What I learned in art class


Perhaps I can write about how it is working in a mission center, teaching kids from depressed areas how to appreciate art.

But first a little background…

The Mission Center

With partnership from two Protestant churches (one in the Philippines, another one in Korea), a Korean missionary came to the Philippines seeking to be of service to residents of depressed areas (as my mom insists is the politically correct term for squatter areas).

The Mission Center opened in the last week of February and offers livelihood programs, workshops and awareness seminars for parents. It offers, as well, as academic tutorial services,  a sports program and arts appreciation lessons for the children.

Recently, the Mission Center held its first Summer Class Graduation for the children.

The Community

I’ll just call the community the Mission Center serves Sleepy Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow is home to more than a thousand families living way, way below the poverty level. This depressed area has been in existence even way before I was born some twenty something long years ago.

I remember Sleepy Hollow from what memories I could dredge up from my childhood days. There was already a touch of irony when I enter the street that served as the entrance to Sleepy Hollow.

Actually, even if the entire street was marked by an arch saying Welcome to Sleepy Hollow! Mabuhay!, The real Sleepy Hollow stands on the right side of the street. Even then, the left side of the street was cleaner. There, a collossal private school stands proudly. It frowns down on its rat-infested, spit-strewn, dog-dropping-carpeted right side of the street.

That grim private school was my alma matter.

Also at the left side, at the end of the block where the private school stands, another street opens up. If you care to go further along this street, you will notice that the houses here are very big, well-kept. Cars are parked in garages. The gateposts have doorbells and proper family name plates are screwed on the gates. Some imposing gates even have surveillance cameras mounted on top of them. And there are rarely people loitering outside. It’s as if that crowded, filthy, chaotic right side of Sleepy Hollow’s street does not exist at all.

I’ve lived on this side of the street of Sleepy Hollow when I was little. I’m living here now.

And I was one of those taga-labas (from outside). The denizens of the inner Sleepy Hollow carry the badge, taga-looban (of the inside).

And so, allow me to take you on a brief tour of what Sleepy Hollow’s looban is, even today.

You see, the only thing that has changed in there was the density of makeshift houses that have inevitably sprung up, one on top of the other to accommodate the ever-growing families of the original taga-looban.

Let us wend our way through the mazes of dark, narrow paths into the stifling atmosphere of the looban. On days when the conditions are right, we can breathe in the low, putrid smell of the dead river, a few meters away further on to the right.

Families jostle for space in this area. Some have come from provinces as far as Tawi-tawi and Abra, in a stereotypical story of being lured to the city by the promise of a better life than what they had in the province.

Heavy in the air, almost as pungent as the smell of the dead river and human excrement thrown haphazardly into blocked esteros and drunkards’ urine on some whitewashed walls, is the palpable throb of unlived dreams and despair.

But there are also some people who have thrived in such places. There are families who have gained material success which are loathe to leave Sleepy Hollow because they have grown accustomed to the rhythms and flow of life there; even if they could afford to buy a decent property of their own.

Rarely will a day pass without Sleepy Hollow experiencing the upheavals of neighbor conflict. The taga-looban are a territorial lot. And they fight tooth and nail to defend what they feel is theirs. There is a strong sense of pride within the hearts of these people. Perhaps with the constant frustration and constant witnessing of something being taken away from them, it is easy for them to get incensed at the smallest bit of perceived threat to their dignity, to their property, to their person.

Children grow up and learn early on that in order to survive, they must talk back and assert their rights as individuals.

Parents have to slog in sweatshops all day, taking home the below minimum pay to feed a family of five, or seven, or nine, or eleven.

Many marry young. Many are left young and pregnant.

Many are involved in fisticuffs by the age of seven. Many are involved in assault with deadly weapon by age of twelve. Many are involved in armed robbery by age of fifteen. Many have served time in prison before the age of twenty.

Most of these children are intelligent. But intelligence is shunned in favor of street smarts and the way of the fist.

Anyway, as one of them have said about having dreams for their future: “…why bother dreaming when we have no means by which to support our dreams?” (…bakit pa mangangarap eh wala naman kaming pangtustos sa mga pangarap namin?)

The Now

I began teaching on a Tuesday.

The kids were rowdy. I could sense that most were eager to show off to a novice teacher who was obviously told to be kind to them. Some couldn’t care less.

For some, art class in the airconditioned room in one of the townhouses on the left side of Sleepy Hollow was just another diversion from the heat of the summer sun outside. Some wondered when  snack time was.

I asked them to draw their family.

Some wanted to escape the bleakness of their reality and drew their family portrait between trees, underneath a rainbow with a smiling sun.

Some drew airplanes to represent family members who have gone away years and years ago.

Others drew their family members holding hands with each other, a wish for unity because some of the other children have revealed that So-and-so’s family are always fighting.

Others drew only their favorite family members.

Others drew their family plus their pets.

And when I asked them to stand in front of the whole class to explain what they drew, they were very shy. Maybe because they weren’t used to public speaking. But maybe they were also scared of their friends’ teasing if they reveal just a bit of intimate detail about their families. But I want the reason to be the former. Because even the rowdiest child in class was tongue-tied when his turn came to explain his stick-people drawing to the rest of us.

That was just the first day. But my heart went out to those kids who have so little good things to look forward to in life. And as time flew, they’ve taught me important lessons.

Of survival.

Of honor.

Of honesty.

Of loyalty.

Of respect.

And of acceptance.


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