The Visitation of the Gods by Gilda Cordero-Fernando

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The Visitation of the Gods (Gilda Cordero-Fernando)

The letter announcing the visitation (a yearly descent upon the school by the superintendent, the district supervisors and the division supervisors for "purposes of inspection and evaluation") had been delivered in the morning by a sleepy janitor to the principal. The party was, the attached circular revealed a hurried glance, now at Pagkabuhay, would be in Mapili by lunchtime, and barring typhoons, floods, volcanic eruptions and other acts of God, would be upon Pugad Lawin by afternoon.

Consequently, after the first period, all the morning classes were dismissed. The Home Economics building, where the fourteen visiting school officials were to be housed, became the hub of a general cleaning. Long-handled brooms ravished the homes of peaceful spiders from cross beams and transoms, the capiz of the windows were scrubbed to an eggshell whiteness, and the floors became mirrors after assiduous bouts with husk and candlewax. Open wood boxes of Coronaslar gas were scattered within convenient reach of the carved sofa, the Vienna chairs and the stag-horn hat rack.

The sink, too, had been repaired and the spent bulbs replaced; a block of ice with patches of sawdust rested in the hollow of the small unpainted icebox. There was a brief discussion on whether the French soap poster behind the kitchen door was to go or stay: it depicted a trio of languorous nymphs in various stages of dishabille reclining upon a scroll bearing the legend Parfumerie et Savonerie but the wood working instructor remembered that it had been put there to cover a rotting jagged hole - and the nymphs had stayed.

The base of the flagpole, too, had been cemented and the old gate given a whitewash. The bare grounds were, within the remarkable space of two hours, transformed into a riotous bougainvillea garden. Potted blooms were still coming in through the gate by wheelbarrow and bicycle. Buried deep in the secret earth, what supervisor could tell that such gorgeous specimens were potted, or that they had merely been borrowed from the neighboring houses for the visitation? Every school in the province had its special point of pride - a bed of giant squashes, an enclosure or white king pigeons, a washroom constructed by the PTA. Yearly, Pugad Lawin High School had made capital of its topography: rooted on the firm ledge of a hill, the schoolhouse was accessible by a series of stone steps carved on the hard face of the rocks; its west windows looked out on the misty grandeur of a mountain chain shaped like a sleeping woman. Marvelous, but the supervisors were expecting something tangible, and so this year there was the bougainvillea.

The teaching staff and the student body had been divided into four working groups. The first group, composed of Mrs. Divinagracia, the harassed Home Economics instructor, and some of the less attractive lady teachers, were banished to the kitchen to prepare the menu: it consisted of a 14-lbs. suckling pig, macaroni soup, embutido, chicken salad, baked lapu-lapu, morcon, leche flan and ice cream, the total cost of which had already been deducted from the teachers' pay envelopes. Far be it to be said that Pugad Lawin was lacking in generosity, charm or good tango dancers! Visitation was, after all, 99% impression - and Mr. Olbes, the principal, had promised to remember the teachers' cooperation in that regard in the efficiency reports.

The teachers of Group Two had been assigned to procure the beddings and the dishes to be used for the supper. In true bureaucratic fashion they had relegated the assignment to their students, who in turn had denuded their neighbors' homes of cots, pillows, and sleeping mats. The only bed properly belonging to the Home Economics Building was a four-poster with a canopy and the superintendent was to be given the honor of slumbering upon it. Hence it was endowed with the grandest of the sleeping mats, two sizes large, but interwoven with a detailed map of the archipelago. Nestling against the headboard was a quartet of the principal's wife's heart-shaped pillows - two hard ones and two soft ones - Group Two being uncertain of the sleeping preferences of division heads.

"Structuring the Rooms" was the responsibility of the third group. It consisted in the construction (hurriedly) of graphs, charts, and other visual aids. There was a scurrying to complete unfinished lesson plans and correct neglected theme books; precipitate trips from bookstand to broom closet in a last desperate attempt to keep out of sight the dirty spelling booklets of a preceding generation, unfinished projects and assorted rags - the key later conveniently "lost" among the folds of Mrs. Olbes' (the principal's wife) balloon skirt.

All year round the classroom walls had been unperturbably blank. Now they were, like the grounds, miraculously abloom - with cartolina illustrations of Parsing, A mitosis Cell Division and the Evolution of the Filipina Dress - thanks to the Group Two leader, Mr. Buenaflor (Industrial Arts) who, forsaken, sat hunched over a rainfall graph. The distaff side of Group Two were either practicing tango steps or clustered around a vacationing teacher who had taken advantage of her paid maternity leave to make a mysterious trip to Hongkong and had now returned with a provocative array of goods for sale.

The rowdiest freshman boys composed the fourth and discriminated group. Under the stewardship of Miss Noel (English), they had, for the past two days been "Landscaping the Premises," as assignment which, true to its appellation, consisted in the removal of all unsightly objects from the landscape. That the dirty assignment had not fallen on the hefty Mr. de Dios (Physics) or the crafty Mr. Baz (National Language), both of whom were now hanging curtains, did not surprise Miss Noel. She had long been at odds with the principal, or rather, the principal's wife - ever since the plump Mrs. Olbes had come to school in a fashionable sack dress and caught on Miss Noel's mouth a half-effaced smile.

