Pillars of Salt

CNN recently honored Efren Penaflorida, first Filipino to be named HERO OF THE YEAR. The ceremony was as glamorous as the award-winning body–world-famous media institution Cable News Network of America (with no less than shipping heir and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper presenting and then handing out the trophy to, the recipient.)  To be proclaimed hero while the global community looked on approvingly, and to rub elbows with the likes of Jose Rizal, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr… could anything be more marvelous?

But, on a personal level, Efren’s story touches a nerve–not because he did something rare or extraordinary as to set him totally apart from his breed.  Anderson himself more than qualifies for such an accolade, with his “dispatches from the edge” or his triumph over personal loss and tragedy.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the surprising and unconventional adventures of this young Vanderbilt are indeed of heroic magnitude.  No.  Efren’s feat was not as earth-shattering as we think.  So why then, beside him, do I feel like such a fraud… puerile…trivial…like a character straight from an urban legend?

See, I’m a teacher too.  And, after taking to heart those cliches associated with teaching, I developed megalomania.  Yes. I was quite in awe of myself, especially when I capitalize on the fact that this profession has never significantly rewarded me financially, which to my mind was ultimate proof of the noble, dignified and far-from-mercenary character of my chosen field.  So there I was, strutting around like a peacock, proud of my image as a sturdy pillar upon which the youth latches on as they pursue their destinies, until I was rudely awakened by Efren’s pushcart school.  My tower of self-importance was but a pillar of salt, easily crumbling to the ground.  I sat discomfited as my thousand and one incessant complaints against the Philippine educational system surface to mock me:  the insufficient books, the outdated technology, the professional stagnation; the sweltering classrooms, the choking chalk dust, the cheap uniform; the lack of privacy in FR’s, the lazy, unmotivated students, the clueless, self-absorbed administrators and superiors. Oh the irony…t’was so NOT lost on me.  And I felt extremely envious of Efren for making so much difference with so little, despite the absence of those pretenses I thought were indispensable to make me an effective educator.  I was ashamed of those flimsy excuses I concocted to hide my inadequacies; ashamed it took me this long to fully understand the essence of my vocation and what it asks of me; ashamed that, unlike Efren, I failed to appreciate the galling and harsh realities my students were facing.  And this is why, I would like, I would like very much to start again, free from the encumbrance of my prejudices, free from the confines of my illusory comfort zone.  To start again with a more grounded and open perception of my ideals, hoping to be able to “serve well.”

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