MAYBE: Cebu in Review
By Georgia Connally
"Ask the spirits a question, and throw the stones onto the floor," the Taoist monk told me. I stood staring at him, confused. This felt like a lot of pressure. Here I was standing in a brightly painted, ornate temple. Initially I felt overwhelmed by the design, the time it must have taken to create. But now, I felt overwhelmed by the silence. No one speaks inside the temple. The only words we utter must be directed to the spirits.
As I knelt down holding my incense, I thought about what the monk told me to do. How could I choose only one question? I could ask for fortune, success, a happy marriage, health. I was sure that many before me had asked for those very things. But for me, was this something I needed? Did I need all of that? Suddenly, I felt the eyes of the brightly painted deities upon me. I felt the silence. I realized that I did not need any of those things, because fulfillment does not require success, or fortune. I leaned forward and touched my head to the floor as the monk had done. I placed my incense in the vase and dropped the stones asking the spirits only "Will I find a fulfilling life?" As they hit the floor, I could feel the silence erupt around me. The echo of the stones contacting the floor resonated in the walls of the temple. Before me, a red, tangled dragon holding a gong quivered with the noise on the alter. The monk approached me--"Maybe." He said, and he smiled.
At the time I remember thinking that maybe was not the answer I wanted. I wanted, as so many of us do, a definitive yes. An encouragement, a path.
Over the course of the next couple days, we immersed ourselves in the culture of Cebu. We met locals and taught in local high schools. We shopped at markets and learned cultural dances. The first day with my students was terrifying. We approached the school in our van and were greeted with tiny faces waving American flags, Filipino flags and flags for their school. They lined the streets and smiled, singing our praises as we got out of the van. As I looked around, I saw a tiny girl without shoes, wearing dirty clothes, with apparent health issues. I cried when we locked eyes. In hindsight, I feel guilty now for pitying her. What she did next was one of the most impactful things I have ever seen. She smiled, and she hugged me. She welcomed me to Paril National High School and told me how much she loved her community, her school, and me. In that moment I realized I didn’t know anything about happiness, or a fulfilling life. And I was not done learning.
Over the next couple of days, I had the good fortune of teaching students in a classroom at Binaliw National High School. My students told me that they wanted to be engineers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and scientists. I learned that they all walk to school—everyday—in the rain or shine, they walk to school because they want to learn. In the classroom, they devoted their time to answering my questions and getting involved with the lessons. They impressed me every day.
For instance, I asked the students to participate in show and tell. Two students participated: one brought a pencil, and the other brought a stick. The girl who brought the stick told me that she brought the stick because she is like a stick. She gets wet sometimes, when she is in pain or has hard times, and like a stick she breaks when she is wet. But, she said, she will dry at the end of the day—and she will still be a stick. I was awestruck.
The girl that brought the pencil told me that the pencil represents the story of her life. She is the point, always writing out her story and making decisions about how it will end. And, her friends are the eraser, correcting her mistakes as she goes. She clarified that without the eraser, she would not feel comfortable writing her story, she would be afraid she could not fix her mistakes. I was speechless.
These are the types of students I lived with, I learned from, I taught.
From the outside looking in, it seemed like we, as Americans, had the better life. We have iphones, and indoor plumbing and electricity. But what we lack, they had—they have—in abundance: happiness and fulfilment. During a private interview with three students, I learned what these children understand, how they feel, about Cebu. We asked the students "if you could change one thing about Cebu, what would it be." They all responded "Nothing." I remember being stunned by their response. I wondered why they loved their home so much when they were so aware of the poverty and other issues. So I asked them why. One student responded "It is my home, these people are my family. We help each other, and are always there for each other. I love it here. It has been good to me and my family. I may leave one day, but I will return, to continue to help my community." Again, I was speechless. I wondered how many Americans would say the same thing. I would bet that most would complain about the traffic.
When I left Binaliw National High School, I promised the students that I would return. I intend to keep that promise. I need to see those selfless little people become the engineers, doctors, and lawyers that I know they will be. As I sit here, safely on my couch back in the US of A, I realize now why the Taoist monk smiled when he told me "Maybe." We are all tasked with determining what will make our lives fulfilling. It is different for every person, and every day is a new step... in a new direction. It is up to us to make sure that direction is a fulfilling one. Maybe, that "maybe" was just the encouragement I needed after all. By serving others we can learn a lot about each other, we can learn a lot about ourselves and we can achieve fulfilment. As the principal of one Cebu high school said during our welcoming ceremony "What you do for yourself dies when you do, what you do for others lives on through them." I would like to think that service is how we turn that "maybe" into a "YES".