In Tugas Elementary School located in Patikul, Sulu the children hesitate to smile at strangers like me. The marine next to me who notices the confusion written on my face says, “This is one of the hottest places on the map. Children aren’t used to seeing outsiders here and some of them are related to the armed groups. Please do not wander off, Ma’am.” Clear as his directives are, they don’t seem to clarify anything.
We hop off the truck to speak with some teachers. A tiny smile forms on my lips when it occurs to me that I’m wearing something sunny next to a “serious” bunch of soldiers–and here we were, off to meet another unsmiling bunch of people. Someone had to have a sense of humor.
The teachers turn out to be a kind bunch. They express candidly to me that the school had seen better days and that most of them weren’t really bona fide teachers. They come to work on a voluntary basis owing to difficulties they face in getting items. There are few opportunities here.
In the course of our conversation, I ask one of them to please show me around the school. She eyes the soldier beside me and carefully seeks approval. He nods and calls two more of his men. We walk ten steps away from where we stood toward a classroom that is only a shell of its former self.
Burning schools is a thing here, apparently–this is not the first school-building I’ve seen to suffer this fate. While I hesitate to pin blame on rebel groups whom others believe to have destroyed these buildings, I wonder what kind of people would threaten school children to make a point? I question too the logic of burning down a school where one’s own children go. What is the point, really?
In the past weeks some reported acts of violence have erupted in Sulu. Ever since Zamboanga happened, I’ve been asked not to visit the area. Everyone tells me it’s too dangerous. Already, two marines have died after a grenade was tossed toward their vehicle. It’s difficult to face this reality especially after the celebratory mood of last month when One With Sulu launched its presence. How does one become joyful in the face of violence and injustice?
How does one begin to preach the importance of education? It is important but how do I explain school houses burning down as protest? What is being protested?
So much is unsettled inside me–and while I’m always running the gamut of emotions on this one, what truly frightens me is that the knowledge of violence being present only compels me to stay a day longer. I cannot tell how or when I’ll manage to make the return trip but deep inside I know I must. It cannot just be about building schoolhouses and watching them burn again. It can’t end at reconstruction.
What heartens me is the memory of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. There’s a scene when books are burned and the book people surprise us because they’ve committed whole texts to memory as if to say, it’s not the physical book that matters but what’s in them. Perhaps the same is true here? It’s not the schoolhouses but what goes on inside them? One can never be too certain.