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The gentle giant

© UNICEF Philippines/2003/Dela Cruz
Bringing children back to school is a key component of UNICEF's Child-Friendly School project.



By Roger Masapol
UNICEF helps boys who drop out from school return to finish their dream of a better education.

KINSA sa inyo ang naninigarilyo? (Does anybody here know how to smoke a cigarette?)” teacher Mary Grace Caberte asked her grade 6 students in Monsale Elementary School in Basay, Negros Oriental. A little girl stood up and pointed at her classmate behind her. All eyes were fixed on the tallest, biggest and obviously the oldest student in the class. The boy shook his head a bit as if saying - “Here we go again”. He, however, took no offense.

At 17, Reden Ambo looks like a giant, silently guarding the younger children in the class. He just returned to school after a two-year absence. He dropped out after completing grade 5 to help his parents earn a living.

Reden says he belongs to a family of farmers and fishermen. “Gusto sa akong mga ginikanan na magparehas na lang ako sa akong mga igsuon (My parents expect me to be like my older brothers).” He is the seventh in a family of ten. His older brothers and sisters did not give importance to education. Several opted to work while others got married early.

His two-year absence from school fashioned a man out of Reden, hardened by substandard living conditions. At nights, he would sail out to the sea fishing. At daytime, he would take care of his pigs at the back of their house. He would sell his livestock in the market after six months. Not continuing his studies crossed his mind once. “May kita na ako para sa akong adlaw-adlaw na gastusanan (I was, after all, earning a living for my daily subsistence).”

He quickly cast this thought away, reminding himself that he wanted more in life. Seeing how his older siblings fare now kept Reden on his toes. He became more determined to go back to school. He saved a little amount of money for his schooling.

“Gusto kong mahimong pulis (I want to be a policeman).” An irony it may seem especially when one learns that Monsale used to be highly infested with rebels.

Reden’s desire to go back to school found a voice in the “Balik Aral” (Back-to-School) program of the Department of Education. The Balik-Aral program encourages older children and even adults to go back to school.

And so Reden went back to school.

Like an ancient monastery, Monsale Elementary School is situated between the tides of South China Sea and the mountainous ranges of Negros Oriental. It is along the provincial road connecting the provinces of Negros Oriental and Occidental.

The school area was once a portion of a farm land. Hence when it rains, the school ground gets easily flooded, submerging the playground in front of the school building. Behind the building is a small fishpond where gabi and kangkong leaves abound. These vegetables are used by parents for the school’s feeding program.

Teacher Mary Grace says that Reden is still slightly groping his way in class. “He may not be excelling at the moment but he is doing well,” she says. She says that Reden is quite reserved. He is a gentle giant, one who does not muscle his way around. He is the class’ friendly “Kuya” (older brother) who oftentimes mediates when quarrels occur between classmates.

Going to college would mean going to the center of Dumaguete, 121 kilometers away from his place. Even Reden’s teachers seldom visit Dumaguete. “Layo ka-ayo (Very far),” exclaims Mary Grace.

But Reden is willing to go the distance.

The introduction of the Child Friendly School System (CFSS) in Monsale Elementary School reinforces Reden’s aspiration to pursue college education after knowing from his teachers that education is one of the rights of every Filipino.

The CFSS is a key feature of UNICEF’s work in the Philippines. A child-friendly school encourages the participation of all children in the community. Regardless of age, sex, belief, and income status, children are welcome to go to school and complete primary education. Teachers and school heads too put children first and practice teaching methods that recognize different learning styles.

UNICEF provides technical assistance in improving classroom lessons and management, access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, and facilitating genuine children’s participation in school concerns.

Today, Reden’s greatest fear is to fall within the cycle of poverty in his family. His biggest challenge in life is how to break this cycle and start a new one for himself and his family.

“Gusto kong makab-ot ang akong maayong kaugma-on (I want to have a good future),” says Reden.

Going back to school, for him, was already a giant step.

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