Jul 092014

Deborah Toh (center, facing camera) getting a goodbye group hug from her classmates. Her three days at the Philippine school left such a huge impression that she has already asked to go back.  ANN/Straits Times FILE PHOTO/TOH YONG CHUAN

SINGAPORE—Like many parents, I sent my eight-year-old daughter Deborah for extra lessons during the June school holidays which end at the end of the month.

But she didn’t attend an enrichment centre in Singapore; she spent three days at an elementary school in Cauayan city, a nine-hour drive north of the Philippine capital Manila.

It came about after my daughter came home from school in early January asking why she did not get to go overseas during the December school holidays. “My classmates went skiing and to Disneyland,” she protested.

Our family did not go away on holiday last December, but we have taken our children to Malaysia, Thailand and Japan previously. My wife and I were taken aback that children as young as eight were already comparing where they went for vacations.

Worried about where this might lead, we wondered how to give our daughter a bit more perspective about life and holidays. Which was how we came up with the idea for a visit to the Philippines.

Our resourceful Filipino maid Maricel, who lived in Cauayan before she came to work for our family eight years ago, arranged for Deborah to join her nine-year-old daughter Charelle at her school.

Cauayan city has a population of just 122,000, according to the 2010 census, and is set in the midst of rice and corn farms, with few buildings taller than the three-storey city hall.

But Cauayan South Central School, the largest public elementary school there, is huge. It has about 4,000 pupils aged from five to 14 in 87 classes from kindergarten to Grade 6, the equivalent of Primary 6. It provides free education for the children of working-class parents including farmers, laborers and women working overseas as maids, like our family’s Maricel.

We arrived at Cauayan on a Sunday, stayed at a $45-a-night hotel in the city, and knew that Deborah would attend school from Monday to Wednesday.

To blend in, she wore the uniform white blouse and long blue skirt donned by girls in Philippine public elementary schools. Maricel’s husband Norman provided transport to school on the motorized tricycle taxi that he plies for a living.

On the first day, my wife and I went along and found a school nothing like any in Singapore. All 4,000 boys and girls were tightly packed under the sun for morning assembly in an outdoor area about the size of three basketball courts.

There were uncovered drains, uneven pavements and unsheltered walkways lining the collection of buildings spread out in a compound about the size of a football field.

Classrooms were dimly lit and poorly ventilated despite having electric fans, with as many as 46 pupils per class. Teachers kept going even as the temperature soared to a sweltering 38 degree Centigrade.

During recess, pupils ate at benches under shady trees because the two canteens had no tables or benches. The boys played basketball—the most popular sport in the Philippines—while the girls made and traded colorful Rainbow Loom bands.

On two of Deborah’s three days there, there were blackouts lasting more than three hours each.

It couldn’t have been more different from her convent school at home, nestled among the houses that make up middle-class Serangoon Gardens estate.

But what surprised my wife and I was how little all of that seemed to bother our daughter.

At the start of Day One, she was more concerned about whether she would make friends.

She was an object of curiosity from Singapore, speaking English with a strange accent, but her classmates and form teacher Lani L. Gamido welcomed her warmly.

She was made to introduce herself and present an English group exercise.

By the end of the day, she had made friends with a handful of girls with cheerful names like Precious, April Joy and Sunshine Nicole.

On Day Two, Deborah’s classmates lined up for a class photo so she would have a memento to bring home.

Although she spent just three days there, her class held a party for her on the last day. The pupils and their parents threw a pot luck lunch, bringing fried noodles, grilled fish and stewed pork. One girl, whose mother works as a maid in Singapore, turned up with her father, both wearing matching “I love SG” T-shirts.

Afterwards, we asked Deborah what she liked or disliked about her three days at a Filipino school.

The school uniform got her thumbs-up for being more comfortable than the pinafore she wears to school here. She also liked that classes were lively, with pupils answering questions spontaneously.

“The class is noisier, especially the boys,” she said.

But she found the full-day session—from 7.15am to 4pm, with a two-hour lunch break—too long.

The physical condition of the school and its surroundings did not figure on her list of dislikes.

Asked to write down her strongest impression of her classmates, she wrote: “Kindness.”

She gave some examples.

During the blackout on Day One, some classmates saw that she was perspiring profusely and took turns to fan her using cardboards and paper fans, without her asking.

On her second day, a shy girl gave her a note on which she had written as best she could: “To Debora Hi I’m Blessing please bes friend.”

And before she left, more than 10 classmates gave her a spontaneous group hug to say good bye. “Nobody’s hugged me like that before,” she said.

My wife and I had imagined that a few days in a school in Cauayan would leave Deborah appreciating Singapore and her school more. But physical discomforts left less of an impression on her than the acts of kindness and friendship from children she had known for such a short time.

And then she asked: “Can I come back to school here again next year?”

We realized our daughter had indeed learnt something from her visit. As parents, we had our “teachable moment” in Cauayan too. We had been guilty of under-rating Deborah’s ability to adapt and to value small acts of love and kindness over material comforts.

And while we will take Deborah somewhere else on holiday the next time, we promised her that we will return to Cauayan again—soon.


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