The letter announcing the visitation (a yearly descent upon the school by the superintendent, the district supervisors and the division supervisors for “purposes of inspection and evaluation”) had been delivered in the morning by a sleepy janitor to the principal. The party was, the attached circular revealed a hurried glance, now at Pagkabuhay, would be in Mapili by lunchtime, and barring typhoons, floods, volcanic eruptions and other acts of God, would be upon Pugad Lawin by afternoon.
Consequently, after the first period, all the morning classes were dismissed. The Home Economics building, where the fourteen visiting school officials were to be housed, became the hub of a general cleaning. Long-handled brooms ravished the homes of peaceful spiders from cross beams and transoms, the capiz of the windows were scrubbed to an eggshell whiteness, and the floors became mirrors after assiduous bouts with husk and candlewax. Open wood boxes of Coronaslar gas were scattered within convenient reach of the carved sofa, the Vienna chairs and the stag-horn hat rack.
The sink, too, had been repaired and the spent bulbs replaced; a block of ice with patches of sawdust rested in the hollow of the small unpainted icebox. There was a brief discussion on whether the French soap poster behind the kitchen door was to go or stay: it depicted a trio of languorous nymphs in various stages of dishabille reclining upon a scroll bearing the legend Parfumerie et Savonerie but the wood working instructor remembered that it had been put there to cover a rotting jagged hole – and the nymphs had stayed.
The base of the flagpole, too, had been cemented and the old gate given a whitewash. The bare grounds were, within the remarkable space of two hours, transformed into a riotous bougainvillea garden. Potted blooms were still coming in through the gate by wheelbarrow and bicycle. Buried deep in the secret earth, what supervisor could tell that such gorgeous specimens were potted, or that they had merely been borrowed from the neighboring houses for the visitation? Every school in the province had its special point of pride – a bed of giant squashes, an enclosure or white king pigeons, a washroom constructed by the PTA. Yearly, Pugad Lawin High School had made capital of its topography: rooted on the firm ledge of a hill, the schoolhouse was accessible by a series of stone steps carved on the hard face of the rocks; its west windows looked out on the misty grandeur of a mountain chain shaped like a sleeping woman. Marvelous, but the supervisors were expecting something tangible, and so this year there was the bougainvillea.
The teaching staff and the student body had been divided into four working groups. The first group, composed of Mrs. Divinagracia, the harassed Home Economics instructor, and some of the less attractive lady teachers, were banished to the kitchen to prepare the menu: it consisted of a 14-lbs. suckling pig, macaroni soup, embutido, chicken salad, baked lapu-lapu, morcon, leche flan and ice cream, the total cost of which had already been deducted from the teachers’ pay envelopes. Far be it to be said that Pugad Lawin was lacking in generosity, charm or good tango dancers! Visitation was, after all, 99% impression – and Mr. Olbes, the principal, had promised to remember the teachers’ cooperation in that regard in the efficiency reports.
The teachers of Group Two had been assigned to procure the beddings and the dishes to be used for the supper. In true bureaucratic fashion they had relegated the assignment to their students, who in turn had denuded their neighbors’ homes of cots, pillows, and sleeping mats. The only bed properly belonging to the Home Economics Building was a four-poster with a canopy and the superintendent was to be given the honor of slumbering upon it. Hence it was endowed with the grandest of the sleeping mats, two sizes large, but interwoven with a detailed map of the archipelago. Nestling against the headboard was a quartet of the principal’s wife’s heart-shaped pillows – two hard ones and two soft ones – Group Two being uncertain of the sleeping preferences of division heads.
“Structuring the Rooms” was the responsibility of the third group. It consisted in the construction (hurriedly) of graphs, charts, and other visual aids. There was a scurrying to complete unfinished lesson plans and correct neglected theme books; precipitate trips from bookstand to broom closet in a last desperate attempt to keep out of sight the dirty spelling booklets of a preceding generation, unfinished projects and assorted rags – the key later conveniently “lost” among the folds of Mrs. Olbes’ (the principal’s wife) balloon skirt.
