Virgen del Rosario Learning Center

IMG_7038It’s 4:30 am when I suddenly awaken. Curses, jet lag! But that’s ok, because at least I have some dawn quiet before the streets fill with cars and tricycles and the occasional street peddler announcing baked goods for sale. I head outside to catch the sunrise and wonder what great things I’m going to do today.

After breakfast, an aunt comes by declaring I’m to accompany her to a “daycare.” I don’t know anything about said daycare, but I like children and agree easily enough. On the way there, I learn it’s a nonprofit school for pre-k, kindergarten, and first graders. Today is their Christmas pageant/party. I arrive with no expectations, but the experience is moving beyond expectation.

To help you imagine this, you should probably know that the daycare is in a little corner of a little provincial town in a 3rd world country; the school is subsidized by donors, and the children are far from affluent. Upon arrival, the sight immediately strikes an emotional chord. At the end of a very narrow dirt road, there is a tall, rough concrete fence with a wide outdoor space within, and modest little building in the middle. Closest to the gate, there is an outdoor stage; and in front of that stage are rows of little plastic chairs, lined up theater style. In each of those chairs is a little child between 3-7 years old. There are at least a hundred of them, all waiting patiently for the Christmas festivities to begin. Farther away and around the perimeter are scattered the parents of these children.

Before I can fully take in the view, grinning silly at the pool of little children, I’m escorted onstage and requested to make the opening remarks. What!? When was someone going to tell me I was commencing the day’s festivities? Additionally, I’m somehow now judging the contests as well: Who are the top dancers? Who created the best parols (Filipino star ornaments)? Who would come up and sing a song?

After the short skits and the contests, it’s time for gift-giving. The children’s parents usher them towards the presents, but the children hesitate. They shy away from approaching the colorfully wrapped packages. At this point I realize they were also reluctant to accept prizes awarded for the earlier contests. Why are the children so shy? For such a large group of tiny things, the noise level is surprisingly minimal. On one hand, they are well-behaved; on the other, it’s a little worrisome that the vast majority of them are so withdrawn.

Soon, it’s time for food. There are clusters of potluckers scattered around the courtyard, and the teachers urge us to sample food from them all. As the children disperse to eat with their parents, I observe that there are some children still sitting in their little plastic chairs, looking quite uncertain as to what they should do. I approach a little girl in particular who is sitting off to the side on her own.

“Anong pangalan mo?” I ask. What’s your name?

“Monica,” she replies in a barely audible whisper.

“Don’t you want to eat?” Monica shakes her head. “You’re not hungry?” Monica shakes her head again. “Where’s your mommy?”

“At home,” she answers matter-of-factly.

I’m concerned that the girl’s mother isn’t present when so many others are, but who’s to say what’s going on at home? I offer Monica a drink and she finally nods shyly. I walk Monica over to a drink station, where she takes an imperceptible sip from the cup I hand her, and promptly returns the cup to me. I assure her that it’s hers, and she slinks away as someone else asks me a question.

IMG_7054Leaving the school, my heart breaks thinking of the children. I can’t imagine why they seem so subdued: nary a laugh, nary a smile, nary a display of curiosity. On this day of celebration, the children don’t seem to register that there is merrymaking to be had. When we throw candy out into the audience, the parents seem more excited about the sugar than the children do. Because they are so young, it’s easy to understand that they might need to be coaxed out of their shells and grow familiar with the new adults. It’s understandable that they might be soft-spoken or reticent initially. It’s puzzling that they’re so hard-pressed to interact –or even react– to various stimuli. Sure, they might be dressed for the party, but they don’t actually seem to be “here.”

The two teachers tell me about past students. One has gone on to become an engineer, another a TV broadcaster. This inspires new hope in me.

I leave the children reminded of how much I have to be thankful for, and with a desire to revisit soon. I will see these children smile yet.