For the longest time, there was no other more pitiful and moving image for the extremely poor state of Philippine education than that of the teacher literally traversing rivers and mountains to get to her neglected wards. This, along with quite literal textual descriptions such as “tumawid ng tatlong ilog at umakyat ng tatlong bundok” (crossed three rivers climbed three mountains), summed up the major ills plaguing our teachers and students, and the entire sorry situation:  lack of personnel, lack of compensation, lack of classrooms and equipment, the inadequacy of the government to fulfill its mandate of providing quality education, as is the right of all citizens.

But now, sometimes I yearn for those days when crossing rivers and climbing mountains was the only major impediment for teachers to carry out their duties.  If nature was the only hurdle that needed to be crossed;  at least nature treats all equally.  For people do not, especially those who thrive on inequality and seek to maintain it.  And among the downtrodden who dare to try to better themselves and their situation, the threats have become bigger than just crossing rivers and climbing mountains.

Ronnie Garcia is the Director of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Centers that work mostly among the Manobos of Talaingod.  He is also a Mansaka.  That in itself would place him in the marginalized sectors of Philippine society, at potential disadvantage in terms of political rights and economic opportunities.  In spite of this, he chose to go beyond being among the tacitly accepted but passively neglected, and to join those who are actively being pursued and persecuted simply for standing up for what they believe in.

Earlier this year, during (aptly enough) the International Conference on Human Rights in the Philippines, we received a text that Sir Ronnie had been, for the better part of that morning, followed around by strange men and that his sister had actually been approached and asked questions by one of them.  He and his family were at a hospital in Tagum to visit his ailing grandfather.  At least three men made little effort to hide the fact that they were sticking close to, and watching Sir Ronnie’s and his family’s every move.  One of them was spotted with a gun tucked in his waistband, and that was when he decided to slip away to Davao, where friends and supporters at the ICHRP were waiting for him.

This was but the latest in a string of incidents that harrassed Sir Ronnie and his family.  A few months before this incident, his father was approached by men claiming to be military intelligence, telling him that they wanted to talk to Ronnie because Ronnie “had a problem”.  He and other STTICLC teachers have been tailed before, across town and provincial boundaries, by unidentified men in unmarked vehicles.  The closure order the Department of Education slapped on some STTICLC schools last year pales in comparison, but they are all part and parcel of a wide range of attacks against lumad schools in general and the people who run them.  Despite the change in elected officials, different forms of harassment continue until today, in blatant mockery of the goodwill afforded by the resumed peace talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP.

Amelia Pond is a motherly, soft-spoken senior citizen who, despite her age, still travels to communities I myself have a hard time reaching.  I remember one time Ma’am Amy, as we called her, was helping oversee the disposition of a corn mill in a Manobo community.  It was no small feat;  twenty men had to carry it from the last point of the road that could be reached by a vehicle down a slippery footpath made all the more precarious by a sudden strong downpour.  The procession passed the house I was sitting in, the gleeful whooping of the men grabbing our attention, and I hastily took two shots with my camera.  When Ma’am Amy heard I was able to take photos, she asked to see them.  They were bad photos, all blur and wrong exposure and rain.  But Ma’am Amy squealed in delight.  “It’s a good thing you were able to take pictures!  The sisters will be thrilled,” she cried, referring to the religious support groups that had helped procure the milling machine.

At that time I couldn’t share her enthusiasm (the photos were that bad) and I think I even forgot to email her the copies she requested.  But looking back, I realize that this was part of what made her an exceptional teacher, away from the mainstream:  results aren’t always what you expect, but that isn’t always what mattered.  Not the flashy end-product, but the smudginess of being knocked about (for working among the poorest of the poor will entail a fair bit of being knocked about), and finding joy in unexpected circumstances (such as someone with a camera who happened to be there as twenty men and a corn mill slipped and slid, but spiritedly made their way along that trail at that remote mountain village).

Ma’am Amy was firm, but not firebrand.  Trumped-up cases have become part of the territory for highly vocal and visible mass leaders, but not, I expected, for a quiet, behind-the-scenes worker like her.

I cannot even begin to imagine that scenario, with three trained policemen dragging Amelia Pond from out of the cab she was riding, with the two Catholic nuns who were with her desperately trying to hold her back, demanding an explanation, and receiving nothing in return except a quick flash of a piece of paper the officers claimed to be a warrant but the women weren’t able to examine properly, and the surreptitious slipping of two fake IDs in Amelia Pond’s bag.  She is still behind bars, waiting for the slow wheels of Philippine justice to catch up with what everyone who knows her and have worked with her are certain about:  that Amelia Pond is innocent of the trumped up charges of murder and frustrated murder, and that she must immediately be released.

Nowadays, it isn’t just the challenges of topography and climate that place our teachers in peril – oh, if it were only that!   It has become alarmingly commonplace for outright violence to threaten the wellbeing of community teachers like Sir Ronnie and Ma’am Amy, and I truly fear the day when images of teachers being menaced by military agents or arbitrarily arrested become as common, and as wanting for a resolution as ever, as that of the teacher who has to surmount the proverbial river crossing and mountain climbing.

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