Midterm season. Forty-plus plastic chairs fill every last inch in a classroom at the Eastern Visayas State University. Forty-plus college students mill around, chatting, cramming, finalizing this space-maximizing arrangement of chair-desks. Apparently it’s supposed to prevent cheating. Not that it will. During the exam, my co-teacher and I will sit and listen for whispering. When it comes, my co-teacher will quiet the students, but then, after a time, inevitably, the whispering will return.

I knew the drill. I’d been through it twice already that week. Midterm season at EVSU. I knew the top student would get no more than 80 percent. I knew half the class might fail. I knew my co-teacher and I would sit together, grading those exams, feeling responsible, feeling frustrated, feeling–to quote one of my co-teachers–incompetent. I knew how midterms worked in the Philippines.

But of course I didn’t.

Because as my co-teacher handed out the exams–two double-sided folio-length sheets of multiple choice, matching, and short response questions–I observed, once again, the curious, querulous look on the faces of our students I’d seen twice before. It hadn’t registered the first two times. It hadn’t clicked when, twice previous, my co-teachers had to instruct the students that yes, they could write directly on the exam.

No, for me it took Jennelyn, a bubbly student in that third class, looking quizzically at those Xeroxed pages, to ask the question, “Pira?” How much?

Meaning: how much do we have to pay for our photocopied midterm exam?

It took my co-teacher’s response–”Waray!” Nothing!–and it took the collective whoop! of amazement from the students afterward for me to realize that a photocopied midterm is not standard operating procedure.

As a college teacher in the United States, I’d never balked at the cost of photocopies. Oh yes, I’d frequently avoided Xerox to save the trees, to save Mother Earth–all that touchy-feely, developed nation stuff–but I’d never thought about the two cents it cost to copy a page.

At my college in the U.S., each teacher was given a semestral photocopy allowance. We could copy 5,000 pages per sem. Which, at 2 cents a page, is a $100 allowance. Just for copies.

Put it in perspective: in the Philippines a college teacher might make Php 15,000 a month–about $300. In Tacloban City, when you go to the bevy of photocopying booths lining the street near the university row, you have to specify “clear copy” (1.5 pesos) or “ordinary” (.70 pesos). Ordinary being the dusty-looking, half-faded copies of first-generation of Xerox. And yes, you heard the price right: seven-tenths of a peso. Every tenth counts. And that’s in a city with a bevy of booths. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer just a few hours away travels to a neighboring town to copy.

The night of that midterm, my co-teacher quickly clarified that the department had paid for the photocopies, not her. Our department did have a copier, but I couldn’t be sure she was telling the truth. Knowing her generosity and dedication, it was highly possible she’d paid for the copies herself.

And then I remembered a half-forgotten comment another teacher had made. Something about providing her own bond paper. And then I remembered the look on the face of the department secretary when I asked about photocopying our midterm exams.

Sure, when you live in a new place you start to notice cost-of-living differences like this. You start to realize that something a simple as a photocopy has value. Sure, every tenth counts. But beyond that, you notice other things.

If students don’t usually write directly on photocopied exams, how exactly are exams administered?

And this:

If photocopied exams aren’t standard operating procedure, why had my co-teachers photocopied this midterm? Was it because of me?

And this:

Were there other things, other burdens the school was quietly bearing to keep me blissfully ignorant?

Walter Benjamin, in his essay, The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, asserts:

One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

Even now, in this age of reproduction, I saw the same thing, an aura, in something as seemingly simple as a Xerox.