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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

entry arrow3:17 PM | Death Threats for Good Grades

I’m still debating with myself whether this post should get written. “You be careful, too,” my associate dean told me that Tuesday night when I had frantically texted her and our vice president for academic affairs about a fellow teacher’s deadly predicament.

It was almost midnight, but it felt like an emergency. I told them what happened, and our missives went back and forth in our cellphones. They told me something would be done, but my dread was growing. But I could only imagine the kind of terror my teacher-friend—let’s call her Miss Piñero (not her real name)—was going through: it would be fiercer, I knew, and dark as hell. Are people really capable of this these days? I asked myself. The whole thing reeked of third-rate crime drama, the ones you see on late night cable television on some B channel nobody watches. And yet there it was: the message was clear, and the intention was deadly, and only a fool could mistake that as a joke and pretend all was well in the world.

The associate dean had good reasons to tell us to be careful: our world had suddenly become such a murderous place, where, for a price, death was easy and terrorism now acquired a domestic and more familiar face. It struck me how easy it was for Evil to swiftly become so ordinary, and so cheap. We all suddenly learned that night that anyone’s life was nothing more than a bargain of P3,000 tops.

And according to the police, that sum was even a little generous. In the station, my beleaguered fellow teacher got told, pointblank: “Naay uban mopatay ug tawo mas barato pa ana (You can hire people to kill for even less than that),” as if it was the most normal information to impart.

Which, of course, did not calm the nerves of my fellow teacher. Who would after you get told that life was even cheaper than the most-marked down cellphone?

It was already past midnight, and Miss Piñero had gone to the police station to have the incident “blottered,” and the process was taking too slow. Even spelling out her name for the police officer to write down on the form was too excruciatingly slow.

I wasn’t there when she finally passed out. I wasn’t there when she—already suffering from a form of heart condition—was taken to the hospital and admitted. I wasn’t there when she couldn’t speak, when all she could feel was primal fear, of having been violated. Another friend, who was also a fellow teacher, was there, sending many of us missives through cell phones, the midnight crackling with concern.

The next day, I visited her at the hospital, bringing two books she had requested. She looked both weak and strong: the ordeal she bore the night before was clear enough in the way she reclined on her hospital bed—and yet there was also a fierceness in her eyes that said she would not be defeated.

She told me that the night before—after she had seen me in Café Noriter where I was busy checking papers and she was busy tutoring a bunch of Korean girls—she had gone to church for a bit, then went to the department office to get some student papers to mark.

She had decided to walk home, to do some thinking. And that was when she first felt that something was not right. She felt someone was following her in the darkened street, with only a few halogen lamps, standing far apart from each other, providing garish illumination in the lonely early evening stretch that was Hibbard Avenue. Some years ago, she had been accosted on the same street, her bag snatched by some ruffian with all that month’s salary still inside—and so she had some reasons for concern. But she still decided to walk on, until the feeling of being watched was becoming a little too unbearable.

She quickly remembered that that Tuesday was the final deadline for her classes in _________, a special English-writing course designed for the language needs of a particular college. It was a course she liked because it was a challenge for her, and Miss Piñero was the only one in our department who taught it. She is a kindred spirit—and I share with her and some other teachers a standard of learning English that can be very exacting and demanding. Among many student circles, we are basically known as the “terror teachers.” Not because we throw books at students in the classroom, or shout at them, but only because we do not just pay lip service to the “quality education” that Silliman University boasts about. Our mantra is simple: you get a good grade for a good job, and a good job meant requirements submitted on time that passed a certain criteria for excellence. For some students—many of whom mistakenly believe college is something you just have to cruise through—that demand constitutes classroom terrors. We could only sigh and say, “If you want to be spoonfed, go to a diploma mill. Go to a computer college where downpayment is only P1,000 for tuition.”

Miss Piñero is demanding, yes—but observe the way she holds her classes, and you will see that this is one teacher who takes her job seriously. Her comments and suggestions on every single exercise are detailed and helpful, and her dedication extends beyond the ordinary hours of the day. She told me once, “I demand a lot of my students because when I do my work I demand a lot of myself as well.” We used to joke—our heads shaking in commiseration at the same time—that it was almost unbelievable to have students who would submit a paper clearly copy-pasted from the Internet (including hyperlinks printed in blue), and then complain about getting an F. “I submitted, didn’t I?” they would say. And you have to be gentle in reminding them, “Yes, but we grade you for the quality of your work, not for the act of submission.” Miss Piñero had many students like that. In one particular class, she had constant repeaters who could never seem to get it right. One time, Miss Piñero found the tires of her car punctured clean through by a nail—something clearly done deliberately. Later, she would get the following text message that was meant to taunt her: “So, ma’am, dili na ka kalarga, sa? (Ma’am, just look at the way you can no longer drive.)” She shrugged that message away and went on with her life.