All year round the classroom walls had been unperturbably blank. Now they were, like the grounds, miraculously abloom – with cartolina illustrations of Parsing, A mitosis Cell Division and the Evolution of the Filipina Dress – thanks to the Group Two leader, Mr. Buenaflor (Industrial Arts) who, forsaken, sat hunched over a rainfall graph. The distaff side of Group Two were either practicing tango steps or clustered around a vacationing teacher who had taken advantage of her paid maternity leave to make a mysterious trip to Hongkong and had now returned with a provocative array of goods for sale.
The rowdiest freshman boys composed the fourth and discriminated group. Under the stewardship of Miss Noel (English), they had, for the past two days been “Landscaping the Premises,” as assignment which, true to its appellation, consisted in the removal of all unsightly objects from the landscape. That the dirty assignment had not fallen on the hefty Mr. de Dios (Physics) or the crafty Mr. Baz (National Language), both of whom were now hanging curtains, did not surprise Miss Noel. She had long been at odds with the principal, or rather, the principal’s wife – ever since the plump Mrs. Olbes had come to school in a fashionable sack dress and caught on Miss Noel’s mouth a half-effaced smile.
“We are such a fashionable group,” Miss Noel had joked once at a faculty meeting. “If only our reading could also be in fashion!” — Which statement obtained for her the ire of the only two teachers left talking to her. That Miss Noel spent her vacations taking a summer course for teachers in Manila made matters even worse – for Mr. Olbes believed that the English teacher attended these courses for the sole purpose of showing them up. And Miss Noel’s latest wrinkle, the Integration Method, gave Mr. Olbes a pain where he sat.
Miss Noel, on the other hand, thought utterly unbecoming and disgusting the manner in which the principal’s wife praised a teacher’s new purse of shawl. (“It’s so pretty, where can I get one exactly like it?” – a heavy-handed and graceless hint) or the way she had of announcing, well in advance, birthdays and baptisms in her family (in other words, “Prepare!”). The lady teachers were, moreover, for lack of household help, “invited” to the principal’s house to make a special salad, stuff a chicken or clean the silverware. But this certainly was much less than expected of the vocational staff – the Woodworking instructor who was detailed to do all the painting and repair work on the principal’s house, the Poultry instructor whose stock of leghorns was depleted after every party of the Olbeses, and the Automotive instructor who was forever being detailed behind the wheel of the principal’s jeep – and Miss Noel had come to take it in stride as one of the hazards of the profession.
But today, accidentally meeting in the lavatory, a distressed Mrs. Olbes had appealed to Miss Noel for help with her placket zipper, after which she brought out a bottle of lotion and proceeded to douse the English teacher gratefully with it. Fresh from the trash pits, Miss Noel, with supreme effort, resisted from making an untoward observation – and friendship was restored on the amicable note of a stuck zipper.
At 1:30, the superintendent’s car and the weapons carrier containing the supervisors drove through the town arch of Pugad Lawin. A runner, posted at the town gate since morning, came panting down the road but was outdistanced by the vehicles. The principal still in undershirt and drawers, shaving his jowls by the window, first sighted the approaching party. Instantly, the room was in a hustle. Grimy socks, Form 137’s and a half bottle of beer found their way into Mr. Olbes’ desk drawer. A sophomore breezed down the corridor holding aloft a newly-pressed barong on a wire hanger. Behind the closed door, Mrs. Olbes wriggled determinedly into her corset.
The welcoming committee was waiting on the stone steps when the visitors alighted. It being Flag Day, the male instructors were attired in barong, the women in red, white or blue dresses in obedience to the principal’s circular. The Social Studies teacher, hurrying down the steps to present the sampaguita garlands, tripped upon an unexpected pot of borrowed bougainvillea. Peeping from an upstairs window, the kitchen group noted that there were only twelve arrivals. Later it was brought out that the National Language Supervisor had gotten a severe stomach cramp and had to be left at the Health Center; that Miss Santos (PE) and Mr. del Rosario (Military Tactics) had eloped at dawn.
