by Rossel M. Audencial (Essay)
People go far in life because someone believed that they can. I say, I go far in life because someone took a quantum leap. My Mother did.
My Mother belongs to a family of twelve, the second eldest child of ten siblings. She grew up in the barrio amidst corn and rice fields her family did not own. Her parents both depended on the yield of these fields for them to have something to eat. They had eloped from Iloilo and never finished high school. They found refuge in South Cotabato and built a family of their own.
She finished her elementary years by walking everyday, back and forth, at dawn and dusk, to and from the nearest school, three kilometers away. She had no money for baon. To buy her needed pencils and notebooks, she would sell guavas or pick kangkong or takway along the road to sell to her classmates or teachers while her mother sold suman.
She can well relate to news features of children who carry their school things in cellophanes or net bags. She did the same just to go to school. There were no roads yet at that time. She had to traverse through the muddy embankments of rice fields, wet and slippery when it rained. Her cellophane bag, conveniently tied to her shoulders, kept her school things dry. She cannot forget that she wore slippers a lot bigger than her feet. She would pick them up, sling them in her arms, and walk barefoot instead, crisscrossing narrow paths just to reach school. She would wash her feet in a nearby stream when she was near the school building and put on her slippers again.
When she was in high school, her father contracted an illness that made him unable to work for a year. In order to survive, my Mother and her siblings had to find work to feed the family and to support their schooling at the same time. During planting season, she would join the group of planters who were commissioned by the owner of a rice paddy to plant seedlings of palay by hand in a hectare-wide field. She experienced bending her back all afternoon under the raging heat of the sun with only a salakot covering her head and wading into mud to finish a row of the planting box. The faster you planted, the more rows you finished, and the faster your group covered the whole plant area, the faster you moved on to the next.
She also tried plowing a field single-handedly. Despite her small and thin stature, she had to lead a carabao across a dry rice field. She grasped the reins of the animal with one hand and followed with the heavy plow with the other, digging into compact soil and leaving furrows behind. It was hard physical labor. All you needed was a body that could stay up long and the energy to move your hands and back all throughout the day and even weeks. As a teenager, her body had to learn to adjust to farming work.
When harvest season came, she, together with her older sister and younger siblings, would go to different places to find rice crops ready for reaping. Sickle in hand, they joined groups of reapers in cutting rice stalks heavy with grain and stacking them into bundles for the hand-fed threshing machine. She had been wounded by a sickle many times, my mother would tell me, showing thin straight scars in her hand and arm. Even though her hand was bleeding, she would just wrap it with a cloth and continue cutting.
This work of clearing a hectare of rice field could take a whole day. After all the bundles of rice stalks were threshed by the machine, leaving only the grains ready for winnowing, my mother would take their part of the harvest. The usual agreement during her time was through counting tin cans; those big cans of cooking oil served as their measuring tool. She explained that her part would be the sixth can, the one after every five cans of threshed rice grains as yield from the bundles she had been able to stack. This means two things. One, she had to cut more and stack large and heavy bundles of rice stalks in order to yield more than the five cans of grains. Second, she might not have anything to bring home if her harvest had not reached more than the five cans. Aside from this, her younger siblings could collect more rice grains from the heaps of straws left in the field or thrown out by the machine. They would bring the fruit of their labor home, tired but satisfied that at least they had something to eat and to sell in order to buy other necessary commodities like sugar and salt to last until the next work opportunity.
Among these experiences, she cannot also forget how it was to eat with one roasted catfish and a kilo of rice for dinner. Her father would hang the skewered fish in their thatched ceiling, out of anyone’s reach. When supper came, he would get it for all of the ten siblings to see. And what happened next? He would pass the fish to everyone around the table for them to smell it. Just to sniff at it, until everyone finished his or her cup of rice. And nothing more. No additional rice even if they wanted more. If they were still hungry, they would go out and climb fruit trees in the neighbourhood or find bananas to eat. She cannot imagine now how her family lived through the worst times of their lives—but she is thankful that they did.
My mother finished high school. Fortunately, she said. College was a far-fetched thing. Her next option was to stop schooling. Thinking of quitting school, however, made her see in her mind’s eye the hardships and hunger around her. She came to that point in her life when she had to decide how her life would become. Her parents could never send her to college, but her life would remain as it was if she stopped schooling. By then, she promised to herself that she would not work in the fields again. The only way out of it was finishing a college degree to get a job other than wallowing in mud or in the heat of the sun or breaking her back in hard labor. She had nothing against life in the farm, but she also wanted a comfortable life.
Thus, one day, a month after high school graduation, she declared to herself that she would go to college. Without bringing extra clothes and money but herself, she went to the nearest college institution in Marbel (now Koronadal City) and talked to a woman in the canteen there. She expressed her intention to be a working student. She was fortunate enough that day. One of the teachers hired her as a house help. She would do household chores in exchange for tuition.
For four years, she washed the clothes of others, bigger than what her hands could carry, and ironed them before she could sleep at almost midnight. For four years, she tended to babies and kids unrelated to her by blood, that they grew up with her by their side more than the time she spent with her own siblings. For four years, she had to work hard in the house where she stayed and worked hard to finish her studies. All the while, she performed a balancing act of working and studying at the same time. What sustained her was her goal to graduate and those endless, silent prayers she muttered to herself every day. If there was one thing poverty had taught her, it was to cling to God. Her faith had walked her through the hardest path of her life that, after four years, she graduated in her education course. She is the only one who did among her ten siblings.
She is now a teacher in a public high school in General Santos City. She says that it is not at all easy to teach. Being a teacher requires another level of hard work and patience, especially in dealing with teenagers, but she has attained a sort of progress compared to her previous experiences. We did not have much but had enough to eat three times a day, to dress in uniforms and wear shoes, and to have baon in our pockets. She was able to send us to schools near our house that we did not have to walk far. We haven’t tried planting or harvesting palay, not even touching a plow. And when we finished high school, college was the next option. She had reached her goal in life and she wanted us to reach our own with her support. She paid our tuition fees and gave us allowance for school requirements. We did not have to be a working student like her.
She has been through hardships—physical labor, not to mention mental and emotional struggles. These hardships has made her not just a strong woman, but more aptly, a woman of strength. Her quantum leap has brought me to where I am now. It is a leap that opened a wide array of opportunities for me to soar higher than what she has reached. I thank her for walking away that day, away from that endless toil and cruel poverty. She knew that she could make her life better and that all she had was that courage sustained by her faith in God. She has taught me that life is a choice. And that choice depends on me, solely.