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MANILA, Philippines – Oral tradition suggests that the word “Pegalongan” means “the place from which the light shines” and for the people residing in the remote mountains in Mindanao, this light may have come from one public school teacher.
Randy Halasan regards himself as a teacher by profession but he can also be considered as several government agencies rolled into one.
“Kung ibubuod iyong tula, sinabi nila na bigay ako ng langit,” The 32-year-old public teacher recalled a poem from one of the elders. “Nakakataba ng puso iyon.”
(If you’re going to summarize the poem, it basically says that I’m heaven-sent. That alone fills my heart with joy.)
Since 2007, this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership has been redefining the responsibilities of a teacher beyond the 4 walls of a classroom. (READ: Educators win big in 2014 Magsaysay Awards)
From just lifting from his lesson plans during his first few weeks at the Pegalongan Elementary School in Davao, Teacher Ran became the loving community organizer of the indigenous Matigsalug tribe located in one of the farthest villages of the region.
Not for the weak
When Halasan arrived for the first time in the village as one of only two teachers, his initial reaction was to seek reassignment as soon as possible. The self-described “city boy” did not have any prior experience of being away from his family, much more settling in a remote place.
“Gustong gusto ko na magpalipat noon kasi walang kuryente, walang tubig, kahit cellphone signal wala,” he told Rappler. “Inaabangan ko iyong weekend lagi kasi makakauwi ako.”
(I really wanted to be transferred then since the village had no electricity, no water, and even cellphone network signal. I was always looking forward to the weekend because I can go home.)
It takes 7 hours of travel to get to Pegalongan – two hours by bus, one hour by habal-habal motorcycle on extremely rough roads, and 4 hours of hiking including crossing two dangerous rivers.
“Kung wala ka talagang commitment, isang buwan lang aayaw ka na talaga (If you are not committed, you’ll give up immediately after only one month),” Halasan emphasized.
The disdain he felt turned into a burning desire to help as he realized the poor conditions of the community, especially the children. Working for food, he noticed, was far more important than going to school.
“As long as they have something to eat, they think that’s okay,” he explained. “But I had to make them realize that through education, you can overcome poverty.”
The children have to cross rivers on their way to school. Their lives are at risk especially when the weather is not cooperating and brings strong currents.
A lot of them begged off schooling, often attributed to poverty. Before Halasan’s arrival, no one from the community even reached high school. It was only in 2009 when the residents witnessed an elementary graduation ceremony where their children wore togas for the first time.
“I saw tears in their eyes kasi first time nila, mga anak nila nasa stage at kumukuha ng diploma (I saw tears in their eyes since it was the first time they saw their child up on a stage to get a diploma),” he recalled.
In the next few years, they are expecting the first Matigsalug college graduate through his assistance. The student, he said, will take over the responsibility of sustaining the emerging and improving lives of the community.
For Halasan, his love and compassion for the Matigsalug people stemmed from his own experiences. He was able to relate to the poverty-ridden lives of the community.
When his father died, he became the breadwinner of the family. He had to go through several jobs – a mall salesman and a fastfood waiter, among others – to pay for his college education. He also gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer as a degree in education was more affordable in the late 1990s.
“Alam ko iyong nararamdaman nila kasi dinanas ko na rin iyon,” Halasan said. “Kung ako ang nasa kalagayan nila, I will expect others to extend help to me too.”
(I know how they feel as I’ve gone through the same things too. If I were still in their position, I’ll also expect others to help me too.)
For Halasan, it was important that the Matigsalug people realize their potentials and be able to unite their skills to develop a better future for their children.
“Ine-explain ko sa kanila na if hindi nila tulungan nila ang isa’t isa, masasayang lahat,” he said. “So dahil sa unity, ang dami na naming nagagawa.”
(I explained to them that if they don’t help each other, everything will be wasted. Because of unity, we have done a lot of things already.)
The small sitio is now home to several projects lobbied by Halasan from government officials. From a two-classroom building, the Pegalongan Elementary School now has 9 concrete classrooms and an additional 6 teachers. A high school is in the works with him as the only official.
“Principal na ako ng elementary school at sole teacher ng high school. Pati pagiging janitor ay ako na rin,” he joked.
(I’m now the principal of the elementary school and the sole teacher of the incoming high school. I am also sometimes the janitor.)
The farmers now have mills for their crops and a cooperative which aims to fuel the emerging small-scale agricultural industry in the area. Instead of carrying heavier products for processing to a far town, the shoulders of the traders now have less weight to carry.
All worth it
A day in the life of this public school teacher starts early. At 6 am, he goes out of his home to entertain the queries of the people over cups of coffee. From mere quarrels to important business decisions, Halasan has seen it all.
When classes end at 4 pm, he does rounds in the community to check on the progress of different projects such as the small gardens, hygienic practices, and even the health of mothers and children.
“Walang pera sa pagtuturo pero kapalit rin naman nito ay iyong legacy na iiwan mo na makakapagshape sa future ng mga bata.”
For a very busy person who sleeps at midnight after meeting with farmers and elders, exhaustion is out of the question.
“Iyong pagod naman, nawawala talaga kapag nakikita mo iyong eagerness ng mga tao,” he shared. “Walang pera sa pagtuturo pero kapalit rin naman nito ay iyong legacy na iiwan mo na makakapagshape sa future ng mga bata.”
(The exhaustion we feel disappear when we witness the eagerness of the people. There is no money in teaching but in exchange, you leave behind a legacy that can shape the future of the children.)
A lot has happened within 8 years in Pegalongan. From being completely helpless, the village is now full to the brim of hopeful Matigsalug people with the help of Teacher Ran.
He has taken a lot of roles but according to him, everything is because he is a teacher.
“Ang pagiging guro napakalaking aspeto: puwede ka maging kapitan, puwede ka maging doctor, pwede ka maging engineer,” he explained. “Iyong mga engineer, nagbi-build ng buildings. Kami, nagbi-build ng values.”
(Being a teacher encompasses a lot of roles: you can be a captain, a doctor, even an engineer. Engineers build infrastructures, while us teachers build values.)
The recognition he earned and his extreme efforts is a step towards a better future for the indigenous people of Davao.
“This is a greater responsibility na i-continue ang passion kasi hindi lang ito for me but all for Matigsalug,” Halasan said. “Through this award, there are more individuals and organizations that want to contribute.”
(This is a greater responsibility for us to continue the passion since this is all for Matigsalug. Through this award, there are more individuals and organizations that want to contribute.) – Rappler.com