There we find my Susan. All day teaching teachers consumed her while I taught across town in Diliman.
Mr. Araya considered himself lucky to have a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to his school. He really did and showed it, and he let everyone know. But he didn’t know how to fully utilize Susan. He wanted to overlook her when it came to painting the school. She was willing to pitch in and help them get ready for Marcos. She had to stop Mr. Araya from treating her as a trophy.
Not too long afterwards he said, in a well-meaning way (it wasn’t easy for him to talk to her informally), “Susan, you have to think of the example you set. You mustn’t be seen sitting on the floor.”
Susan said, “Why does that matter? I was reading a story in English to some students after school.”
To Mr. Araya the provocation was not that. He said, “I knew you were reading a story. That I don’t object to.”
“I’m sorry, but…no one else was around.”
“I bring this up only because I am the principal here, and it is my duty to give instructions. I know you’re new to the Philippines, and I’m not acting, as a Filipino should. But I am the principal here, and it is my duty. I am embarrassed for you.”
Susan said in reply, “I won’t sit on the floor again.”
Mr. Araya said, “To me it doesn’t matter whether you sit on the floor or not. It comes down to the example we set in these classrooms. We have to be examples of a moral life. Children learn from what they see and live what they learn. But I can’t tell you what to do.”
“I said I wouldn’t sit on the floor.”
“You have to know that we’re thankful to the United States Government for sending you to us. Why would we not be thankful?”
“I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.”
“May you find here every reason to be happy with us and by your example may our children become more intelligent, more capable of wisdom and justice, and live lives more useful and noble. You were brought to us to help us with this.”
Susan said, “You think so.” And Mr. Araya ended there, having said more than he intended.
The next day Mr. Araya invited Susan to stay after school for a rehearsal of the Pupils Glee Club and Teachers Choral Group. They were slated to sing for President Marcos. They would sing the National Anthem and two or three songs each. Then would come the dance troupe and the Rondalla.
It was Susan’s way of getting more involved. It was how she came to participate in the pigeon project and from there to going down on her hands and knees, to sowing some seeds for her own plant for life. Yes, I said on her hands and knees, and I must add get her hands and knees dirty, and the students, with their smiles and clean uniforms, liked watching her, as they nurtured their own plants for life.
The precedent was set, and Susan was all set to redefine her place in the school. It began with the Pigeon Project and the poop involved in that. Even Mr. Araya had to smile. Here was an American woman whom, with her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, decided to invest her time in pigeon poop and went from there to digging in the dirt, and did it with dignity. On the edge of what was and was not acceptable, she defined her project and decided to live or die by it. She related to the culture as best she could and knew that she’d make mistakes. She came to school in jeans. The painting job was what motivated her to do that. She pushed back to show that she was as capable as anyone else, once the painting of the school began in earnest. It was a hard, painful job for her, humbling, and her principal, after he allowed himself, demonstrated his appreciation with formality.