In E. J. Dulay in Laoang, Northern Samar, considered one of the remotest barangays in the country, there are endless fields of green – vast hectares of rice fields and arrays of coconut trees define its landscape. Endless, too, is the vision of one teacher for the kids that till those lands and fill its air with laughter.
For teacher Marlito Baldevizo Poso, endless was the ache every time the youth of his hometown feel that this town is their final destination. However, it was seeing a schoolboy crossing the river one stormy day a few years ago that haunted him – and inspired him to do the impossible.
“Hawak niya sa kaliwang kamay niya iyong school bag na binalot ng plastik para di mabasa, habang iyong kanang kamay ginawang pangsagwan para makatawid sa umaapaw na ilog (With his left hand he raised his plastic-wrapped schoolbag up above the water, while the right one was used as a paddle to swim through the swelling river),” he vividly recalled the details. “It was a heartbreaking experience for these young kids who are already used to it every time the rainy season approaches.”
That image bothered him to no end, so he started a project that will change not only his life but also the lives of the kids of E. J. Dulay – to build a high school where the children could continue their education and grow their hopes and ambitions.
“Nababahala ako para sa mga bata ng barangay namin (I am bothered for the kids of my barangay), he started. “Para makarating sa high school sa ibang barangay, kailangang lumusong sa ilog, sumakay sa bangka, tumawid sa marupok na tulay at tumapak sa putik ng ilang oras para makapasok sa klase mula Lunes hanggang Biyernes (To reach the high school in another barangay, one must cross the river, ride a boat, walk through a rundown bridge and step on mud in order to go to class from Monday to Friday).”
The ordeal of having to undergo this daily proved to be too taxing for the families that lived in E. J. Dulay, the barangay where Marlito’s family own a parcel of land. Some of the kids, especially those who live in far-flung sections of Laoang, voluntarily stop going to classes and are told by their parents to start tilling the land with them. The girls even end up getting married soon and having children very early in their teens.
Marlito was one of the very few residents of E. J. Dulay who was able to earn a college diploma. In fact, finished his Bachelor of Secondary Education, major in Mathematics with cum laude distinction at the University of Eastern Philippines. He even had the opportunity to work in Manila and Cainta as a school teacher.
It was his parents, however, who suggested that he come back to Laoang and teach in his hometown. “I took a ranking test to get a job item at the Division of Northern Samar,” he recalled. To his surprise, he topped the exam and was granted a regular position to teach math and science at the Laoang National Technical High School.
Having recalled that image of the boy in the river, Marlito brought the idea of him teaching – and building a school – to his principal, half-heartedly and as an aside.
“Pero parang iyon ang biro na sineryoso ko (But it was a joke that I took seriously),” he admitted. “Di na ako pinatulog ng ideya na marami akong matutulungan. Talagang gusto kong makatulong kahit kakarampot ang suweldo ko (I couldn’t rest knowing that I could help many people. I really wanted to help even if my income was meager).”
He got the list of requirements in registering a public school and admitted he was overwhelmed by the complexity and tediousness of the endeavor. It is usually a person of influence – usually a school or government official – who initiates the move. Among other requirements was to find land to build the school on.
“Kailangan ng at least isang hektarya (One needs at least a hectare),” he explained.
Despite their initial objections, his parents came in to support his cause. “Nag-issue sila ng deed of donation para sa kalahating hektarya, tapos iyong LGU binili iyong other half para sa school (They issued a deed of donation for half the hectare; then the LGU bought the other half in behalf of the school).”
When asked why not name the school instead in the memory of his grandparents (who once owned the land), Marlito said he’s more concerned with more important things than the naming of a school. He also decided to build a house right beside the school so he could personally oversee its development.
E. J. Dulay National High School, an annex of the Laoang National Technical High School (Marlito thanks the principal who “adopted” their school), started its first day of classes in June 2015. It was essentially a multi-grade school, which means that all grade levels share the same room and get taught by the same teachers, with Marlito serving as acting school head. However, that was just the beginning of his trials and tribulations.
