Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Beginning of Wisdom

I could tell he was intimidated by me, judging from the way his eyes shifted when I spoke to him. His voice was almost like a whisper, and his almost-four-foot height, supported by thinly nourished bones and covered by dark, sun-scorched skin, seemed to shrink the more I came closer to him. Kobe is six years old, and comes from a poor family: the elder in a brood of two, he is currently a second grade student in one of the more depressed areas of Manila, Payatas. This place has acquired a nasty reputation as a 'garbage city'; for Payatas is actually a landfill, where a significant part of the city's waste ends up in. And although Kobe's school is far from that fabled epicenter of garbage (it is so large that it is divided into four areas), the stench of rot and decay still clung to the air with magnetic intensity.

When I first got the news that we were assigned to the Payatas area, my heart sank. In the Philippines, ROTC has basically been reduced to an option; gone are the days of endless push-ups, marching drills, target shooting and the like. Instead, many universities are opting to substitute the NSTP (National Service Training Program) component in place of military training, a move which has drawn a lot of praise from several sectors of the society. I landed myself in one of the LTS (Literacy Training Service) sections; easy enough, I thought. After all, we would only be teaching kids, and I love kids. Of course, I never expected that we were going to handle entire sections, who, even though they were already in the first and second grades, have never been able to read.

Kobe is one such student. When I first met him, he was huddled in a corner of the classroom, drinking orange juice from a tetra pak. His legs were dangling and happily swaying in front of his chair, and he had two sharpened jumbo pencils to one side of his desk. His hands rested on an old ream of pad paper, which must have been several months old at least, judging from how yellow and crumpled it looked. I was assigned to teach two kids, but the other one, Jerry, was sick; thus, I was left alone with Kobe. This seemed to make Kobe even shyer than before. I introduced myself to him and shook his hand, which he accepted with certain trepidation. He must have thought I was one of those rich kids who looked down on his kind. Despite this initial shyness, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how well-mannered and disciplined he was.

After the introductions, I explained to him that we were there to teach them how to read. I produced a sample Dolch test from my folder, and put it in his hands. For those who don't know, the Dolch test is a classic test aimed to imbibe reading and comprehension skills to non-readers; it is basically a list of simple words, which, when repeated several times, is designed to impart the rudiments of functional literacy to the unlettered. He accepted it with trembling hands and a look of certain defeat on his face. I briefly went through the list, and decided to separate the words into several chunks to better facilitate the lesson. I pointed out the words to him, and I could tell he was severely conscious of himself. But more than that, he didn't seem to have a shred of confidence in him at all.

When we were running through the list, I was shocked at how little he knew; I am well-aware that illiteracy among the poor is fast becoming a prevalent condition here in the Philippines, but I never imagined it was this bad. I pointed at the words 'black', 'and', 'away', and several others which the toddlers of the rich would surely have memorized and comprehended by the time they learned to walk. But here was a six year old who still struggled with his letters; is this an 'i' or an 'l'? While he knew his ABC's backwards and forwards, he could never manage to string them together. Thus, 'brown' for him is merely 'b-r-o-w-n', and 'yellow becomes 'y-hello-wa'. I think it is safe to say that letters for him are basically just black marks on white paper, hieroglyphic and utterly beyond comprehension. There came a time when I was all too ready to give up on the boy.

But there is something about him that defies explanation. I do not know if it is the way his face lights up whenever I explain something new to him, or how his ears would perk when I read some English words aloud. When I gave him a treat for every correct reading of a word, his legs would sway back and forth for minutes at a time. There was a time when he led me by the hand, excited and enraptured, to meet his baby brother, who was only several months old then. And whenever I entered the classroom, he would never fail to show me his pencils, sharpened by knife by his mother (they had no money to even buy a pencil sharpener), which, by all accounts, were probably used by his own cousins or parents as well. Kobe knew he lagged behind the rest of the class; his partner, Jerry, while intelligent, was a sickly boy, and so had to drop out of his Saturday classes.

