It didn’t take long for me to adjust to my new world—this wonderful school with its well-tended garden, spacious hallways and fully-stocked library. It was easy to navigate your way around the C-shaped building. A short flight of stairs led you to the main hallway, which housed the Principal’s office, the library and the science room. The right and left wings mostly had classrooms, with the Clinic at the very end. I thought I had the best school building in the world until I was old enough to venture to Angeles, and saw, to my utter surprise, a duplicate of my school—the Angeles Elementary School. Same façade. Same open circle fence work. Same concrete steps. Same wooden doors and bulletin board. And even the same paint job! For awhile, I thought M.E.S. was transferred to Angeles, and once I entered, I would meet Mrs. Gomez again!
Of course, our schools of yesteryears did not start as grandly as it did for Mabalacat or Angeles. Private tutoring was the practice in the Spanish times. There was, for instance, a certain Apung Beltung Pile (Old Lame Beltung) who operated a “bantayan” school in San Francisco, Mabalacat, a kind of a day-care center where parents left their kids to study the 3 R’s under his tutelage. Formal education beyond the primary school level was initially reserved for Spaniards.
With the coming of the Americans, a Department of Public Instruction was established in 1900 with Mr. Fred W. Atkinson as General Superintendent. He imposed the use of English as a medium of instruction and called for the importation of American teachers to help run native schools and train local teachers. The largest and most well-known batch of teachers arrived in the Philippines on 21 August 1901 aboard the U.S.S. Thomas.
In 1907, the 1st Philippine Assembly’s first legislation was the Gabaldon Act. The proponent was Isauro Gabaldon (1875-1942) of Nueva Ecija, a member of the House of Representatives (1907-1911) and the Senate (1916-1919). The act appropriated P1 Million to construct schools all over the country. In Pampanga, Angeles and Mabalacat town were among the first beneficiaries of the Gabaldon Act. The school buildings were built strictly adhering to the architectural lay-out specified in the Gabaldon Plan, with the structure elevated on posts like a nipa hut, hence, the uniformity in style. The classrooms had typical wooden floors and open-shut swing windows of capiz (mother-of-pearl).
In the case of Mabalacat, the school building was constructed on a tract of land donated by Mrs. Rufino Angeles de Ramos , with the intercession of Atty. Francisco Siopongco. In the hallowed portals of M.E.S. we were drilled no end about fractions and conjunctions, while reading Clark-donated Dick and Jane textbooks and local titles such as my favorite “Pathways to Reading”, “Folk Tales of the Philippines” by Maximo Ramos and Camilo Osias’s “Philippine Reader” book series. Morning usually began with a Flag Ceremony in the courtyard. One inside the room, a student was picked to do a recital of “Ing Balita Ngeni”—news for the day—in which everything, from the weather to the number of absent pupils, were documented in news form on the blackboard. Above the board were cheap pictures of our national heroes and at the rear was a bulletin board that displayed our art education masterpieces. I remember a native abacus in the classroom, which had wooden pots and fruits strung on wires instead of the traditional counting beads.
My years at M.E.S. were a period of juvenile independence, my first taste of freedom in fact, for I could socialize and widen my circle of friends beyond my Sta. Ines neighbors. For the first time, I was on my own, deciding for myself what merienda I should buy with my 15 centavo baon. Often, I would vacillate between the school canteen’s palitaw or Atching Tali’s special halu-halo. Sadly, that all ended by lunch, when the househelp fetched for me home.
Over 30 years after I left M.E.S., I came back to visit the school on a warm June afternoon. Actually, I just sneaked in when I saw the open iron gates. Carpenters were preparing the building for the school opening and military men were still doing finishing touches on the buildings at the back, leveled by the tragic crash of a PAF plane pilotted by Capt. Daniel Policarpio on 2 May 2002. The crash, which killed the pilot and one local teacher, put the school on the front pages of national newspapers.
I took a quick stroll around the main building, re-locating my old haunts like my first grade classroom and library. They were still there, looking much the same way I left them, caught in a time warp of some sorts. There was an overpowering feeling of nostalgia the moment I entered the library with its cabinets of dusty books, smelling of the odors, the scents of my childhood past, not unlike opening a box of Crayolas. Could my “Pathways to Reading” storybook be in one of these book cases?
Surveying the school grounds on my way out, I missed the Home Economics house where our domestic skills like cooking, sewing and basic housekeeping were honed. Gone too were the Science Room and the Industrial Arts building where we crafted dozens of dustpans recycled from empty cooking oil cans. Some familiar landmarks remain: the cast cement bust of Jose Abad Santos, the garden fields where we tended our pechays under Mr. Rodrillo’s watchful eye, and the ancient narra trees in the front yard, still standing tall after all these years, where, under their cool canopy, I and my classmates would gather together to share jokes or trade secrets, comfortable in each other’s company and foolishly wishing that our school days would never, ever end.
(31 August 2002)