peso. Some have become petty thieves so as to survive the city jungle. At night, they sleep at street corners, wet markets or under city bridges with just a cardboard for a bed.

streetchildren 2The government tries its best to cope with the street children problem through the Department of Social Welfare’s rescue centers. There are also  institutions funded by foreign non -government organizations (NGOs), or run by private individuals and religious orders which provide them with education, food and shelter. However, the efforts are akin to stopping a rampaging river with a dam made out of sticks.  There are just too many children roaming the  streets.

They are fascinating oddities for foreigners who hail from first world countries. I remember bringing two Swedish colleagues, first timers in Asia, to several supermarkets for a product tour. On the way to downtown Manila, they kept on taking photos of the street children and barraged me with questions. They could not get over the fact that the children literally sleep on the streets.

Most Filipinos acknowledge the situation as the offshoot of a developing country with a bloated population.  I suppose many citizens would like to help alleviate the problem. But the truth of the matter is  many are just  too busy earning a living to really care or to find the time to volunteer. When I was still single. I volunteered at a center for street children run by the Salesian sisters. I went there during weekends to read stories to them or give them some coloring books and art materials. I also invited a dentist friend of mine to provide free dental services.  Unfortunately, my budding career in public relations took much of my time. I stopped my visits at the center and never came back.

I have not given the plight of  the street children much thought for so many years. Sure, I toss a few coins to them when they knock on our car window. But I got busy with my career and in raising a family.I have become inured to their existence for they have melded into the city’s landscape. But my seven-year old son Joshua inadvertently changed my jaded state of mind.

After his seventh birthday party, we brought home a lot of leftover food. It was a Sunday so we had to rush to go to Mass. I packed the boxes of spaghetti and french fries in a bag on the way to church. I wanted to give it to a friend who sells mangoes regularly in the vicinity. But she went home early that day.

My son pointed to a group of street children in front of the church selling strings of sampaguita (  small, white flowers). My son decided to give the food to them. They were initially hesitant to accept it but I explained to them it was from my son’s party. They gave cries of joy when they saw what was in the bag. They thanked me, greeted my son a happy birthday and ran off to a nearby tree to eat their unexpected McDonald’s treats.

I was taken a aback on how happy they were. My son was pleased. ” Mommy, we helped some poor people.” I realized that it was the first time that he actually met the street children in our area. He  asked so many questions about them until bedtime. Joshua could not forget the experience that he shared it with his Christian Life Education (CLE) teacher the following day.

I had forgotten how simple gifts and gestures are much appreciated by these street children. I witnessed that often when I was at the center. They were dark, smelled of the sun with most of them missing some teeth.  They were poor, abused with their innocence lost on the streets yet they giggled with delight with my gifts of crayola and paper. They were after all, deep down inside, just normal children.

HOT Mama

My plan was simple. My Mom taught me my lessons. I was going to do the same for my son Joshua as he entered the big school last June. How hard can grade 1 be? We breezed through pre-school together. I  overlooked the fact that I am 54 and my son is 7.  When I was in grade 1 the Beatles was the hottest thing on earth.  Today, Paul McCartney is probably as old as Justin Bieber’s  grandfather.

The school curriculum is based on the principles of Higher Order of Thinking (H.O.T.) as explained by the class adviser. The what? There is less emphasis on facts and lessons are geared towards critical thinking or the application of  what the child is learning in class.  Darn! I wanted to teach Joshua how to memorize dates, names, and places. I was good at that in school.  Does it mean he will never learn when Filipino hero Lapu Lapu killed Ferdinand Magellan who circumnavigated the  world?

Gone too is the thrill of memorizing multiplication tables. My math teacher used to  hold a contest on who can recite it without losing your breath. That is considered Lower Order of Thinking ( L.O.T). In my son’s school, grade school students are now taught Singapore Math. I had to attend a seminar together with other clueless parents to learn that 5 plus 5 is not just equals to 10. You have to  break the equation into different combinations called  number bonds to arrive at 10.  Whew! Totally alien territory for me but who am I to disagree. The Singaporeans top Math aptitude tests worldwide even beating the Americans.

ni_hao 2Then there is Mandarin.  The hubby and I thought that it would be cool for our son to learn a second foreign language. It would look good in his future CV and help him land a nice, cushy job. However, during his first month in school Joshua declared he hates Mandarin and wants to transfer to another school. My daydream of our son running a Ferrari  plant in China went poof!

In another parents workshop, I learned that Mandarin is a tonal language with four tones making it difficult for a neophyte like me to distinguish each of them. The only Chinese words that I know are xie xie and ni hao.  Thanks to a Nickelodeon cartoon.Teaching the Chinese strokes to Joshua is something else!  During study time,  I  have to be creative, sometimes forming shapes with my hands and feet, in describing certain strokes so my son can remember them.

Lastly there is the dreaded subject called Filipino, the Waterloo of many students. It’s an embarrassing  fact but  a majority of them would rather be proficient in English than their own language. Is it any wonder that the Philippines is second to India as the world’s favorite BPO site?

I don’t relish the subject either but do I have a  choice? I have to rewire my brain to absorb words I last heard 40 years ago like  pangngalan ( noun), pandiwa ( verb), patinig ( vowel), katinig ( consonant) etc . . My son complains how hard Filipino is but I threaten him  that if he flunk  the subject he can say goodbye to the gym. He loves to play at the gym after class. He can narrate in detail  his adventures with his classmates. But if you ask him what he learn in class today the stock answer is ” I forgot.”

After locking horns with the grade 1 curriculum for seven months, I am still standing and relieved that my son does not have a  failing grade. (I just wish he has better grades, whispers my OC self.) And surprise, surprise Joshua now finds Mandarin easy peasy. In two months time, he will be finish with grade 1.A friend, who listens patiently as I whine about teaching my seven-year old kid, suggested recently that I hire a tutor. Is she kidding? I am up to the challenge of being a H.O.T Mama next school year. Bring it on, grade 2!