Return to a Philippine Village Schoolhouse

AS we walk into the shaded yard of the old school house, a dozen children, dressed in white T-shirts and colorful shorts appear from all around - from behind the green bamboo groves, the squat palm trees, and the shiny-leaved bushes. ``Hello, hello. Where are you from?'' they ask, surrounding us with wide smiling faces.

``I'm from right here,'' answers my 80-year-old uncle. ``I grew up here. My dad used to teach in this school.''

The Filipino children grin and giggle. They understand what he is saying but don't believe a word of it.

``This is my niece,'' continues my uncle. ``We've come to pay our respects to her granddad and grandmom who a long time ago lived right on this square.''

The children keep on grinning and giggling, they push and shove one, unable to take my uncle seriously, certain he's joking. This tall man with silver-white hair doesn't look like anyone they've ever seen in their village.

Granddad and Grandmom went to the Philippines with the first boatload of school teachers back in 1901. Granddad came from Ohio and Grandmom from northern Michigan. They were both sent to teach in hillside villages on the island of Leyte, about 435 miles south of Manila. When Granddad wasn't teaching, he courted Grandmom, riding over to her village on horseback. Later they rode down together to the coast, to find a justice of peace and get married. Grandmom moved into a wooden house raised on stilts in Granddad's village, and that was where my father and two uncles grew up.

They later moved to Tacloban, the chief city of Leyte, when Granddad became principal of the new high school, and still later to Manila, when he became director of education. By then the boys were at college in the United States. My silver-haired uncle is the only one left.

The dozen school children crowd around us. They don't have many tourists in Burauen and they don't want to let us out of their sight. The school is closed but we look in the windows. The desks and chairs are lined up in rows, the lesson plans are written on the blackboard.

It could be Granddad's classroom. I picture him back in those days with another group of school children, teaching them English. Grandmom didn't have much time for school teaching once she started raising a family - so far away from where she grew up.

We start to walk back towards the main road.

``Tell me something,'' says my uncle to the watchful children, ``Why aren't you in school today?''

``It's the end of the rice harvest, sir,'' answers the biggest boy.

They hoot with laughter, as if my uncle wanted to catch them playing hooky.

I remember the piles and patches of rice which were drying on the dirt roads as our taxi driver skidded around, the tires screeching and shooting up dust. We had flown into Tacloban City on an early flight from Manila. When my grandparents first made the journey, it took them two days and nights on a steamer.

``What grades are you in?'' I ask them.

``Fourth grade, ma'am,'' answers the big one, ``and my brother and these two are in second grade.''

His little barefoot brother beams at me while the other two shove him forward.

``And we're in third grade,'' another one says, flinging his arm around his buddy.

Their enthusiasm has caught me. I'm back with Granddad and Grandmom. ``Do you like school?''

They all poke one another and look to see who will answer. ``Yes ma'am,'' says the big one. ``It's a lot better than picking rice.''

I turn to my uncle to see if he is ready to leave. He is looking around at the houses bordering the square. When we first arrived, he pointed out the place where he remembered their house once stood. None of the old wooden houses lasted the century; typhoons carried them away. Only the colonial school with its sturdy walls is the same. My uncle's been back before - he's a journalist and often writes about the Philippines - but this time he doesn't know if he'll come back again.

``Let me ask you something else,'' he says to the children. ``Is there anyone around who's my age?''

``Excuse me sir?'' says the oldest boy.

``Is there anyone around who's as old as I am?''

The boy looks with surprise at my uncle and hesitates. ``Yes sir, there's one. She's a very old woman. She lives over there,'' he answers, pointing across the road.

He leads us to a two room house, wooden walls weathered from the sun and rain. The door is open and I can see an old woman, dressed in faded blue, sitting in an armchair in the middle of the room. She doesn't look up as we enter.

``How do you do?'' says my uncle. ``We are looking for someone who remembers the American school teachers who came here a long time ago.''

The woman turns her head as if she doesn't understand. More people come and look at us with curiosity. My uncle explains to them why we are there, they nod their heads and speak among themselves in their local dialect. They say they are her relatives and that he should ask her again.

``Do you remember the American school teachers who came here a long time ago?'' he asks again.

This time the old woman looks at him.

``Do you remember my father, Mr. W.W. Marquardt?''

``An American teacher? Mr. W.W. Marquardt?'' she repeats. Everyone is quiet. She stands up and squints at my uncle. ``Mr. W.W. Marquardt? You say he's your father? He was my first teacher and then he was my first boss.''

Tears run down her lined cheeks. Her head shakes. She's lived still longer than my uncle. Years and years ago she was a schoolchild and then a teacher in Granddad's school.

When we say goodbye, my uncle's eyes are full. The old woman is sitting down again. I bend over and clasp her arms. My tears fall on her cheeks.

Our young school children have been listening at the door. They no longer think the silver-haired gentleman is joking. They follow us to the car and stand close together, not jostling one another anymore. When my uncle thanks them for welcoming us and taking us to the old woman, they lower their heads.

The taxi driver is waiting for us. He too has learned the whole story and hurries to open the door for my uncle.

``Goodbye, goodbye,'' the school children call, each one waving, their faces wide open.

We turn around and watch them. I open my window to wave.

``Come back,'' calls the biggest one, ``Come back.''

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