Teacher Fe: Educating Under the Bridge

August 25, 2019 Voluntourism

Upong skol. Hindi upong bahay.” “Kailangan nakadamit.” “Bawal kumain.”
(“Sit properly.” “Wear proper attire.” “No eating.”)

On a hot Saturday afternoon, Teacher Fe Matullano-Lustañas is unmindful of the engine blares, of people fast asleep all around, and of the thick air from the stench of the garbage-packed river nearby. She is just focused on putting order to an informal classroom she established under a bridge in La Huerta, Paranaque, Philippines. Her students, mostly aged four to five years old, are children of workers of the nearby “Bulungan,” a marketplace beside the Manila-Cavite Expressway or the Coastal Road.

Ano ang pangalan ng school natin?” Teacher Fe asked, her voice filled with enthusiasm as she prepared her students for her storytelling session.

“Education under the Bridge,” replied her students, numbering around 30.

Ano ulit?”Teacher Fe asked again.

“Education Under the Bridge,” her students shouted, now in unison. 

I visited Teacher Fe’s informal classroom with a colleague and a friend as part of my annual research for Bato Balani Foundation’s “The Many Faces of the Teacher” campaign.

June and July are usually the months I hop on planes, stay in hotels, and meet inspiring people.

This year, I started much closer to home. 

Actually, for the life of me, I do not understand why I haven’t heard of this program, even though it happens right under the bridge of one of the roads I used to pass daily.

Children have different reasons why they come to Teacher Fe’s “Education Under the Bridge.” Some attend to supplement what they learned in La Huerta Elementary School, where most of them are enrolled and where Teacher Fe has been teaching since 1993. Some come because they cannot yet enter formal school, because they still lack a very basic requirement: a birth certificate.

That was very surprising for me. As a volunteer for TREK, or TRails to Empower Kids, I have met tribal members who do not have birth certificates. Some do not even know their age nor the exact year they were born. But I had never thought this could happen right here in the city.

Joanna, one of the guardians, explained this to me. 

Mikey, 6 years old, was left under Joanna’s care after his mother died. She passed away before she could properly register Mikey. So, she enrolled Mikey in Teacher Fe’s “Education Under the Bridge” while waiting for proper documentation.

Teacher Fe established “Education under the Bridge” in 2013, under her program “Journey of Hope.” She, her volunteers, and the kids meet every Saturday, starting at 2:00 PM and ending only when everyone’s satisfied with what they’ve learned. 

Aside from basic literacy, Teacher Fe makes sure she injects good values and right conduct also in her lessons.

Kids in La Huerta are exposed to bad conduct every day, which they eventually get accustomed to. An example is the saying of bad words. 

So, in Teacher Fe’s classroom, the rule goes, “Bawal magsalita ng 'di maganda. Bawal yung habang nagtuturo ang volunteer, may nag-aaway, may umiiyak”) (“No bad words. While the volunteers are teaching, no fighting and no crying”).

She also instills the habit of prayers. Teacher Fe usually starts and ends her sessions with prayers.

During my interview with Teacher Fe, she admitted establishing this school was a difficult journey for her. Parents would rather have their kids with them to assist them in their work. Actually, the kids would rather earn P 5.00 cleaning green mussels or carrying pails. So, she met some resistance.

Teacher Fe describes her experience as “Matinding pagtatyaga at pagsasakripisyo sa loob ng sampung taon” (“Extreme patience and sacrifice for ten years”).

Another difficulty is funding the weekly activities. “Wala namang pondo 'to eh” (No funds”). She adds, “Kakainin mo na lang, para sa personal pangangailangan, ibabahagi mo pa sa mga estudyante” (“Instead of using personal funds for food, I give them to students”).

But Teacher Fe perseveres, and as a result, she is not only gaining the support of the community and of volunteers, but she is also attracting sponsors. Her efforts have also caught the attention of media agencies and different award-giving bodies. 

But what she considers her successes are the students who pursue their studies further.She is also proud that her former students come back to help her with her advocacies, one of whom is popular YouTuber and book author Lloyd Cardema.

Aside from “Education Under the Bridge,” Teacher Fe also has “Kabayani Community Training Center,” a program for both children and adults. They conduct their sessions in San Dionisio Old Barangay Hall, Burgos Street, San Dionisio, Paranaque City.

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