There’s no point in going back to what once was.
Five long months of lockdown and this pandemic continues to expose the long-broken system that we have; an anti-poor and corruptible status quo. When we are all forced to transition to the online-mode of learning, let us acknowledge the situation of the already-disadvantaged marginalized youth sector yearning for education. As we uncomfortably witness how the pool of students will soon shed one by one, may you feel the loneliness that I felt before. Alone. Hungry. Hyped up but not understood.
“ Living in poverty was not just financially challenging but also emotionally detrimental to my family. The extreme exhaustion that we all felt alienated each one of us from fostering bonds with one another, and so, I despised every hardship that we ever went through. ”
Just a little backstory of how my life was so hard back then. I used to eat restaurant leftover scraps for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was painful to see how my classmates had crispy Chickenjoy while all I had in my lunchbox was a half-eaten, reheated drumstick from people I never knew. We just migrated to Cagayan de Oro City shortly after our home in Compostela Valley (Davao de Oro) was gutted by fire. Coming from a relatively comfortable lifestyle, that incident had left us with nothing. I was told countless times that education was our only way out of extreme poverty but even that was hard.
There were times when I accidentally burned some of my hair strands whenever I veered too close to the candle lamp while studying; a light bulb seemed like a luxury we couldn’t afford. Going to school meant I must do my part in contributing to my family’s income. May it be roaming the outskirts of our barangay to sell bundles of vegetables on weekends or carrying Styrofoam boxes larger than me to resell hot pandesal as early as 6 a.m.
Living in poverty was not just financially challenging but also emotionally detrimental to my family. The extreme exhaustion that we all felt alienated each one of us from fostering bonds with one another, and so, I despised every hardship that we ever went through. I envied the attention that all the kids of my age were getting and as an eight-year-old kid, all I ever wanted was to leave this planet for good; maybe, just maybe, a rocket ship to the moon and the stars would be a great restart. Believe it or not, that childhood dream of becoming an astronaut never died, in fact, it brought me to where I am today.
Years passed and I went on from calculating sales of vegetables and pandesal to competing and winning mathematics quiz bee competitions. I graduated as the batch valedictorian in Kauswagan Central School in Cagayan de Oro and fortunately landed myself into the prestigious Regional Science High School-X. All those years, my parents worked day and night just to make ends meet but unfortunately, hard work didn’t mean hard compensation as we were still barely surviving.
Back in December 2011, we nosedived into nothingness again as typhoon Sendong nearly swept our home and destroyed all the hard-won stuff that we had. Since then, typhoons had come around to terrorize us every Christmas season. For others, ber-months meant celebration, but for us, it meant ceaseless caution.
Looking back, here I am, virtually claiming my degree in Applied Physics. To think that it all started in a dream of riding a rocket ship, I chose this path because this is the closest that I’ll ever be to studying astronomy. What resonated most in the entirety of my undergraduate experience were the words from the former UP Diliman chancellor Michael Tan where he said, “It takes families, communities, a nation, to make a UP graduate.” I’m lucky enough to have had help pouring in all directions, privileged enough to have people invest in my education. I dedicate this victory wholeheartedly to every single Filipino who helped me finish my education, and for that, I vow to serve this nation with my utmost honor and excellence.
“ What I want people to focus on is that in my story, poverty has always been there, blocking me every step of the way. It’s like a chain that binds me and makes the impoverished invisible. While we are conditioned to be inspired by Cinderella’s rags-to-riches narrative, it just isn’t the reality. ”
Looking deep on this conquered success, I refuse to glorify the extreme poverty that I went through. Because the same poverty that everyone might think inspired me to make it all the way is the same poverty that hinders millions of Filipinos’ access to free and quality education. As I shifted my sablay from right to left, I couldn’t help but take a step back and feel guilty in this warm spotlight. I believe my fellow Filipinos should stand beside me in this victory, not behind me.
To those classmates I know who had to stop school to find a job; to those who chose not to go to college because it is extremely expensive; to those who are refused of taking exams due to unpaid school fees; to those who fail in their academics, fatigued by their part-time jobs; to those dreams constantly killed by this systemic poverty — I am with you. I know what it’s like to lose your spirit over a hungry stomach let alone be disadvantaged further by the inaccessibility of education.
What I want people to focus on is that in my story, poverty has always been there, blocking me every step of the way. It’s like a chain that binds me and makes the impoverished invisible. While we are conditioned to be inspired by Cinderella’s rags-to-riches narrative, it just isn’t the reality. It is not a question of hard work and perseverance (because believe me we have a lot) but it’s a matter of having adequate means to allow us to break free from this generational cycle of poverty. This hard reality is often so overlooked that we have evolved to fetishize this toxic Filipino resiliency.
“ Pinanganak at nabuhay kaming mahirap, pero mamamatay kaming mahirap hindi dahil sa katamaran, kundi dahil kami ay araw-araw pinagkakaitan. ”
I grew up believing that those chains were the norm. As I struggled endlessly to break free, I encountered the painful reality. “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,” words from a revolutionary philosopher Rosa Luxemburg that we can all learn from.
The ongoing global crisis has worsened the already impossible situation of those living in extreme poverty. As long as nothing in this problematic system is changed, those chains won’t just bind us but also drown us. Until then, stories like mine will just remain as the very few inspiring stories that get featured annually, but it will never be the reality for the majority of the marginalized.
Pinanganak at nabuhay kaming mahirap, pero mamamatay kaming mahirap hindi dahil sa katamaran, kundi dahil kami ay araw-araw pinagkakaitan.
Looking forward, let us refuse to believe that poverty is not a hindrance to success because it is, it has always been, and it will continue to be. My victory is an exception but it is not the norm. With this victory comes a voice and I urge everyone to echo our demand for a systematic intervention to solve the root causes of poverty. Soon, I’ll be on both ends as an educator and a graduate student, and I believe that the only way we can persist in this online mode of learning is being together, ensuring that no one gets left behind.
Looking beyond, we must start accepting that poverty is disempowering, not motivational. It has been the case even before the health pandemic, during the pandemic, even after the pandemic if things will not change. I stand here because I represent what anyone of us can achieve if only, we have better circumstances. After all, I believe with all my heart that education is a right, not a privilege. Let us transition to a new normal where education that is free and accessible is normalized and where poverty is solved, not glorified.
I am Rene and let my victory inspire you, but most importantly, let it enrage you.
Edited by Büm Tenorio Jr.