This time, last Tuesday night, it was different. She felt she was being watched. And so she flagged down a tricycle as soon as she could, and arriving home, she found her other cellphone—one meant to receive student messages for instant consultation about class work—vibrating with a new message. Unedited, it read: “we parents decided 2 contrbute 4 u, pls mam kalas na au og mccge ka pnghagbong estudynte or dli imu e.inc, ayw hagbonga o e.inc miski usa sa mga studnts nmu rn, wla me m.himu kung dli mo.amot pra m.wla ka, ur lf only cost 3thou, ma.apil pa gd imu fmly. Mas gas2 pa mn gd p.eskwla kysa pagpatay tawo rn.”

An hour later, another message came: “Try to fail any1 of ur studnts, wer not joking. we just warn u 4 u to be prepared. Also kip quiet, mblis kumalat balita, bka mapa.aga buhay mo nd ur fmly.”

Another hour passed, and the last message came: “By da way, gve ur studnts at least 2.0 in.ordr to pass. Ur vry lucky, we stil gve u a chnce, f u mde a mistake, wer vry sori. Wer on povrty now, got nothn 2 do.”

I will string the death threat in one go, edited this time: “We parents have decided to contribute for somebody to assassinate you. It will only cost us P3,000 for somebody to kill you and your family. We will spend more in tuition if you continue to fail students or give them an INC (incomplete). Do not fail any one of your students. We’re not joking. We just want you to be prepared. Also, keep this quiet because news travels fast, and you will only be inviting death a little early. Give all your students a 2.0 in order to pass. You’re very lucky that we’re giving you this chance. If you make a mistake, we’re very sorry. We’re poor and there is nothing else we can do.”

The tone of the message was clearly serious. That the parts were sent an hour apart meant this was not just some random ravings of a deadline-pressed individual: this was a murderous mind in perfect calculation. It could be a false note. But it could also be true.

It made me mad.

But my fellow teacher, lying on her hospital bed, was philosophical about it: “I can understand their desperation. It is not easy to send somebody to school, only to be rewarded with one failing mark after another. Life is getting hard, and tuitions are getting harder to pay. When you’re desperate, you do whatever you can—even if you have to sink low to get what you want.”

“But poverty doesn’t excuse them to send you death threats like this!” I said. Is getting the grade you want enough in exchange for your soul? I wondered.

Miss Piñero could only smile sadly. Then she said, “What saddens me is that there is only one way to get a good grade without having to kill someone. And that is to study hard. Is studying too much to ask for these days?”

In an age of instant gratification, I guess it is.

And when I left Miss Piñero to go home, I thought that the classroom is largely a misunderstood place. It should be a place of academic give-and-take. A good teacher starts by giving his or her all—although sometimes, bad teachers can happen. But all that perfect classroom dynamics come to naught when students themselves don’t meet the teacher halfway by showing at least a little enthusiasm, or a little effort to learn something. I remember Miss Piñero once telling me, “I had this student who wrote a paper, and he misspelled this particular word. I encircled it, and noted: ‘Check spelling.’ In the next revision, the word remained misspelled. I encircled it again, and noted: ‘Please check spelling.’ And in the very next revision, the word still remained misspelled. This time, I had to check the dictionary to see if it was I who was wrong.” She wasn’t wrong.

The poet Paul Engle used to say, “Even the best teachers can’t make hair grow out of a billiard ball.” It explains a lot of things.

But what if the billiard ball demands to get a passing grade of 2.0, or else will murder you for it? It now becomes a story of how low this society has become.

Before I left the hospital, I told my fellow teacher I was mad. “I want to write about this,” I said. “But I’m also afraid of these morons’ threats. They want you to keep quiet.”

She looked at me and said, “If I keep quiet, they win. I want you to write about this. That way, they know they’re being watched. That way, we tell the world we’re not cowards.” That way, she said, we stood on the principle that quality and standards must not be mocked and be compromised, even with the deadly promise of bullets.

And that is why I’m writing this. I remember something Edmund Burke once wrote: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I feel this is true for this given moment of crisis. And at least, by God, I know I’m doing something.

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