Hope For Education in Sagada
(published in Philippine Inquirer, Sunday Sept. 30, 2007
By John L. Silva
You have to psych yourself for the six-hour bus ride from Baguio to the northern mountain top town of Sagada. But, on the road, you don’t figure the added time for the stalled jeep ahead laden with vegetables blocking the road. Or my bus having a flat tire. Or that it wouldn’t start after a pit stop. Or the bus screeching to a halt with a fresh landslide in front of it.
We got off the bus and in freezing pouring rain climbed the huge muddy mound about two stories high, to slip and slide down the other side to wait for another bus.
After awhile, the rain stopped, the mist cleared and I looked up to the night sky and saw tens of thousands of stars twinkling. You don’t see this spectacle in the city. Cold, wet, and muddied, I smiled and the trip’s misery was forgotten. Nature has a way of doing that.
I first visited Sagada as a young troubled man. A love affair ended painfully and I was in despair. A friend suggested Sagada. There was an orphanage there and needed help. Go, she said, make yourself useful to the kids and stop the self pity. Heal in Sagada.
Thirty six years later, I was back to teach public school teachers the elements of aesthetics. Six hours became almost nine hours of travel and the last third of the way in pitch darkness, swaying headlights and bumpy roads. The night stars were my only solace.
I was welcomed in Sagada by Dennis Faustino, the principal of St. Mary’s High School who lives in a charming wooden house built in 1924. A jovial man with a continuous smile, he had some of his students watching a movie in the living room. When we sat down to eat, the students were also invited and I found them to be curious of my work, polite, and eager to listen to my conversation with Dennis.
Early the next day, I was at St. Mary’s, a well-kept two-storey building, donated by fellow La Salle Green Hills classmate Boy Yuchengco, and nestled in pine trees seeing groups of teachers signing up in the auditorium where I was to lecture. There were many young teachers astonished when I told them I was in Sagada when their parents were still in high school. Uttering it astonished me too!
None of the teachers ever had an arts education workshop let alone any continuing education courses for their professional development. Much as I thanked them profusely for coming on a Saturday, their personal day, and spending jeep and bus fares to get to the workshop, the teachers told me they came because they wanted to learn and know what the arts is all about.
In Mindanao, the teachers cluck when they are entranced by a painting they see from my powerpoint. Here in the Cordilleras, they swoon with long deep oooh’s. They take notes about how arts education can lessen absenteeism and be antidotes to drug addiction. Their faces glow as they become enlightened by what constitutes a beautiful picture. They start to connect aesthetics with being a citizen, learning that visual pollution – billboards, advertising banners, garbage thrown indiscriminately – affect the pristine sights of their community. Sagada has been touted as a mountain top Shangri-La visited by local and foreign tourists. Given its distance from “civilization” Sagada has little to worry for now. The view outside the school auditorium has a sweeping scene of mountains and rice terraces spotted with houses. Greenery and their unique stone terraces still overwhelm and captivate. This workshop with emphasis on appreciating nature as art has a very practical economic value to Sagada.
My lesson plan on photography as a fine art and weaving Philippine history into it using old photographs excites the teachers. I incorporated old photographs of the Cordilleras taken at the turn of the century. The teachers are wide eyed seeing their ancestors in native garb, the thatched huts their grandparents lived in, the majesty of their stone terraces and the dances. In the Cordilleras, people danced on so many occasions and scrupulously documented on film by anthropologists and missionaries. The women were oftentimes bare-breasted and the men wore loincloths. The early missionaries imposed modest dressing in these parts and these pictures of their half naked past are unnerving for the older teachers. The younger teachers though are more astute having been raised to take pride in local customs and missionary influence long receded.
Sagada, like many rural areas have no museums so I teach a module on setting up a simple school museum. Developing an exhibition theme, writing captions and wall text, and producing an exhibit for very little money demystifies curator-ship and the teachers are introduced to yet another pedagogical method.
