C: Colm Meaney

Out of the mouths of children and of babes, you have found praise (Psalm 8:2)

I crossed a wide river and made my way to a nearby village in quite a remote spot: the village consisted of some houses scattered among the hills, and a school. I headed to the school and instantly recognised the 4 teachers by their distinctive attire (standard nationwide dress for teachers). The puzzling thing was that they should have been teaching their students at this hour, but instead were under a mango tree trying to find some shade from the tropical sun, and chatting pleasantly, with no sense of urgency whatsoever. I introduced myself and wondered what was going on. They told me it was harvest time and most of the students were helping their parents harvest the corn. Ah yes, the relaxed, easy-going atmosphere of the rural Philippines.

The education system here is quite impressive. Basically parents have a choice as to where their children will receive their education, from kindergarten to college, depending on the family budget: either in state-run or private schools. The private schools (from kindergarten to university) are mostly run by religious: either Catholic congregations or Protestants. There are also parochial schools, but these are a fast-disappearing phenomenon, simply because the parishes cannot compete with the much higher salaries which the government can provide. The Columbans did mighty work setting up parochial schools, often in quite remote areas. Every village in the country has at least one elementary school, and if the area is widespread, will have two or even three. Most have a secondary school, or else students walk to the nearest one in the neighbouring village. The universities are exclusively in towns and cities, so any students from the hinterlands will have to rent digs during the school term.

In the more remote rural areas, the teachers arrive mid-morning on Monday and depart again on Friday before lunch. They may have to travel 20 miles on a motorbike (the habal-habal, mentioned in an earlier article), along very rutted tracks. They sleep in a sort of dormitory, and eat their meals together. As well as the teachers, most primary schools have catechists who teach the children the basics of the Christian faith. Their teaching is truly a labour of love, they are definitely not in for the money. They often have to spend for their own uniform and receive a token allowance for their dedication.

I always enjoyed visiting the schools in the mission areas, especially the elementary schools: the teachers were very welcoming, the children so innocent and untouched by the cynicism of adult life. Conditions were sometimes very simple altogether, almost primitive. Some pupils would bring their lunch of steamed rice and a single salted fish (sardine) wrapped in a banana leaf. They would get water from the pump in the school grounds. On special occasions, like the visit of the Inspector or graduation day, the parents would be asked to contribute something for the festivities: maybe a chicken or a kilo of rice or corn.

I visited each classroom and either later that day, or on another occasion, would celebrate Mass for students and teachers and the handful of parents who attended. I looked on these occasions as chances of evangelization through a combination of simple gospel messages and humour. In the classroom I would share one of Aesop’s fables (The Lion and the Mouse), alternating my voice to suit each animal. The teachers would have heard the story in college but always kept mum regarding the thrilling end of the tale. When I said “and the mouse helped the lion by biting on what?”, the children who knew the tale would shout out “the net”. It’s actually a profound tale of how the seemingly insignificant mouse became the hero. After all, the lion had scoffed at the tiny rodent’s offer to help him in the future, if the mighty king of the jungle would have mercy on it: like the seed, so seemingly small, which grows into a tree where the birds of the air make their nests (Matt: 13:32). And I would ask the students: here in the school, who are the lions? The teachers, the parents, myself. And who are the mice? The students: and they can come to our help, even in their childlike innocence and apparent powerlessness.

The story is followed by an action song, usually “His banner over me is love”, which actually has very simple gospel references and concomitant actions which are both entertaining and memorable (“He is the shepherd and we are the sheep”, “He is the bridge over troubled waters”, and so forth). And the classroom visit would not be complete without our thanking various people; this is done by introducing some new ways of giving applause. It is at this point that I feel like the apostle Paul, who wrote that he made a fool of himself so as to bring others to Christ (I Cor. 4:10). The first group to be thanked are the parents, who bring their children to school, rain or shine. So for them we perform the “rain clap”! Starting by simply touching a finger of one hand to another on the other hand, then two, then three, we proceed to increase the sound until we are applauding as loud as we can. These stages correspond to five different degrees of rain: light mist, drizzle, steady rain, cloudburst, prolonged downpour. I ask the children to accompany the last stage with vocal sound effects of thunder and lightning; hilarity reigns.

The next group deserving of mention is the teachers, and for them we perform the “barber clap”; for as the barber seeks to improve our looks, the teachers aim to improve our minds and characters. We imitate a person brushing himself down after having his haircut, removing any remaining hairs: clapping palms together, then palms on the lower arms, then the shoulders, finishing with pushing back the hair on the head, saying “wow”. Done in unison, it’s really impressive. And with the “wow”, more howls of laughter.

The final group is the youngest children: for them we do the “mosquito clap”: We clap our hands together randomly around us: in front, over our heads, and so on, mimicking a person trying to catch a mosquito. It is at this point that St. Paul’s quote comes to mind (making a fool of myself, for Christ).

During the school Mass, the readings are chosen to suit the children. I usually use the story of Solomon and the two women who claimed to be the mother of the same child, and how Solomon solved the dilemma (1 Kings: 3:16-27). I act it out rather than read it; it’s quite a gripping tale. Two women shared the same room and each gave birth within a few days of each other. One tragically smothered her son by accident, then in the dark of night, exchanged the dead body with the other woman’s healthy child. In the morning the mother of the healthy child sensed she had been duped, but the other woman would not agree. They went before Solomon, and in the face of an impasse, wherein both claimed to be the mother of the living child, he proposed slicing the infant in two, giving half to each woman. At that point the real mother cried out that the boy wasn’t to be harmed, for she would sooner see him given to the other claimant, than killed. Thus Solomon cut the Gordian knot, not the baby, and his fame spread; and the baby was duly given to its real mother. I see the children wide-eyed with excitement and consternation as I mime Solomon holding the razor-sharp sword over the newborn! I try to link the king’s wisdom with life in the school; they are there not simply to fill their minds with information and knowledge, but hopefully to grow in wisdom.

Then I add another story about Solomon which involved the queen of Sheba, who indeed visited him in Jerusalem (1 Kings: 10: 1-13); but the story I tell is not in the scriptures, but part of later tradition. The queen had heard of his fame and wanted to try to trap him. So at the formal banquet, when all the dignitaries in Israel were present, she tried to outsmart Solomon. At the head table, she had placed two vases of flowers: one contained real flowers, the other contained imitation plants, cleverly made by her technicians. Both sets looked identical, there was no way to tell them apart. In front of the crowd, she challenged Solomon to decide which was real, which was imitation. He proposed touching them to discover the answer, she said “No!”; he proposed smelling them, again the answer was “No!” The tension was building; was Solomon going to be outwitted? I ask the children for their suggestions; a few shrewd proposals are mentioned, but they hardly ever find the correct answer.

So I tell them that Solomon called his attendant and instructed him to open one of the windows. Then some insect flew in, but what was it? The children try butterfly, cicada, mosquito, and more. Eventually we identify the humble bumble bee as the insect that solved Solomon’s problem; it passed over one of the vases, but didn’t descend; it flew over the other and landed on the sweet-smelling flowers! Mystery solved. Apart from wisdom, the children can learn to be as canny as serpents (Matt: 10:16); they are already as innocent as doves.

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