Four pairs of hands fought for the singular honor of wrenching open the car door, and Mr. Alava emerged into the sunlight. He was brown as a sampaloc seed. Mr. Alava gazed with satisfaction upon the patriotic faculty and belched his approval in cigar smoke upon the landscape. The principal, rivaling a total eclipse, strode towards Mr. Alava minus a cuff link. “Compañero!” boomed the superintendent with outstretched arms.
“Compañero!” echoed Mr. Olbes. They embraced darkly.
There was a great to-do in the weapons carrier. The academic supervisor’s pabaon of live crabs from Mapili had gotten entangled with the kalamay in the Home Economics supervisor’s basket. The district supervisor had mislaid his left shoe among the squawking chickens and someone had stepped on the puto seco. There were overnight bags and reed baskets to unload, bundles of perishable and unperishable going-away gifts. (The Home Economics staff’s dilemma: sans ice box, how to preserve all the food till the next morning). A safari of Pugad Lawin instructors lent their shoulders gallantly to the occasion.
Vainly, Miss Noel searched in the crowd for the old Language Arts supervisor. All the years she had been in Pugad Lawin, Mr. Ampil had come: in him there was no sickening bureaucracy, none of the self-importance and pettiness that often characterized the small public official . He was dedicated to the service of education, had grown old in it. He was about the finest man Miss Noel had ever known.
How often had the temporary teachers had to court the favor of their supervisors with lavish gifts of sweets, de hilo, portfolios and what-not, hoping that they would be given a favorable recommendation! A permanent position for the highest bidder. But Miss Noel herself had never experienced this rigmarole — she had passed her exams and had been recommended to the first vacancy by Mr. Ampil without having uttered a word of flattery or given a single gift. It was ironic that even in education, you found the highest and the meanest forms of men.
Through the crowd came a tall unfamiliar figure in a loose coat, a triad of pens leaking in his pocket. Under the brave nose, the chin had receded like a gray hermit crab upon the coming of a great wave. “Miss Noel, I presume?” said the stranger.
The English teacher nodded. “I am the new English supervisor – Sawit is the name.” The tall man shook her hand warmly.
“Did you have a good trip, Sir?”
Mr. Sawit made a face. “Terrible!”
Miss Noel laughed. “Shall I show you to your quarters? You must be tired.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mr. Sawit. “I’d like to freshen up. And do see that someone takes care of my orchids, or my wife will skin me alive.”
The new English supervisor gathered his portfolios and Miss Noel picked up the heavy load of orchids. Silently, they walked down the corridor of the Home Economics building, hunter and laden Indian guide.
“I trust nothing’s the matter with Mr. Ampil, Sir?”
“Then you haven’t heard? The old fool broke a collar bone. He’s dead.”
“You see, he insisted on doing all the duties expected of him – he’d be ahead of us in the school we were visiting if he felt we were dallying on the road. He’d go by horseback, or carabao sled to the distant ones where the road was inaccessible by bus – and at his age! Then, on our visitation to barrio Tungkod – you know that place, don’t you?”
Miss Noel nodded.
“On the way to the godforsaken island, that muddy hellhole, he slipped on the banca – and well, that’s it.”
“Funny thing is – they had to pass the hat around to buy him a coffin. It turned out the fellow was as poor as a church mouse. You’d think, why this old fool had been thirty-three years in the service. Never a day absent. Never a day late. Never told a lie. You’d think at least he’d get a decent burial – but he hadn’t reached 65 and wasn’t going to get a cent he wasn’t working for. Well, anyway, that’s a thorn off your side.”
Miss Noel wrinkled her brow, puzzled.
“I thought all teachers hated strict supervisors.” Mr. Sawit elucidated. “Didn’t you all quake for your life when Mr. Ampil was there waiting at the door of the classroom even before you opened it with your key?”
“Feared him, yes,” said Miss Noel. “But also respected and admired him for what he stood for.”
Mr. Sawit shook his head smiling. “So that’s how the wind blows,” he said, scratching a speck of dust off his earlobe.
