Her name, I believe she would also insist, is not necessary.
She was the principal in the school I attended. I was in the second grade, wearing a polo shirt with the school’s insignia at the left chest pocket with blue slacks and shined black shoes. She always enters the gate in white and blue, too. Her skirt flows below the knee and is immaculately ironed. Her white blouse buttoned properly is topped with a blue vest, sometimes an argyle. I carry a huge, blue backpack and she carries a brown leather case, but it is her habit and sandals that take up most of a curious observer’s attention.
We recognize her by her habit’s outline alone through the frosted glass windows. When she walks through the corridors to go through her customary checks, her sandals would persistently, though lightly, tap the floor. It would ricochet less of a warning, much of a greeting. For Sister, as we were wont to call her is a very benevolent and strong image of a woman. When we rise to greet her as she visits our class, we would all stand erectly and brightly, trying to outperform each other and striving hard to attract her interest.
Every morning, before the bell strikes three times to signal the final call for the queues, we would eagerly await by the school gate. As teachers approach the gate, we would all rush to meet and relieve them of whatever load they have: bags, their books, even scarves, sweaters, and lunch kits. And whenever it was Sister who alights from her ride, we would still do the same, but gather around her we would, competing to carry the heaviest load she has, content and grinning for such an opportunity.
Her presence is very strong. She would tread through the playgrounds, and would be in the garden in a short while, inspecting the flowers and vegetables the higher-grade students planted. She believed that children must learn how to read, write, plant, play, and pray. She led the praying of the rosary every October, where grade levels take turns praying in the chapel. She would remain the whole day, holding her own string of beads and the cross, praying through and through then back again.
When she reads the announcements, her voice would sound of a finality so strong no one else could render. But she could mellow in a second, reading the Gospel when she should, with a voice tender and subtle through the cold concrete halls.
She is a petite woman, whose biggest gift is a genuine care and interest for everyone. She listens intently. She is a woman of few words, and aside from her speaking obligations in school and the church, these she reserved for reaching out to everyone within her range. Pupils in the higher grades who sneak out or stay too long in the restrooms during class hours get caught by surprise when Sister suddenly appears, her sandals suddenly muted, that they started code-naming her Penguin. Her dark blue habit and white blouse paved this nomenclature, obviously.
I remember that one afternoon, it was my grandmother’s turn to fetch me. Classes end at three, and two hours past, with no one else left in the school grounds but the school staff and me, I started to panic and pace. I do not have any idea how greatly chagrin can cross a child’s face, but there must be something in my face that qualified me Sister’s attention.
“Aren’t you supposed to be home?” she asked. “Who is supposed to fetch you?” she added in her Ilocano tilt.
I told her my grandmother would come, and she told me I’ve been waiting too long. Her students’ welfare and safety, as is always for her, is paramount. The sound of thunder resonated, and she beckoned for me to go to her office.
Once inside, she fished her leather bag and keys. She told me she would bring me home, and that I just give her directions. I saw shuffles of paper in her desk, waiting to be attended to. Even before I could object, and that dropping me off from the jeep would suffice, she let us out and locked the door.
I was living with my grandparents then, and their home is a few kilometers away from school and a good ten-minute walk from the main road. However, to get there, we had to climb up a high gradient of soil and asphalt to reach home because the road’s being constructed. In the rainy seasons, we had to stop by a little sari-sari store by the road to change our shoes to boots before walking. The mud would be slippery, so my grandfather had a habit of using a walking stick then. And as Sister and I climbed up that slope, the rain started to pour.
At first, we tried to shelter ourselves under her small foldable umbrella. But when the shower grew resilient and lavish, I felt Sister nudge me by the shoulder. I looked at her and she extended her hand, motioning for me to hand her my backpack. When she had it, she ducked, and without any preamble whatsoever, carried me in her back. I was stunned, but I remained quiet. Carrying two bags, the umbrella, and a child, she continued to ascend.
Through her shoulders, I could see the water flowing. The water, now a few inches high, lapped at her sandaled feet. She did not say anything. She did not even sigh or groan. The only sounds I can remember are those of the rain and her sandals plunging upon the watery path. My hands around her neck, I told her we have to go up the muddy path, which is actually earth, shoveled to pass as a flight of stairs. Even with that, she simply asked me to hold tighter, and she clambered not even with a walking stick, until we got to the house.
When we got there, my grandfather opened the door. He offered Sister to dry herself first and have a cup of something hot, but she politely refused, telling him she still has some work left in the office and she must get back to school right away. I remembered her bid goodbye, and us our thanks, and my grandfather accompanying her to the main road. My lola came an hour later, telling us she was at the market and time eluded her, but stopped by the school nonetheless and the guard told her Sister brought me home already.
I would see Sister the next day, and she just smiled. In the course of the few months left for the school year, she never mentioned it. Many of us, young as we were, knew that Sister’s deeds are just one too many. Many of us have passed through her care, many blest by her wisdom and words, but I can never be sure if many were ever carried. Even to this day, I would still harbor a silent pride in me that Sister carried me – just me – through that rain. It was a story though, that I only had the strength (and pride) to write now.
She did not return the next school year; she was always a woman of plight and adventure. I never saw her again, and gradually, her face grained to memory.
But I will never forget looking at the world by her shoulders. I will never forget the sight of her sandaled feet transcending every element, nook, and cranny.
Adage has it that a teacher affects eternity, and Sister stays with me even now that I am in my mid-twenty. I am a teacher now myself. At moments when I feel over the edge and impatient, I remind myself that if someone had the heart to carry me before as a child, I must have the courage to keep running now, as an adult.
Last October, on Teacher’s Day, a student asked me, “What made you decide to teach?” A picture of Sister’s sandals braving the asphalt road came back to mind. The sound of rainwater lapping down her feet became palpable that I felt a cold rush over my spine. I seldom ask myself, Am I here because I’m paying her forward? But now I understand what they say about teaching: Fate has a funny way of inspiring and bringing you to it. “It all started this rainy afternoon,” I began with a smile, “when a penguin carried me.”