Every morning on my way to the jeepney stop I would pass the Royalle Bakeshop. Every morning while shaving I could look out my bathroom window and watch the bakery storefront opening. Every morning, there, arranging bread or sweeping the floor or, more frequently, just standing idle, would be Nary.
From 5:30 dawn till 7:30 dark she was there. For 3 months I passed the bakeshop and passed Nary. Sometimes I would smile and wave and blush and she would smile and wave and blush right back. Sometimes I would buy “slice bread” and practice my Waray-Waray: her name was Nary, she was from Dulag, she was eighteen. She claimed to have some college. But now she was here at the Royalle Bakeshop to help her mother. I didn’t ask about her father.
It was all too common a story in the Philippines. Children stopping school to help the family survive.
There was no TV in the bakeshop. No magazines. Few customers. Friends didn’t seem to visit. Most the time Nary just stood there. It seemed like some kind of punishment. Solitary confinement smack dab in a teeming sea of people. Older, wiser cultures might contest the worthlessness of idle hours but to my American eyes it was a waste of human potential.
A clarification: I’d always cherished moments when I had nothing to do. But in those moments I could never not do nothing, as my first April as a Peace Corps volunteer proved. The month allowed me to indulge a long lost hobby. Reading.
I’d been a gluttonous reader as a kid. I kicked the habit in high school in favor of computer games and marching band. Then, halfway through college I reinvented myself on a steady diet of 1960s sci-fi pulp, poststructuralist philosophy and 19th century bourgeouis novels. I kept a list. The first recorded title, August 2000, was Sons and Lovers. Four years later, the last book before I entered grad school–at which point I doubled my reading pace but halved my freedom to choose–was Laszlo Mero’s Moral Calculations: Game Theory, Logic and Human Frailty. I still remember reading Sons and Lovers at the pond of the Fullerton Arboretum and Moral Calculations in the spooky 6th floor bookstacks of the CSUF library.
After grad school I had bills to pay and filled my Saturdays reading student essays and my avocation turned education turned vocation went into hibernation.
Until Peace Corps. With school at summer standstill and a stack of books from the Peace Corps mush pot and even more downloaded from Project Gutenberg, the beast awakened. In a week I was reading a collection of Peace Corps memoirs, the autobiography of Gandhi, a political wonk’s take on Kennedy and Martin Luther King, zombie fiction, and Don Quixote.
And that only in my spare time. The summer had conspired to be a confluence of reading-related projects. In the mornings I helped Jeannie, a fellow volunteer, teach reading remediation at her high school. Afternoons I emailed friends for book donations.
The reading remediation class was a lesson in resource deployment. Jeannie had got 30 kids to sign up for the summer program. On the first day only six showed up. One day we were down to two, a kind of glorious teacher-student ratio of 1:1. But it also felt like a waste: Peace Corps volunteers who’d travelled halfway across the world to do good spending their summer mornings with two students. What chance did Jaymark or Wency have at breaking out of the cycle of poverty? would these one-on-one reading sessions make any tangible difference in their lives?
Of course what you are supposed to tell yourself is you never know what difference you might make in a child’s life. That’s the good answer, the comforting answer. And it certainly has truth.
But the answer I came to accept was somewhere in the middle. Sometime during that reading remediation program I stopped thinking about the ends, the outcome, the product and instead embraced the means, the moment, the process. I loved reading with Karljim about shark attacks. We read about circle-and-bite attacks and hit-and-run attacks and then acted them out. I was the swimmer. Karljim was the shark. Jeannie was tickled pink the following day when Karljim wandered around the classroom, hands clasped in a fin above his head, circling.
The book donation project was a success. My university’s fiction collection had previously consisted of 152 titles. For 14,000 students. One month into the donation project, friends and family had rounded up 291 donations. The first shipment came from my mum. She’d spent the last 10 years writing a young adult novel and had oodles of books at just the right reading level for my students. Artemis Fowl. James and the Giant Peach. Peter and the Starcatchers.
Thus, one morning, happily heading to reading remediation, I smiled and waved and blushed at the girl in the bakeshop. And halted. “Hulat,” I said to Nary. Wait.
I jogged back to my boarding house. Opened the box my mum had sent. Grabbed the only logical title.
“Adi, Nary,” I said, back at the bakeshop. “Karuyag mo humuram ini?” Do you want to borrow this?
She looked at the book in my hands. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She took it, clearly confused and surprised and touched.
I will return it to you tomorrow?
No, you can borrow it for…for a month.
She contemplated this. After a moment, she stuck out her hand. And we shook. It was a deal. I wandered off to read about shark attacks, having no idea if she would crack the cover.
But she did. That afternoon I passed the Royalle Bakeshop on my way home and saw Nary. Standing there as usual. But reading.