Miss Noel deposited the supervisor’s orchids in the corridor. They had reached the reconverted classroom that Mr. Sawit was to occupy with two others.
“You must be kind to us poor supervisors,” said Mr. Sawit as Miss Noel took a cake of soap and a towel from the press. “The things we go through!” Meticulously, Mr. Sawit peeled back his shirt sleeves to expose his pale hairless wrists. “At Pagkabuhay, Miss What’s-her-name, the grammar teacher, held a demonstration class under the mango trees. Quite impressive, and modern; but the class had been so well rehearsed that they were reciting like machine guns. I think it’s some kind of a code they have, like if the student knows the answer he is to raise his left hand, and if he doesn’t he is to raise his right, something to that effect.” Mr. Sawit reached for the towel hanging on Miss Noel’s arm.
“What I mean to say is, hell, what’s the use of going through all that palabas? As I always say,” Mr. Sawit raised his arm and pumped it vigorously in the air, “let’s get to the heart of what matters.”
Miss Noel looked up with interest. “You mean get into the root of the problem?”
“Hell no!” the English supervisor said, “I mean the dance! I always believe there’s no school problem that a good round of tango will not solve!”
Mr. Sawit groped blindly for the towel to wipe his dripping face and came up to find Miss Noel smiling.
“Come, girl,” he said lamely. “I was really only joking.”
As soon as the bell rang, Miss Noel entered I-B followed by Mr. Sawit. The students were nervous. You could see their hands twitching under the desks. Once in a while they glanced apprehensively behind to where Mr. Sawit sat on a cane chair, straight as a bamboo. But as the class began, the nervousness vanished and the boys launched into the recitation with aplomb. Confidently, Miss Noel sailed through a sea of prepositions, using the Oral Approach Method:
“I live in a barrio.”
“I live in a town.”
“I live in Pugad Lawin.”
“I live on a street.”
“I live on Calle Real…”
Mr. Sawit scribbled busily on his pad.
Triumphantly, Miss Noel ended the period with a trip to the back of the building where the students had constructed a home-made printing press and were putting out their first school paper.
The inspection of the rest of the building took exactly half an hour. It was characterized by a steering away from the less presentable parts of the school (except for the Industrial Arts supervisor who, unwatched, had come upon and stood gaping at the French soap poster). The twenty-three strains of bougainvillea received such a chorus of praise and requests for cutting that the poor teachers were nonplussed on how to meet them without endangering life and limb from their rightful owners. The Academic supervisor commented upon the surprisingly fresh appearance of the Amitosis chart and this was of course followed by a ripple of nervous laughter. Mr. Sawit inquired softly of Miss Noel what the town’s cottage industry was, upon instructions of his uncle, the supervisor.
“Buntal hats,” said Miss Noel.
The tour ended upon the sound of the dinner bell and at 7 o’clock the guests sat down to supper. The table, lorded over by a stuffed Bontoc eagle, was indeed an impressive sight. The flowered soup plates borrowed from Mrs. Valenton vied with Mrs. De los Santos’ bone china. Mrs. Alejandro’s willoware server rivalled but could not quite outshine the soup tureens of Mrs. Cruz. Pink paper napkins blossomed grandly in a water glass.
The superintendent took the place of honor at the head of the table with Mr. Olbes at his right. And the feast began. Everyone partook heavily of the elaborate dishes; there were second helpings and many requests for toothpicks. On either side of Mr. Alava, during the course of the meal, stood Miss Rosales and Mrs. Olbes, the former fanning him, the latter boning the lapu-lapu on his plate. The rest of the Pugad Lawin teachers, previously fed on hopia and coke, acted as waiteresses. Never was a beer glass empty, never a napkin out of reach, and the supervisors, with murmured apologies, belched approvingly. Towards the end of the meal, Mr. Alava inquired casually of the principal where he could purchase some bunt al hats. Elated, the latter replied that it was the cottage industry right here in Pugad Lawin. They were, however, the principal said, not for sale to colleagues. The Superintendent shook his head and said he insisted on paying, and brought out his wallet, upon which the principal was so offended he would not continue eating. At last the superintendent said, all right,compañero, give me one or two hats, but the principal shook his head and ordered his alarmed teachers to round up fifty; and the ice cream was served.
