Lessons from the pandemic
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2020 - 12:00am

I left the Philippines a few hours before one of the world’s longest lockdowns began. When I arrived in Malaysia, I had just moved to a new condo unit and my former flat mate had delivered my things while I was away. I arranged the things for one whole day, and the next day also began Malaysia’s lockdown.

I was lucky I had moved to the unit a day before the lockdown. There was a supermarket nearby, and another one 10 minutes away. I could go out if I needed to buy food or medicines. Those were the only trips outside the house that the authorities allowed. I continued doing online teaching at the University of Nottingham, where I taught a Creative Writing Workshop and Popular Literature of the Nineteenth Century to postgraduate students. I had to learn doing online lessons quickly using Microsoft Team and held School meetings online.

It wasn’t difficult because all my life, I’ve not been averse to changes in technology and education. When I was the acting president at The Manila Times College (vice Dr. Isagani Cruz who had been ill), I advocated the use of blended learning. University administrators are a derided lot, subject of cartoons and gossip, but our job is to harmonize everything together, like conductors in a concert.

It all begins with enrollment figures and finances. I checked the list of students who had dropped out and emailed them if they could return to school. They dropped out to work at call centers and didn’t have the time to physically attend classes. So I asked them to enroll and prepared the online modules. Several of them accepted my offer. The modules were delivered online, the papers received feedback one-on-one, and the final exams were taken in school.

At the Ateneo de Manila University, where I taught fulltime for 20 years and part-time for ten years, I had also used multimedia platforms even before they became the norm. In the 1990s, I had asked my students to watch “Il Postino (The Postman)” on the life of the Nobel Prize winner for Literature Pablo Neruda, in our class on Introduction to Poetry. Guide questions were given before the film showing, as well as an introduction on film as a series of moving images.

I brought them to the excellent Ateneo Art Gallery to look at paintings and write about one that moved them. “Moved them” is not just a vague term in my class. It meant writing at least a page of words on how the wash of colors, the angle of vision, created impressions in their mind. For I said that colors were to paintings what words were to poems: try to touch the pulses that throbbed in both painting and poem.

When we discussed the haiku, I also asked my students to draw the haiku they have researched on. I forbade them to use modern haiku but to choose the ones written during that explosive century when the Japanese wrote their haiku. For to draw the haiku with their own hand (I did not allow computer graphics) was to immerse themselves in the text. They had to use their imagination to create pictures in their mind, which is one definition of poetry.

Moreover, I asked my students to watch “Cinema Paradiso,” another Oscar Award prize winner, for the class on Introduction to Fiction. Likewise, guide questions were given before the film showing, as well as an introduction on film as story-telling. I also asked my students to watch Japanese anime and read Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels.

I also introduced texts heretofore unread in the Philippine classrooms. One of them was Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” which I began teaching at Ateneo de Manila University when I came back in 1990. I passed around copies of this modern fable, and pretty soon, many other teachers were using it in their classes. In the students’ minds, another world had opened.

*      *      *

Isabel Allende also has wise words to say about what this pandemic has taught us.

“This pandemic has taught me to free myself from things. It has never been so clear to me that I need very little to live. I don’t need to buy, I don’t need more clothes, I don’t need to go anywhere, or travel, now I see I have too much. I don’t need more than two dishes!  Then I started to realize who the true friends are and the people I want to be with.

When asked about the teaching of the pandemic, she said: “Teach us how to sort out priorities and show us reality. This pandemic underlines the inequalities of opportunity and resources in which society lives globally. Some pass the pandemic on a yacht in the Caribbean, and others go hungry, on the streets or at home closed in. It also brings the message that we are one family. What happens to a human being in Wuhan has a reflection on the entire planet.

“We’re all connected, and that’s evidence of the tribal idea that we’re separated by groups and that we can defend our small group from other groups is an illusion. There are no walls, or walls that can separate people. The virus has brought a new mind-set and today, a large number of people – among them creators, artists, scientists, young men and women – are moving towards a new normal.  They don’t want to go back to old normality.

“The virus invited us to design a new future. What do we dream for ourselves as global humanity? I realized we came into the world to lose everything. The more you live, the more you lose. First you lose your parents or very sweet people, your pets, some places and then slowly, your own mental and physical faculties.

“We can’t live in fear. Fear stimulates a future that makes living in the present a dark experience. We need to relax and appreciate what we have and live in the present.”

(Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” will be published this month by Penguin Random House. His email is danton.lodestar@gmail.com and his website is www.dantonremoto.com)

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