There is something, too, about the way he strings together his letters to form new and exciting words. When I told him that 'to', 'two', and 'too' were all pronounced the same (or similarly; the Filipino accent pronounces them entirely alike), his face lit up, as though he had just experienced something magical. And although most words to him were just a combination of different sounds, both guttural and ephemeral, smooth and chunky, he relished this 'power' over them. Each new combination, transposition and translation was like a whole new world being opened up for him. 'Kuya, para kang Diyos! Ang galing mo!', he said to me once (In English: 'Kuya, you are like God! You're awesome!'). I guess he was referring to how clever I must have seemed to him, what with all the tricks I showed him.

And Kobe prayed. He would always lead his class in prayer before the start of the lessons, urging them excitedly and bashfully to stand up, hold their palms together, close their eyes, and maintain absolute silence; if we are so noisy when we talk to God, how could He ever hear our prayers?, he said, to the delight of all in the room. But Kobe's prayer defied convention and limit, and reached out even to his daily life. I guess what I find most impressive about him is the fact that, even though he is academically not up to par with the rest of his peers, he never made a fuss about this. He was proud to admit it, and grabbed every chance to tug at my shirt and ask me to explain something he did not understand to him. His is a pure and simple faith, free from the delusions of self-proclaimed wisdom and false piety of many adults. He was the freest of men, and he used this immense freedom to freely admit his own shortcomings and failures.

We were once not too different from Kobe, but often with age comes hubris and hidden pride. In my eighteen years of life so far, I have gone from being the crybaby of our batch in first grade, to the rebellious problem child in third grade, the geeky know-it-all for the rest of my elementary years; the pious sportsman in my freshman year, the sulking 'emo kid' in sophomore year, and now, the still-not-so-diligent student-who-is-trying-to-get-as-much-A's this semester in the hopes of impressing someone (wink wink). But through it all, I've always managed to discover something new and hitherto unexplored about myself. I guess what I am discovering now is my compassionate side; no longer do I mind the gallons of sweat, the scorching heat, the irritating noise and the extra effort-- life is simply too short not to experience these things. Let everyday be ephemeral and fleeting, because it is only through this that we encounter what beauty is really like. It is the stepping stone to an immense mystery which lies at the very bottom of human experience.

In a way, the love of God has never shone so bright and clearly for me than now. As I gaze on a statue of the Nino Dormido-- the sleeping Child Jesus-- many details which I have not noticed before suddenly jump at me now. The Sleeping Lord is sucking His thumb, head resting on pillow, and on His face, a serene and peaceful expression, free from all thoughts of the terrible torment He will suffer in several years' time. What dreams might the Little Lord have had? Did He dream, perhaps, of some human memory? These are questions, not answers, and will perhaps always remain within the realm of speculation and miscellany. But for a brief time in the short history of the world, God slept, and rested His head on His Mother's chest.

Today, three weeks since I first met Kobe, I am still held in awe at how much wonder and beauty he is able to find, without even trying, in the most mundane of things. When I saw him awhile ago, he still had problems comprehending even the most basic words; 'today' for him is still a bauble of intelligibility, as are 'ranch', 'salad', 'three', and even 'paper'. But beyond the academics, the extreme shyness and lack of self-confidence, there is wisdom in him. It is small,fragile and fleeting, but beneath the dark exterior glitters a diamond in the rough, more splendid than all the jewels and treasures of the world. To this day, I do not know who is teaching whom.


Brother Burn said...

Man, I can see it! If you keep your head on right, you're going places. This is another excellent piece! 'Kuya, para kang Diyos! Ang galing mo!' You know, that kid, in his own way, have expressed it best.

BTW I'm professing my solemn vows on Monday, remember me in your prayers! I'll remember you in mine especially when I go under the pall on that day for the mystic burial... butterflies in the tummy!!

Keep up the good work dude, you are inspiring me.

Archistrategos said...

Brother Burn,

I will be sure to keep you in my prayers! I wish you the best of luck-- in fact, I'll do you one better and pray for these intentions at Mass! Once again, thanks for the comments! They are really appreciated. My kid is a real darling, too, and I hope to really be able to impart alot of things to him. He is already showing great signs of promise!