Close upon the wings of the dinner tripped the Social Hour. The hosts and the guests repaired to the sal a where a rondalla of high school boys were playing an animated rendition of “Merry Widow” behind the hat rack. There was a concerted reaching for open cigar boxes and presently the room was clouded with acrid black smoke. Mr. Olbes took Miss Noel firmly by the elbow and steered her towards Mr. Alava who, deep in a cigar, sat wide-legged on the carved sofa. “Mr. Superintendent,” said the principal. “This is Miss Noel, our English teacher. She would be greatly honored if you open the dance with her.”
“Compañero,” twinkled the superintendent. “I did not know Pugad Lawin grew such exquisite flowers.”
Miss Noel smiled thinly. Mr. Alava’s terpsichorean knowledge had never advanced beyond a bumbling waltz. They rocked, gyrated, stumbled, recovered, rolled back into the center, amid a wave of teasing and applause. To each of the supervisors, in turn, the principal presented a pretty instructor, while the rest, unattractive or painfully shy, and therefore unfit offering to the gods, were left to fend for themselves. The first number was followed by others in three-quarter time and Miss Noel danced most of them with Mr. Sawit.
At ten o’clock, the district supervisor suggested that they all drive to the next town where the fiesta was being celebrated with a big dance in the plaza. All the prettier lady teachers were drafted and the automotive instructor was ordered behind the wheel of the weapons carrier. Miss Noel remained behind together with Mrs. Divinagracia and the Home Economics staff, pleading a headache. Graciously, Mr. Sawit also remained behind.
As Miss Noel repaired to the kitchen, Mr. Sawit followed her. “The principal tells me you are quite headstrong, Miss Noel,” he said. “But then I don’t put much stock by what principals say.”
Miss Noel emptied the ashtrays in the trash can. “If he meant why I refused to dance with Mr. Lucban…”
“No, just things in general,” said Mr. Sawit. “The visitation, for instance. What do you think of it?”
Miss Noel looked into Mr. Sawit’s eyes steadily. “Do you want my frank opinion, Sir?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, I think it’s all a farce.”
“That’s what I’ve heard – what makes you think that?”
“Isn’t it obvious? You announce a whole month ahead that you’re visiting. We clean the schoolhouse, tuck the trash in the drawers, and bring out our best manners. As you said before, we rehearse our classes. Then we roll out the red carpet – and you believe you observe us in our everyday surrounding, in our everyday comportment?”
“Oh, we know that.”
“That’s what I mean – we know that you know. And you know that we know that you know.” Mr. Sawit gave out an embarrassed laugh. “Come now, isn’t that putting it a trifle strongly?”
“”No,” replied Miss Noel. “In fact, I overheard one of your own companions say just a while ago that if your lechon were crisper than that of the preceding school, if our pabaon were more lavish, we would get a higher efficiency rating.”
“Of course he was merely joking. I see what Mr. Olbes meant about your being stubborn.”
“And what about one supervisor, an acquaintance of yours, I know, who used to come just before the town fiesta and assign us the following items: 6 chickens, 150 eggs, 2 goats, 12leche flans. I know the list by heart – I was assigned the checker.”
“There are a few miserable exceptions…”
“What about the sweepstakes agent supervisor who makes a ticket of the teacher’s clearance for the withdrawal of his pay? How do you explain him?”
Mr. Sawit shook his head as if to clear it.
“Sir, during the five years that I’ve taught, I’ve done my best to live up to my ideals. Yet I please nobody. It’s the same old narrow conformism and favor-currying. What matters is not how well one teaches but how well one has learned the art of pleasing the powers-that-be and it’s the same all the way up.”
Mr. Sawit threw his cigar out of the window in an arc. “So you want to change the world. I’ve been in the service a long time, Miss Noel. Seventeen years. This bald spot on my head caused mostly by new teachers like you who want to set the world on fire. In my younger days I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you for expulsion for your rash opinions. But I’ve grown old and mellow – I recognize spunk and am willing to give it credit. But spunk is only hard-headedness when not directed towards the proper channels. But you’re young enough and you’ll learn, the hard way, singed here and there – but you’ll learn.”
