Thursday, December 21, 2006

Aids Day Pt2: Being Schooled by Education

When I awoke the next morning, a surprising amount of my nervousness had passed. I think I had hit a point where the situation seemed so intimidating that I just stopped worrying about it. We would educate these 400 semi-English-fluent kids about aids to the best of our ability within our given 2 hour time frame, and that would be that. We had projector slides on our side, how could we go wrong?

The day began with a visit to the Kalibo hospital (a very nice looking hospital if I may say), which would serve as our base of operations. We took some pamphlets, some stickers, and plenty of pins and aids ribbons. Each group would be assigned a nurse to accompany them to their schools, although the nurse would not really play a part in the presentation itself, but she would be there to field any questions that the presenters weren’t able answer.

It was an overcast day, threatening to rain, as we made our way across the grounds of Aklan Valley High. The school was not in the style of my own high school, one giant hulking structure that students enter in the beginning of the day and exit at days end. Rather, the grounds held a scattered collection of buildings connected mostly by their close approximation to one another. Walking in, classes were clearly not in session yet, and the space in between these buildings was packed with children doing all the things that school children are prone to do: playing, pushing, running, screaming, and laughing. We were running slightly behind schedule, so after a brisk introduction to the principal, we were led to our makeshift stage.

Our audience of 400 was already noisily seated as we arrived in the basketball court, which, as we discovered, was where our presentation would be held. There was neither projector nor projection screen, so our slides were quickly delegated to the role of quick reference, but in exchange we did have a large black board and some chalk. After some negotiation we also managed to procure a much needed set of speakers and have a microphone set up for us. I think all three of us cast our gaze nervously to the sky, unsure what we would do if rain began to pour down on the open court. But while I think we were all aware of it, none of us spoke of it. We had a show to start.

I have to give it to them, for a group as large as they were, the students were incredibly well behaved. To my relief, I found that, unbeknownst to me, Sean (who had been in the Philippines a year longer than I) was already a whiz at the language. I can’t tell you what a nice surprise this was as we nervously tried to introduce ourselves and our purpose to the crowd. With this skill, and some very solid showmanship, Sean more or less took the lead role in things.

Niki managed the blackboard, writing down information as it was given (reading English was almost certainly easier for the students than understanding it spoken) and between Sean and I we went through the information, taking as interactive an approach was we could for a group of 400. There is a popular game show here called “Deal or No Deal”, the specifics aren’t important, but the show was named after the decision each contestant eventually has to face. We used this piece of pop culture to gauge the students knowledge and also their misconceptions.

We would go through our information by asking questions rather than listing off the facts. For instance we would ask what the symptoms are, or the means of transmission, and whenever a student put forth an answer, we would ask the larger audience for their opinion. “Deal?” We would ask them, “No Deal?” I think the kids got a great kick out of this approach. Sean had also the foresight to bring incentives for the kids, two canisters full of pins bearing the logo of his old college football team. Thank god he did, because we needed some form of incentive.

Filipinos, especially Filipino children, can be extremely shy. The front row would have happily answered every question we had, but row further from us than the front we had some troubles. In asking questions, the first approach I attempted was to take was to bring the person providing an answer to the front to speak into the microphone. This approach was perhaps the worst failure of the day. The first and only volunteer I tried this with began in the way I expected: she shyly refused and I thought to myself ‘this is normal. She really wants to come up on stage, she’s just shy.’
I was wrong. I spent a very long 2 or 3 minutes trying to coax the volunteer to follow me up to the front, and she didn’t budge an inch. I just couldn’t believe that a person would be bold enough to stand up with an answer, but be far too shy to be led on stage. Well, this one was, and I suspect if I had tried again I would have found the phenomenon widespread.

Given our time restraints, we didn’t end up going over some of the more sensitive subjects, namely safe sex. “Birth Control” is a dirty set of words in this mostly-Catholic country, putting us in an awkward enough situation to speak on it anyway, but the audience also seemed rather young for the topic. It was bad enough when we quizzed them on what 4 body fluids could transmit aids. They got ‘semen’, ‘breast milk’, and ‘blood’ easily enough, but they were truly stumped for the 4th one. Do you know it? ‘Vaginal secretions’ is the answer, and how red in the face we were to tell it to such a young audience. Shouldn’t there be a name for that fluid beyond the organ it comes from, like we have for semen? It would have made the whole affair much easier on us.


The bulk of the session went surprisingly well, with a good deal of audience participation. By and large, they were already pretty well educated on the subject. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely disposed of several myths and offered clarifications on a wide variety of matters. We had them break into two parts chanting “Invisible Disease!” and “No Symptoms!” back and forth.

The last half hour we took to play a game, introducing ‘Wildfire”, designed to demonstrate how swiftly and silently the aids virus can be spread. We had all played the game during our debriefing, but in a group less than 20. 400 participants was ambitious, and when we mentioned it, Caca was uncertain as to whether it was a good idea in such a large group. He said he had never heard of it being played with so many people. However, I think we were all firm believers that games can be the most effective means of teaching, and so we decided to go for it anyway.

In a smaller group, the idea is that everyone closes their eyes while one of the conductors goes around and taps a select few people on the shoulder. These are the ‘infected’. Then everyone opens their eyes, the group mills about and every player shakes hands with 3 people -- ‘Shaking hands’ in this case, serving as a metaphor for other, more intimate activities. When a previously tapped, or ‘infected’ player shakes someone’s hand they give a discreet signal, brushing their nail against the palm of the other person’s hand, to let them know they have the virus, and the other person has just contracted it.

The game backfired somewhat. First, with a group of 400 we didn’t remember who we had chosen as the source of the disease, and when we asked them to come to the center of the (giant) circle, very few actually stepped forward. When we went on to ask everyone who had contracted the virus to step forward, although there should have been 3 times as many, even fewer came forward. The kids were just that shy.

We turned it around into a lesson though. ‘If so many people were too shy to admit to having the aids virus, even in a game’ we told them, ‘how many do you think would come forward if they actually had the disease?’ Then we had them chanting “Invisible Disease” again, and after we passed out some stickers and issued some 400 aids ribbons we were satisfied that we had done a rather good job of things.

When we met up later in the day with the other volunteers, I would find out that I had actually been very lucky in my school assignment. While I faced a class of 400 with two other volunteers, the student turnout at some of the other schools was twice what had been predicted, which meant that several volunteers found themselves facing classes of 300 by themselves. Ironically, the largest student-to-volunteer ratio was faced by Mike, who was not a peace corps volunteer, but the brother to one. He was visiting on vacation, and joined this workshop for a chance to get a taste of the Peace Corps experience. Facing a class of 350 by himself, I would say that he had an excellent initiation.

But getting back to my story, after the presentations we were all scheduled to meet up at some sort of lunch with the mayor. By the end our aids talk with the students we found ourselves significantly behind schedule, and realized we had to depart straight away.

No deal.

A teacher approached us as we were wrapping things up to tell us the students had prepared a small marienda (snack) for us. So, in the name of good diplomacy we resigned to a quick bite before taking our leave.

Entering the room where this ‘small marienda’ had been prepared, I think my jaw must have dropped to my shins. In this small schoolhouse room they had prepared what resembled something akin to a miniature thanksgiving feast. There was an un-carved roasted chicken, coconut salad, mussels covered in melted cheese (recall how rare cheese is), vegetables, and French baguette all beautifully laid out with a proper set of utensils complete with salad forks and dessert spoons adorning our plates. In my time in the Peace Corps, I had never seen such a marienda. Needless to say, in the name of politeness and hunger we stayed a good measure longer than planned.

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