Teacher Randy: Community’s bridge where there is none
Teachers have been known to devote their entire lives to their students. And then there are those like 31-year-old Randy Halasan of Davao City who put their lives on the line in the practice of their profession.
One of this year’s recipients of the “Many Faces of the Teacher Award” given by Bato Balani Foundation and Diwa Learning Systems, Halasan has been risking his neck every day for the past six years to teach at Pegalongan Elementary School in a remote “lumad” (indigenous people of Mindanao) community in Malamba, Marilog District, on the fringes of Davao City.
At the start of the school week and again at week’s end, Halasan takes a two-hour highway bus ride, plus another hourlong habal-habal (converted motorcycle) ride on very rough mountain roads, and then a three-to-four-hour trek through the mountains.
Finally comes the most dangerous part of Halasan’s weekly journey: He has to bodily cross two very deep and raging rivers to reach the school.
In the same way that the community’s residents, including his young pupils, undergo this every day to get to and from the school, Halasan and fellow teachers endanger their lives in crossing the Sinod River and the even deeper Davao River, which can reach well over chest level in some parts.
The treacherous waters have claimed many lives from among the members of the Matigsalog tribe who brave the strong currents to get across to the opposite bank as there is no bridge.
When the water level rises too high or the currents grow too strong, the men would carry the teachers on their shoulders even if this means they would totally submerge themselves underwater.
Halasan himself has almost drowned.
A tribal leader, Nardo Bayugan, told an interviewer for Bato Balani Foundation who visited the school with Halasan: “Ang Maynila may mga tulay, walang ilog. Kami may ilog, walang tulay! (Manila has bridges but no river. We have rivers but no bridges).”
As a newly minted public schoolteacher in 2007, the then 25-year-old Halasan was assigned to the far-flung Pegalongan Elementary School, having finally snagged a permanent teaching post after struggling through odd jobs while taking care of his elderly parents since graduating in 2003.
Halasan, who had lived in the city all his life and regards the mountains as only good for the occasional hike, was so horrified he vowed to finish his tour of duty and endeavor to get reassigned out of Pegalongan as soon as possible.
“I never imagined I would be working there, that I would live there. No TV, no electricity, no cellphone signal,” he recalled, with some humor, saying to himself six years ago.
But he would soon realize that his personal discomfort and problems paled beside those of his pupils who walk barefoot in the mountains and cross the dangerous rivers to get to school where they would fall asleep from hunger and fatigue.
Fate is sealed
The graduation of his Grade 6 pupils in his first year of teaching sealed Halasan’s fate with the Matigsalog tribe.
“I realized what I had to do when they put on their toga. It was the first time they (the parents) saw their children graduate. They were crying, the parents and the children,” he said.
At the end of six years, Halasan has turned down an offer to be assigned to a school in the city proper and has chosen to remain in his first assignment.
Because he has literally become the bridge for his adoptive tribe, helping them access services available from the city government and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to help lift the community from their subsistence-based farming and conquer their limitations.
“No matter how good a teacher you are, if the children, the people, are hungry, your efforts are useless,” Halasan said.
“I saw that being a teacher is not effective if the people, the indigenous people are in a poor situation. You become the agent of change since you’re already there,” he said.
Halasan has helped organize the tribe’s members into Pegalongan Farmers’ Association to access government assistance.
Where before the farmers planted only corn and root crops, with the cooperative, the community now has a rice and corn mill, vegetable gardens and nurseries for durable crops like cacao.
The community, with Halasan’s help, has also obtained seedlings from the government’s greening program.
“I’m very much heartened because the people are actively involved, the tribal elders are open to change,” he said.
Halasan has been named head teacher and officer in charge on top of teaching all subjects for Grades 5 and 6, and recently, Grade 7 in the newly opened high school.
Halasan was able to successfully petition for a high school to be built in the community, which was opened last school year as a satellite school of the Gerardo Atilla Sr. Cultural Minority High School.
Before the advent of the high school, most of Halasan’s pupils effectively stopped schooling at Grade 6 as they didn’t have the money to pursue a high school education and the nearest high school could be reached only after an eight-hour trek.
Halasan has also gotten the Department of Education to build new classrooms. From three makeshift wooden classrooms six years ago, the school now has nine classrooms made of concrete.
The school teaching staff now comprises six elementary schoolteachers and two teachers for the newly opened high school.
Beyond the call of duty
Halasan has gone over and beyond the call of duty as the young teacher has become a respected person in the community who is sought for advice and consulted on community matters.
He ticks off his next goals for the community: to connect with NGOs to get some horses and carabaos to aid the farmers in farming, to get rice and corn threshers, and with concerned groups who could help put up a technical-vocational school in the community.
He also dreams that other basic services would reach the community, including Internet connection.
“It is my dream for the children to get to watch NatGeo (National Geographic channel), for them to be able to see what life is like in Africa, that I will be able to show them these,” he said.
Don’t forget bridge
But the most urgent item on his wish list, he continually stressed, is a hanging bridge to cross the Sinod and Davao Rivers.
When he came to Manila this week for only the second time in his life as one of the four recipients of this year’s the Many Faces of the Teacher Award, Halasan knew what his “purpose” was.
“They told me, ‘When you’re already in Manila, don’t forget about the hanging bridge.’ That hanging bridge is my purpose,” he said.
Halasan said his parents and sisters cannot understand why he still has not left the far-flung Pegalongan Elementary School where he sometimes stays entire weeks and even during the summer when there are no classes.
Since there is no cellphone signal in Sitio Pegalongan, this means he cannot communicate with his family whenever he is in the community.
It was not until he was featured in the “Edge Davao” newspaper that his family began to understand why.
“My parents were getting angry. But when they read the newspaper story, my sisters cried. They did not understand before what I was doing. They did not realize this is what I’ve been doing,” Halasan said.
Halasan explained that he was just helping the Matigsalog tribe stand up on its feet.
“It’s very fulfilling. The children, they just make you so happy. I can’t explain it,” he said.
The other teachers honored this year with the Many Faces of the Teacher Award are Teodora Balangcod, a biology professor at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City; Julieta Serrano, a grade school teacher at San Joaquin Central School in La Paz, Iloilo City; and Jesus Insilada, a writer in Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a who teaches in Alcalde Gustilo Memorial National High School in Iloilo.
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