“How are you so sure?” asked Miss Noel narrowly.
“They all do. There are thousands of teachers. They’re mostly disillusioned but they go on teaching – it’s the only place for a woman to go.”
“There will be a reclassification next month,” continued Mr. Sawit. “Mr. Olbes is out to get you – he can, too, on grounds of insubordination, you know that. But I’m willing to stick my neck out for you if you stop being such an idealistic fool and henceforth express no more personal opinions. Let sleeping dogs lie, Miss Noel. I shall give you a good rating after this visitation because you remind me of my younger sister, if for no other reason. Then after a year, when I find that you learned to curb your tongue, I will recommend you for a post in Manila where your talents will not be wasted. I am related to Mr. Alava, you know.”
Miss Noel bit her lip in stunned silence. Is this what she had been wasting her years on? She had worked, she had slaved – with a sting of tears she remembered all the parties missed (“Can’t wake up early tomorrow, Clem”), alliances forgone (“Really, I haven’t got the time, maybe some other year?”) the chances by-passed (“Why, she’s become a spinster!”) – then to come face to face with what one has worked for – a boor like Mr. Sawit! How did one explain him away? What syllogisms could one invent to rub him out of the public school system? Below the window, Miss Noel heard a giggle as one of the Pugad Lawin teachers was pursued by a mischievous supervisor in the playground.
“You see,” the voice continued, “education is not so much a matter of brains as getting along with one’s fellowmen, else how could I have risen to my present position?” Mr. Sawit laughed harshly. “All the fools I started out with are still head-teachers in godforsaken barrios, and how can one be idealistic in a mudhole? Goodnight, my dear.” Mr. Sawit’s hot trembling hand (the same mighty hand that fathered the 8-A’s that made or broke English teachers) found its way swiftly around her waist, and hot on her forehead Miss Noel endured the supreme insult of a wet, fatherly kiss.
Give up your teaching, she heard her aunt say again for the hundredth time, and in a couple of months you might be the head. We need someone educated because we plan to export.
Oh, to be able to lie in a hammock on the top of the hill and not have to worry about the next lesson plan! To have time to meet people, to party, to write.
She remembered Clem coming into the house (after the first troubled months of teaching) and persuading her to come to Manila because his boss was in need of a secretary. Typing! Filing! Shorthand! She had spat the words contemptuously back at him. I was given a head so I could think! Pride goeth… Miss Noel bowed her head in silence. Could anyone in the big, lighted offices of the city possibly find use for a stubborn, cranky, BSE major?
As Miss Noel impaled the coffee cups upon the spokes of the drainboard, she heard the door open and the student named Leon come in for the case of beer empties.
“Pandemonium over, Ma’am?” he asked. Miss Noel smile dimly. Dear perceptive Leon. He wanted to become a lawyer. Pugad Lawin’s first. What kind of a piker was she to betray a dream like that? What would happen to him if she wasn’t there to teach him his p’s and f’s? Deep in the night and the silence outside flickered an occasional gaslight in a hut on the mountain shaped like a sleeping woman. Was Porfirio deep in a Physics book? (Oh, but he mustn’t blow up any more pigshed.) What was Juanita composing tonight? (An ode on starlight on the trunk of a banana tree?) Leon walked swiftly under the window: in Miss Noel’s eyes he had already won a case. Why do I have to be such a darn missionary?
Unafraid, the boy Leon stepped into the night, the burden of bottles light on his back.
After breakfast the next morning, the supervisors packed their belongings and were soon ready. Mr. Buenaflor fetched a camera and they all posed on the sunny steps for a souvenir photo: the superintendent with Mr. and Mrs. Olbes on either side of him and the minor gods in descending order on the Home Economics stairs. Miss Noel was late – but she ran to take her place with pride and humility on the lowest rung of the school’s hierarchy