FROM THE MARGINS
And just like that, time flew by and January is ending. January was named for the Roman god Janus, who has two faces: one looks into the past and the other looks into the future. Just like January, which straddle the ending and beginning of each year.
I felt a bit like Janus a few weeks ago, when I hosted a get-together party for my batchmates from the Ambray Elementary School located in San Pablo City. It was a heart-warming occasion: about 30 attended, including three of our former teachers. We reminisced the good old days, lamenting how quickly time passed by. We came from all walks of life, but on that day, we just enjoyed the camaraderie and celebrated life. We had survived many decades, after all — like our beloved school, which remains one of the best public elementary schools in San Pablo.
Remembering our school days filled us with laughter. We recalled the games we used to play, like sikyo, taguan and tubiganan. We remembered eating tira-tira, a three-inch-long toffee made from caramelized sugar that we used to pull to make it longer for sharing. I have fond memories of Ambray, but my foray into this public school was pure serendipity. I was a private school student until Grade IV, but I got sick that summer and was advised to stop schooling. I was adamant about continuing to Grade V, so my mother, who was a public school teacher, enrolled me in her school so she can keep an eye on me.
It was a blessing in many ways. At the private school, my classmates were the children of San Pablo’s cream of the crop, but the students of Ambray Elementary were mostly children of laborers, labanderas, fishmongers and poor families. My young mind noticed the differences: rich kids drank fruit juices and softdrinks, while poor ones would be lucky to afford palamig; rich kids ate sandwiches, while poor ones had sagimis; rich kids wore shoes and socks, while poor ones wore tsinelas; rich kids were fetched in cars, while poor kids travelled on foot.
At the public school, we had classmates with no baon, but those of us who can afford would share food during recess. I remember how several of us would drink from just one glass of palamig! This first exposure to how the other half lives woke in me the desire to make lives better for the less fortunate.
Many of my classmates sold ice drops and kakanin to help their parents every summer. I once joined them in this seemingly fun foray and was introduced to a Chinese seller who gave me products on consignment: for every 10 ice drops that I would sell at five cents each, I was supposed to pay him 35 cents. I was excited, thinking that I would go three rounds of selling ice drops every day, earning 45 cents daily for the duration of the summer. But it was hard, and I only lasted a week. I remember one rainy day: sales were slow and my ice drops half-melted, so I was berated by the supplier. Another time, some teenagers took my ice drops then ran away without paying. I gave chase and when I caught up with them, they playfully tousled my hair and said: “We wanted to see if you will just cry or run after us. For a small guy, you are very determined.” I guess I kept that trait as I grew older.
The ice drop fiasco did not deter my young entrepreneurial spirit. I tried selling jackfruit, mangoes and bananas that my father grew in our backyard. I learned how difficult it is to earn money. I also understood how lucky I was that I had the option to quit, unlike many of my batchmates, who rain or shine, had to eke a living.
Celebrating the present
On my way home, my heart ached for our batchmates who never got the chance to finish high school or college due to poverty. The college graduates among us led good lives, proving that education is a powerful tool for poverty eradication. Still, I took comfort from the stories of batchmates who joined microfinance institutions, especially those who were able to put their children through college and improve their lives with the help of microfinance.
My favorite story is that of Nelia Canseco. Our batchmate is now 66 years old, but she still manages her sewing business. She appreciates her MFI’s savings and microinsurance products. Despite her age, Nelia is fulfilling her life-long dream: she went back to school and will soon graduate with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship!
Blessings come in many forms. Our reunion is a reminder for me to look to the future while keeping close to my heart all the lessons of the past. As written by American journalist Leslie T. Chang: “The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time--maybe, hopefully, against all odds, we will get it right.”
(Dr. Jaime Aristotle B. Alip is a poverty eradication advocate. He is the founder of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually-Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI), a group of 23 organizations that provide social development services to eight million economically-disadvantaged Filipinos and insure more than 27 million nationwide.)