An Untold Story of Old Balara
Words & Pictures by Rick Olivares
Hanging on the ceiling outside the library of the Old Balara Elementary School, there are two signs.
The first says, “Isang hamon: bumasa ng 30 minuto araw-araw.”
The sign already says a lot because for one, it is grammatically incorrect in the vernacular. It should correctly read: “Magbasa ng 30 minuto araw-araw.”
Reading, the fount of knowledge, is like a lesson to be learned here. Unlike the privileged who grew up reading imported books and Western stories that whet their imagination and appetite for discovery, reading isn’t commonly ingrained in the people who live in this area. The teachers try to do their best to shepherd the 2,000-plus students who are crammed into a little over a dozen classrooms for morning and afternoon classes. The interest and eagerness to learn and read is there but the challenge is a day-to-day battle.
The Old Balara section is classified as a depressed area. People eke out a living working as pedicab, tricycle, or jeepney drivers, selling food in carinderias, or working in nearby malls in Commonwealth or the North EDSA area. Ironically, it is just beside the posh and exclusive Ayala Heights and a short drive from the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila.
Public education is free. The only cost to families is PhP 300 for miscellaneous fees from school paper to payment for the janitor and other sundry stuff. Try telling that to the parents of the students. Ponying up the 300 bucks is chore. The collection of the actual amount is difficult.
The library is nowhere as big as the average private school classroom. For the longest time, the books contained within were decades old. And such, outdated.
While conducting random interviews with students from the 3rd and 6th grades, the learnings are revealing. AT a younger age, they are more inclined to read. The classics like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella are still staples of young literature but what catches their fancy are modern tomes like Harry Potter and books that make use of 20th century mythology such as Spider-Man and Batman. The older kids are into the Twilight Saga but only because it’s deemed fashionable to read such among the young. They save their precious allowances for clothes, cellphone load, and get this… Facebook. They make use of the internet to do research once in a while but they spend anywhere from an hour or two to play games on the social networking phenomenon like Farmville and Plants Vs. Zombies.
Their parents, some who work while others hang out at home, encourage them on a daily basis to excel and to graduate. Never more has the young been the hope for a brighter future. Except what examples do they set?
The younger students are unfailingly polite and full of hope. The older ones begin to pick up habits best not picked up at all from what they see in their immediate environment. For some teachers, this is perhaps the most trying part of their profession. It’s one thing to motivate them; it’s another to deal with those who have potty mouths.
Marie Frances Masirag has been a teacher for 14 years. Unlike her peers who look to go abroad for greener pastures, she says the thought never crossed her mind. “Who else will stay and help our students and our country?” she asks aloud.
She is firm is her resolve. “This is not a vocation but a calling.”
Masirag loves to read. She even reads what the young read today – Harry Potter, Twilight, and others. She is ecstatic when she sees students voluntarily read. “It depends on a student’s peers. If he is strong and influential then his or her friends pick it up. But that is an exception. Most have no inclination and it affects their comprehension.”
Some cannot tell whether the terms “flood” and “flash floods” are one and the same. They learn their vocabulary from the streets, sensationalist television news shows, pirated DVDs of television shows, and Facebook.
But that doesn’t deter the teachers from trying novel ways to pique their students’ interest. They organize exchange book programs, put up their own classroom libraries, chip in money to buy books, or invite guests to read to the students. “Hindi ka lang kailangan ma-pasensyosa pero kailangan creative ka.”
For young students like Mel Bryan Añoza, reading is his way out of his family’s poverty. By reading about the lives of saints he sometimes wonders if he should become a priest. When he reads of successful people, he also wants to try his hand at business. Añoza like his friends Gelyn Alzate and Enrico Septo, when they have a chance they go to the library. The books – two sets of educational material and encyclopedias – donated by the AHON Foundation and Filway Inc. are hot copy. “Wala kami nito,” notes Alzate who once saved her allowance to buy a pocket book by a local author. Her older sister has passed on to her a love for books and reading. She sits and goes through the book wide-eyed as if memorizing all the details.
For sixth grade student Keith Manligas, she hardly reads but when she does, her imagination takes a ride. And such, she hopes to be a pilot so she can see these strange new lands she only reads in story books.
Outside the school library of the Old Balara Elementary School there is a second sign.
It says: “Reading is an adventure. It can bring you to a far away place.”
It really does say a lot about this place.
If you wish to help in the education and literacy of our youth, please visit us at ahonfoundation.org