Sunday, March 25, 2012

In memoriam of the primary school teachers of our town's baby-boom generation ...

The elementary school teachers did not have a uniform before the second world war, they wore something traditional as this 1930 illustration shows.  Our primary grade teachers in the 1950s did not also wear a uniform, but they had their dresses sewn by their favorite among the town's seamstresses with the hemlines well below their knees.

Our father's cousin Pilar, a venerable spinster teacher, had passed away.  She was ninety-two. Even after her retirement long before the end of the past millenium, she continued to teach, this time at the pre-school center of the town's Aglipayan church. She was ma'am to many in our small coastal town, plenty of them counting to be her relative, thus calling her outside the schoolyard, basang (Ilocano for aunt), auntie, or lola Pilar. 

She was among the public school teachers who in the prime of their lives taught us who were born after the second world war, the so-called baby-boomers. She may be among the last of her colleagues who've been waiting for the call to move on to the great beyond.

We stepped into grade school when Ramon Magsaysay, this man all the adults in the neighborhood adoringly called Monching, was running for President of the Philippines.  To us children, he was just a picture in every wall and fence, his campaign jingle ‘Mambo mambo Magsaysay’ to sing along at the top of our lungs as we climbed trees or roamed around the neighborhood.

In 1953, we were saling-pusa (informal pupil) in our aunt Pilar's Grade 1 class because we were not of age yet.  We could have been a regular student if only we could reach our right ear by arching our left hand over our head, which meant, according to folk wisdom, we still lacked the height and therefore the head to tackle school life. 

There was no kindergarten school yet although the Protestants had something similar to it. It was possible though to make arrangements with Grade 1 teachers to accommodate informal pupils in their classes, something voluntary on their part, especially if the child was a relative.  That's exactly how we ended up learning the basic 'Rs (reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic) as an un-official grader under our father's cousin Pilar, in her class at the South Central Elementary School, one barrio away from our own. 

It took sometime for us to adapt to the new teacher, another spinster, when we formally enrolled in the first grade the next year.  Aunt Pilar though would be our Grade 2 teacher.

South Central was of post-war vintage.  It offered only up to Grade IV for some years, and the pupils had to finish their elementary schooling in any of the three other poblacion schools (North, East and West).  Thus, we did not have classes in a concrete building unlike in the three that had Gabaldon schoolhouses built in the 1900s.  Our rooms were wooden structures with floors of packed brown clay. We never polished wooden floors like our peers in the other schools. We swept the floor with brooms of coconut midribs (walis tingting), and watered it after classes in the afternoon to keep the dust down.

In the latter part of the ‘50s, government would build us elevated classrooms. Thus we graduated from the South (San Jose-Patrocinio now) Elementary School in a homeroom with wooden floors, which we swept with tambo brooms and polished with bamboo husks.  We remember that the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA) called for help in the construction.  We pupils were required to bring to school a pail of sand or stone for days before the builders, mainly parents or their representatives, began to take shifts in building the new schoolhouse.  

We were taught in English, and we  started reading with the English 'Pepe and Pilar' readers. We sang the national anthem (“Land of the morning … For us thy sons, to suffer and die.”), and pledged allegiance to the republic (“I love the Philippines; it is the land of my birth ...”) in English every flag ceremony of our South Central days. 

"Spoil the rod, and you spoil the child," was a philosophy that our teachers enforced, and our parents never complained.  

Our teachers checked on our personal hygiene quite regularly.  They would move around with a ruler to give our extended hands a whack if they found our fingers long and dirty.  Then they would peer at both our ears to check for unsightly dark orange earwax. 

They bore particularly on the girls’ hairs for indications of kuto (lice) -- the lis-a or eggs sticking on the stems of hair. They would be admonished to shampoo their hair with lye from burnt rice stalks. We remember that classmates who came to school dirty would be given a good bath right beside the school's water pump. 

The school kids in the lower grades learned from the older ones who among the teachers were most prone to pull ears or pinch legs or whack buttocks with a 1-inch wide, 1-yard long bamboo slat in case (a) you're noisy or quarrelsome, or (b) you did not do your assignment or you did not bring your industrial arts project.  Teachers rarely changed school assignments. They were not moved to other schools unless they got promoted as principals or head teachers.

We 'dreaded' most our industrial arts teacher. There were occasions when we felt lazy to bring the materials for our basket weaving or bamboo furniture making classes. We knew we'd all  be asked to go in front of the blackboard to receive our punishment, a whack on the buttock.  As we tittered, he'd raise the bamboo slat so high above his head, but we knew already that he won't let it land heavily on our behind.  We knew he knew that we padded our behind with notebooks. 

To escape his big whack, three of us cousin-classmates would volunteer to bring the school carabaos to the river for bathing esp. when the black berry (duhat) and cashew (casoy) were in season. We'd have a holiday climbing the trees in the area and feasting on the ripe berries or collecting the seeds of golden cashew fruits. 

It would be several generations before the public elementary school teachers started considering a domestic helper job abroad as an alternative way of keeping a family, or applying for a teaching position in the United States under a special visa arrangement. We do not remember seeing our teachers sell processed meats or commercial goods to sell.  They were accorded utmost respect in the the community.  Members of our generation would probably be the last who enrolled at the Philippine Normal College and other similar institutions because teaching was regarded a "noble profession."

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