To begin with, the school has yet to receive government recognition for it to operate and receive funds from the national government, to this very day. Without the latter’s support, it wouldn’t be able to erect school buildings, pay the untenured teachers who volunteered, and receive educational materials and tools.
“Nakikiamot kami ng suporta mula sa munisipyo habang di pa kami kinikilala [ng DepEd]. Hanggang ngayon umaasa pa rin kami na ma-recognize soon (Right now, we count on the support of the municipality while waiting for that recognition [by DepEd]. Until now we’re still hoping for recognition soon),” Marlito said.
He also started to conduct fundraising activities. One of them would be through the “sayawan” in which couples dance to a curacha (a traditional waltz-like dance) and sponsors would drop money on a donation box. He also turned to social media, sharing his posts on Facebook, asking for support. Sometimes, he would receive money even from anonymous donors. He uses the money to buy school supplies for the students’ use or to buy additional construction materials.
Aside from the financial aspect, encouraging the students to continue to stay became part of his new assignment. Some of the students enrolled in Grade 7, to his surprise, do not even know how to read.
“Marunong sila ng numero pero di sila makapagbasa ng mga salita (They know numbers but could not read words). Suddenly, from being a Math and Science teacher, I became a phonics and reading teacher,” he said with a chuckle.
To do this, Marlito would go out of his way to meet the parents, even if it meant crossing rivers and traversing hills in order to visit and engage them to help in the formation of their children’s education.
“Sinabihan ko sila na kung gusto nilang umunlad ang buhay nila, huwag maging hadlang sa mga pangarap ng mga anak nila. Kasi ramdam din nila ang kagustuhan ng mga batang lumaya sa kahirapan (I explained to them that if they wanted to improve their lot, they should not be a hindrance their children’s aspirations. Because they also feel the children’s desire to be freed from poverty),” he added.
The results were encouraging, as the dropout rate decreased. The parents also helped clear the land and build the school buildings.
“In fact, when typhoon Nona hit us, many coconut trees were felled. Rather than burn them, we thought of using the coco lumber to build our school building,” he shared.
From conducting classes under the trees, the classrooms made of nipa and locally sourced wood now shelter the kids from the heat of the sun or rain.
Despite the outpour of support, Marlito admits he gets frustrated and hopeless at times, especially with the slow and arduous bureaucratic processes in legitimizing the school.
“How long will we do this? Sometimes I feel like a pingpong ball being passed from one person to another,” he confessed, bringing tears to his eyes. “We need a building. We need restrooms, books and other school supplies. The chairs we had were borrowed from the elementary school in our barangay. Sometimes I feel the government turns a blind eye on us.”
His only consolation would be the hard work showed by his students, whether in academics or in sports. Like a proud parent, he would accompany them in competitions. Because they are not yet a “legitimate” school, sometimes they are looked down. Still they manage to win, if not rank high, among the more established and funded schools.
In fact, last March, they conducted their first recognition day program. He raised money to buy medals for his few but deserving students. The basketball team also got their jerseys and uniforms courtesy of the fundraising he conducted for their intramurals.
For Marlito, the two-hour boat ride on the river and the one-hour trek to and from the school has never tired or consumed him. Now in his mid-30s, his students sometimes ask why he has not found himself a wife yet.
“I am committed right now to seeing the school finally funded by the government. If that happens I might finally start raising a family,” he said, followed with laughter.
His mantra for motivation would be Proverbs 22: 6. “’Teach the child the way he should go so that when he grows up he will not depart from it’ – that’s my philosophy,” he said. “True, it takes a village to raise a child. I was that child, raised by the need to dream big for my community, that we may be freed from illiteracy, complacency and poverty. It was more than just asking for help and getting it from those who cared. If that somebody took time to listen to my story – I know my vision has already seen fruition.”