Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning and Unlearning

Some of the most profound and most humbling experiences I've had happened in a small, cramped classroom in one of Manila's notorious garbage towns some three and a half years ago. I was one out of many tutors who visited the wasteland that is Payatas every weekend, for eight months, in order to teach basic literacy and English language skills to underprivileged, second grade kids. I was halfway through my eighteenth year, and after reading a snippet of Amartya Sen in one of my Economics classes, I was unduly fired by the thought that I could make a difference in some kid's life,  however small a contribution it may be. So, instead of ROTC (which had become optional some years before, anyway), I decided to join the Literacy Training Service. In reality, the task was more difficult than I had anticipated: we had to teach what was basically an ESL curriculum to seven and eight year old children who could barely string enough letters to form a single word.

The school was a raggedy old structure, left half unpainted because the local education department had conveniently run out of funds. On Saturdays, the school doubled as a madrassah-- a Muslim religious school-- for some of the community who subscribed to the teachings of Islam. A narrow gutter, overflowing with foetid water, served as a mockery of a moat that guarded the building's entrance. The stench of the toilet wafted lazily in the air. It is a thing of supreme irony that Payatas is but a ten minute drive from our suburb, a fact which even the fiction of walls and gates could not erase. I was assigned two kids to mentor, Kobe and Jerry: but Jerry was a sickly child, and his parents would rather that he worked in the weekends to augment their already meager income. And so I was left with Kobe. From the start, I could tell he was already intimidated by me. He and I had come essentially from two different worlds: I, from a more or less comfortable background, and he from a life of hardship and severity. His father, he tells me, was without work, and what little money his mother made from washing clothes-- of rich kids like me, he says nonchalantly and without malice-- was barely enough to make ends meet. He was all of three and a half feet tall, with a tiny head with unruly, spiked hair, and he had brown eyes that sparkled with a keen light, despite the timidity they projected. The first time I met Kobe, he stood beside his desk the whole time, back straight, arms behind his back, as if he were face to face with a  drill sergeant. His voice barely rose above the level of a whisper, and the more I came closer to him, the more he seemed to shrink. He was huddled all alone to one corner, sipping orange juice off a tetra pak, pretending not to hear his name when I called him. Despite the initial coldness, though, I found the boy to be affable and well-mannered, if a bit soft spoken. There was an eagerness in him that seemed to want to burst out of his prison at all times, but which he had learned to keep in check.

I introduced myself to him, and he to me, and I explained that we were there to help him and his other classmates to read. As per the standard procedure, we were required to administer a Dolch test to the kids. I gave Kobe a list of 100 words, which he had to say out loud in the span of (I thought) a very generous forty minutes. These were simple, monosyllabic to disyllabic words, the kind that even a boy of five could pronounce; I figured Kobe would be done in a fraction of that time, and we would be off to a roaring start. The end of that period, however, proved how wrong I was. He got 25 words at most, and some of them with some coaching from me. I remember pointing out words like 'black', 'brown', 'fox', and  'box' to him, but he could only see the individual letters that made up these words in isolation. Here was a 'b' followed by an 'l' (--Or is that an 'i'? he interjects), an 'a', and so on and so forth. What ambitions I nursed in my heart quickly evaporated, replaced with the sickening realization that this was going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Suddenly, it seemed to occur to me that I was teaching a borrowed tongue to someone who would probably never achieve any sophistication with it beyond the dictates of his grade requirements. Under the sweltering sun of that hot, July morning, the noonday devil seemed to have latched itself onto my heart with a vice-like grip, piercing me with a frustration born out of hopelessness. But there was something about the boy-- it was in the way his eyes shone when he would encounter a new letter or a new word for the first time, and in the way he struggled, so beautifully and so delicately, with his lessons. "This is a dog," I would say to him, pointing at a crude drawing of a dog that I had drawn on his worksheet. "How do you spell dog?" A long pause, before he starts: "D-O-G! Dog!" At that I gave a small sigh of relief, thankful that we had gotten through that word at least. But Kobe was jubilant, suddenly jumping up and down at his small achievement. Then, in a move that still  beguiles me today, he offered me a sip of his orange juice. I declined, reasoning that he needed it more than I did.

There is something about such victories, Pyrrhic though they may be to us, that so thoroughly disarms me. Perhaps, I reasoned, I have forgotten how to find the beautiful in the small and the broken, the dull and the peripheral. Here was a child who, by all accounts, was a laggard in his class: but the joy and exuberance he showed, at that moment, disclosed not so much a shy and timid underachiever, but a hero redolent in his splendor, the laurel-crowned man of victory in his moment of supreme honor. And Kobe prayed, too. After lunch, he went to the front of the classroom, marching in goose step with his palms clasped together, eyes closed in seemingly mystical contemplation of the superessential darkness of God, as Dionysius put it. And suddenly it seemed as if he were one of the ordained clergy: the words of the prayer came out of his mouth with a hieratic force and dignity, with a relish and appreciation for their power that could only be described as liturgical. Bashfully, and giddily, he would reprimand his classmates who were distracted during the prayer, shushing them and then thrusting his finger upward, as if pointing to the God he could not see, but whom he knew was ever watching out for them.

It seemed to occur to me, at that moment, that it is in such things-- the fleeting, the broken, the ephemeral, and the faded that the Divine has always manifested Itself to me. Images of the Child sleeping on His manger, or else being carried by His Mother, or turning away in fright at the sight of the angels bearing the instruments of the Passion as in the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help-- all of these point to a Christ just as human, just as fragile, and just as "finite" (however one may take it) as the rest of us. Each new word and its component letters and the many configurations, transpositions, or variations thereof, revealed to Kobe a world full of wonder and mystery, and perhaps even a little magic. Like an apprentice Kabbalist, his eyes glowed with barely concealed amazement as the inner logic and hidden secrets of the word was, literally, made flesh before his very eyes.And seeing that spark, for even the tiniest, most infinitesimal fraction of a second, was all it took to snap me out of that deplorable, restless angst. Although he may be far from gifted in his class, there shone in Kobe a wisdom that was wonderfully keen and bright, and imperceptibly delicate, so as to burn up all the negativity that had accrued in me in one swift gesture. Like broken glass, he radiated, refracted a light too variegated and subtle to behold, and I simply cannot thank this boy of six enough for it: it is like the sublimest rays of the golden sun manifesting themselves, for the first time, to someone who had awoken from a deep and seemingly endless slumber, resplendent in all its terrible beauty.

Three and a half years since I first met Kobe, I am still unaware of who was the real teacher and who was the pupil. I have learned many things since that time, but more importantly, I have also unlearned so many of them as well. It has been a year since I last visited Kobe's school, and by the grace of God, there have been many physical changes made, including the construction of two new buildings to accommodate the growing population of the Payatas shantytown. But I am still drawn to that little boy of six, who had done so much to change the way I thought. I pray to God that he is well; I will certainly remember him for a very long time.

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