“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” So wrote the novelist Charles Dudley Warner, a good friend of Mark Twain.
Like a grim weather forecast, a global survey program has just recently ranked the Philippines the lowest out of 79 countries in reading comprehension. This is according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
That’s something akin to PAGASA forecasting cloudy skies and isolated thunderstorms for the rest of the country.
As if that were not enough, the same survey ranked the Philippines second lowest in science and mathematics.
This came as a surprise. Pardon my lack of up to date information but my generation had always thought that Filipinos were head and shoulders above the other countries when it came to reading skills. After all, was it not a Filipina -- Maria Theresa Calderon -- who was (and I think still is) the fastest reader in the world? As a teenage Filipina student at Northwestern University in Chicago, she was recorded to read 50,000 words per minute -- with 100% comprehension. (The average reading speed is between 250 and 300 words per minute.) And she’d complained that she could even be reading faster if she only didn’t have to pause to turn the pages.
Former President Ferdinand E. Marcos’ reading speed was reputed to be 8,000 words per minute, again with 100% comprehension. This is not hard to believe. As a law student he reviewed for the bar examinations while in prison, took it that year -- and emerged as bar topnotcher. As a youth I had the good fortune to personally listen to him deliver his public speeches, as he was citing historical facts and figures and complex statistics -- without notes!
Our very own, the great Naga City Mayor Ramon H. Felipe, Jr. was a prodigious reader. As a student he finished summa cum laude at the Ateneo de Manila University, placed 3rd in the bar examinations -- before he even finished his formal law studies. The first time I heard the phrase “photographic memory” was when I was in parochial school -- a phrase attributed to the brilliant Mayor Felipe whose photographic memory was a byword among Naguenos.
And now this PISA report. What happened?
The importance of reading cannot be overemphasized. If you don’t read, you can’t get very far, make no bones about it. Reading has the power to expose you to new information about the world and other people. It is a tool to improve yourself and your right relationship with others. If you need guidance, or seek help -- from how to cook a particular dish to how to take medicine -- you need to read. To play the game of life well, you have to learn the rules. Reading does this. Above all, reading spares you from committing gross mistakes in life. For example, we’ve all heard the catchphrase, “learn from your mistakes.” Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor who unified Germany, however, takes a step farther: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes,” he said. “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” This is easily accomplished if you are a reader. You learn from others’ mistakes, and thus avoid them by reforming yourself and/or by doing the right thing.
So why this PISA report? What is the problem?
“Poor connectivity in far-flung areas,” says Frederick Sotto Perez, president of the Reader’s Association of the Philippines, in assessing one of the problems upsetting the standards of our socio-economically challenged students. “The country lacks reading materials,” he says. In effect, books and printed materials are very limited in the far-flung areas.
Fortunately, some pro-active individuals are no longer “complaining about the weather,” but doing something about it.
One of these forward thinking persons is Maria Regina Panol Arquiza, Ging for short, youngest child of the Arquiza family of Mercedes, Camarines Norte. And fortunately for her and for all of us, her family, along with the Panol clan, is four-squarely alongside her in her endeavors.
Seeing the importance of education and seeing the dire need of children in the agrarian reform areas in their barangay for reading materials, the Arquiza family took the first step by converting their farmhouse in Matoogtoog into a library. Thus, on August 16, 2013, the Aklatan Sa Kostal (ASK) Main Library was inaugurated.
Among the immediate beneficiaries of the library are the four barangays of Matoogtoog, Hinipaan, Masalongsalong, and Pambuhan -- all in the municipality of Mercedes.
So overwhelming was the response that it has expanded ever since.
After only a year ASK now had computers donated by South Korean friends. And today it boasts of many educational materials like audio visual gadgets on top of their boxes of books that it had to expand to reach more children outside the municipality of Mercedes.
A Mobile Library and several ASK Reading Corners have therefore been launched. For example, the ASK Corner Project, a mini library consisting of a bookshelf with a set of an encyclopedia, a dictionary, textbooks, magazines, and other reference materials, was launched in 2016.
The beneficiaries of the project have been the public high schools and public elementary schools in the different coastal and mountainous barangays in Camarines Norte, including one in Donsol, Sorsogon. Some Alternative Learning System (ALS) centers have also become beneficiaries.
Conscious of the importance of a well-rounded education, ASK gives classes in photography, public speaking, computer science, tree planting, ukulele playing, story-telling skills. No less than noted writer Ricky Lee has been one of its supporters, among other enthusiastic personalities.
From a hundred Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARB) children it has now benefited thousands in 25 barangays and has reached far-flung areas who benefit from ASK’s distribution of free school supplies.
The irony I cannot help noticing is the acronym ASK, because the movement does anything but “ask.” On the contrary, all it has been doing is GIVE, “without expecting anything in return,” says Ging. “I’ve always believed in the innate goodness of people,” she continues. “Even if only one person is helped , that is more than enough.”
But the paradox is the more she gives, the more the help comes in. “Nakakagulat,” is her way of describing it, to the effect that too many hands just came out from nowhere to help. Friends, relatives, and even some persons not known to the family have responded gratuitously. Books and other reading materials from different parts of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, the Visayas, Metro Manila, Singapore, South Korea and the USA keep pouring in to ASK. As of late December 2019, almost 30 units of ASK Corners have already been distributed all over the Bicol Region.
Truly, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” (Ecclesiastes 11: 1).
“We dream of reaching as many remote communities as possible in the entire Bicol Region,” say the Arquiza family. “We envision to provide quality education to children in need.”
In the words of contemporary novelist Vera Nazarian: “Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”
In one of their “draw your dream activities” in the picture Ging sent me, I could not help looking at the children’s smiling faces and thinking: perhaps in the future, one of these children would grow up to lead us out of poverty, of war, and of sickness. Who can tell? What is the name of that child? I believe it could well be the name of every child benefited by ASK.
Thanks to Ging and the Arquiza family who opened the doors widely for these children, the question will not be “why not” but “how soon!”