We end the workshop by 3:00 pm to allow the teachers to get home early. Buses and jeeps plying the route are scarce and unscheduled so the long wait adds to the travel time. Some of the teachers from the rural villages have not been to “big town” Sagada in a while and this was a time to shop or go to the hospital and get checked up.
I get the chance to walk the town again and see what changes have occurred. My first stop was the orphanage on the hilltop. I see the playground fronting the orphanage and remember the many games I played with the children there. The orphanage had a large number of twins in my days. Twins born were bad luck. One of them was thought to have the mother’s spirit so they were buried alive, abandoned or wound up in the orphanage.
The spartan dormitory I stayed in for the three months I was there was being remodeled into a tourist inn. The one street in the center of the town had several new restaurants but gone were the little stores I remembered that sold tribal artifacts. I walked to the town’s entrance and lamented the destruction of the limestone cliffs by local developers. The large cluster of thatched huts were no longer in sight. These huts which often caught fire have been replaced by galvanized sheets and concrete blocks.
As I walked to my guest house, several of the teachers who attended greeted me on the road effusive about the workshop. They were still waiting for a jeep to take them home.
The next morning, I took the first early bus back to Baguio.
It was sunny throughout the whole trip and memories returned. I took this same Jalsema Highway years ago on a similar sunny day. The same exhilaration came over me as the bus gingerly weaved down the mountain. The same scent of flowers and the same bracing morning air. Flashbacks of tearful twins singing to me as a boarded the bus. They must be now in their forties I thought.
First there were glimpses of a terrace; then halfway down, the mountains unfolded revealing full vistas of terraces, their lines rounding every contour of every mountain in sight. A swath of clouds rested on the mountain tops and way below, a river snaked at the base. The travel brochures always called it an engineering marvel. I just found it breathtaking. I could hear the teachers voices in unison having learned the elements of aesthetics. COLOR! SHAPES! TEXTURE! LINES! they exclaimed as proof.
Despite a swaying bus, I marveled at the profusion of parallel lines incising green mountains and watered terraces below me glistening in the morning sun. As we rounded a mountain, the panorama continued as another set of perfectly chiseled mountains came to view. This panoply went unabated for almost the whole of the bus ride. I laughed out loud, realizing the Sagada teachers were being polite with Mr.-Know-It-All from Manila. Teach them aesthetics? LINES? Hah! Their ancestors were aesthetes for thousands of years.
There are threats to the beauty of the place. Signs at interval on the Jalsema Highway warn and forbid the dumping of garbage over the roadside. The signs are not working because the dumping continues. Rice terraces and vegetable plots post signs of fertilizers and chemicals used. In a increasingly organic oriented world, the signs are anachronistic, threatening their produce and their own health.
It is the education of the Cordilleras students that will decide the fate of this region. Illiteracy and drop-outs rates are twice higher in the non-Christian and tribal communities than the national average. The catching up, the learning curve, the ratcheting up of student academic achievements in these parts are an imperative.
It boils down to good teachers. At St. Mary’s, Dennis Faustino, former teacher now principal is turning a once ailing school around. In just three years, academic achievement reached higher levels in his school with a new core of dedicated teachers well trained, well paid, teaching in spanking classrooms and labs brimming with all the equipment necessary. An alumni network and a working board allows Dennis to do his job. Bottom line results? All graduating high school students have passed the exams and will enter colleges and universities this year. Where only two out of every 100 fourth year high school students in the country are equipped for college and almost all with failing achievement scores, the St. Mary’s graduating class, in toto, have just beaten insurmountable odds.
I’ve traveled the breadth and length of this country teaching teachers who make do with so little, teaching in classrooms so pitiful and inadequate, seeing students seemingly vacuous but actually just deprived of books to read. One can give up at times with the rapacity and neglect that the government affords on education. It just breaks your heart.
And then you get to Sagada, and you see a school like St. Mary’s. Teachers determined, students enthused. Shangri-La still existing.
I am healed a second time.
John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant for the National Museum.