"We are such a fashionable group," Miss Noel had joked once at a faculty meeting. "If only our reading could also be in fashion!" -- which statement obtained for her the ire of the only two teachers left talking to her. That Miss Noel spent her vacations taking a summer course for teachers in Manila made matters even worse - for Mr. Olbes believed that the English teacher attended these courses for the sole purpose of showing them up. And Miss Noel's latest wrinkle, the Integration Method, gave Mr. Olbes a pain where he sat.

Miss Noel, on the other hand, thought utterly unbecoming and disgusting the manner in which the principal's wife praised a teacher's new purse of shawl. ("It's so pretty, where can I get one exactly like it?" - a heavy-handed and graceless hint) or the way she had of announcing, well in advance, birthdays and baptisms in her family (in other words, "Prepare!"). The lady teachers were, moreover, for lack of household help, "invited" to the principal's house to make a special salad, stuff a chicken or clean the silverware. But this certainly was much less than expected of the vocational staff - the Woodworking instructor who was detailed to do all the painting and repair work on the principal's house, the Poultry instructor whose stock of leghorns was depleted after every party of the Olbeses, and the Automotive instructor who was forever being detailed behind the wheel of the principal's jeep - and Miss Noel had come to take it in stride as one of the hazards of the profession.

But today, accidentally meeting in the lavatory, a distressed Mrs. Olbes had appealed to Miss Noel for help with her placket zipper, after which she brought out a bottle of lotion and proceeded to douse the English teacher gratefully with it. Fresh from the trash pits, Miss Noel, with supreme effort, resisted from making an untoward observation - and friendship was restored on the amicable note of a stuck zipper.

At 1:30, the superintendent's car and the weapons carrier containing the supervisors drove through the town arch of Pugad Lawin. A runner, posted at the town gate since morning, came panting down the road but was outdistanced by the vehicles. The principal still in undershirt and drawers, shaving his jowls by the window, first sighted the approaching party. Instantly, the room was in a hustle. Grimy socks, Form 137's and a half bottle of beer found their way into Mr. Olbes' desk drawer. A sophomore breezed down the corridor holding aloft a newly-pressed barong on a wire hanger. Behind the closed door, Mrs. Olbes wriggled determinedly into her corset.

The welcoming committee was waiting on the stone steps when the visitors alighted. It being Flag Day, the male instructors were attired in barong, the women in red, white or blue dresses in obedience to the principal's circular. The Social Studies teacher, hurrying down the steps to present the sampaguita garlands, tripped upon an unexpected pot of borrowed bougainvillea. Peeping from an upstairs window, the kitchen group noted that there were only twelve arrivals. Later it was brought out that the National Language Supervisor had gotten a severe stomach cramp and had to be left at the Health Center; that Miss Santos (PE) and Mr. del Rosario (Military Tactics) had eloped at dawn.

Four pairs of hands fought for the singular honor of wrenching open the car door, and Mr. Alava emerged into the sunlight. He was brown as a sampaloc seed. Mr. Alava gazed with satisfaction upon the patriotic faculty and belched his approval in cigar smoke upon the landscape. The principal, rivaling a total eclipse, strode towards Mr. Alava minus a cuff link. "Compañero!" boomed the superintendent with outstretched arms.

"Compañero!" echoed Mr. Olbes. They embraced darkly.

There was a great to-do in the weapons carrier. The academic supervisor's pabaon of live crabs from Mapili had gotten entangled with the kalamay in the Home Economics supervisor's basket. The district supervisor had mislaid his left shoe among the squawking chickens and someone had stepped on the puto seco. There were overnight bags and reed baskets to unload, bundles of perishable and unperishable going-away gifts. (The Home Economics staff's dilemma: sans ice box, how to preserve all the food till the next morning). A safari of Pugad Lawin instructors lent their shoulders gallantly to the occasion.

Vainly, Miss Noel searched in the crowd for the old Language Arts supervisor. All the years she had been in Pugad Lawin, Mr. Ampil had come: in him there was no sickening bureaucracy, none of the self-importance and pettiness that often characterized the small public official . He was dedicated to the service of education, had grown old in it. He was about the finest man Miss Noel had ever known.

How often had the temporary teachers had to court the favor of their supervisors with lavish gifts of sweets, de hilo, portfolios and what-not, hoping that they would be given a favorable recommendation! A permanent position for the highest bidder. But Miss Noel herself had never experienced this rigmarole -- she had passed her exams and had been recommended to the first vacancy by Mr. Ampil without having uttered a word of flattery or given a single gift. It was ironic that even in education, you found the highest and the meanest forms of men.

Through the crowd came a tall unfamiliar figure in a loose coat, a triad of pens leaking in his pocket. Under the brave nose, the chin had receded like a gray hermit crab upon the coming of a great wave. "Miss Noel, I presume?" said the stranger.

The English teacher nodded. "I am the new English supervisor - Sawit is the name." The tall man shook her hand warmly.

"Did you have a good trip, Sir?"

Mr. Sawit made a face. "Terrible!"

Miss Noel laughed. "Shall I show you to your quarters? You must be tired."

"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Sawit. "I'd like to freshen up. And do see that someone takes care of my orchids, or my wife will skin me alive."

The new English supervisor gathered his portfolios and Miss Noel picked up the heavy load of orchids. Silently, they walked down the corridor of the Home Economics building, hunter and laden Indian guide.

"I trust nothing's the matter with Mr. Ampil, Sir?"

"Then you haven't heard? The old fool broke a collar bone. He's dead."


"You see, he insisted on doing all the duties expected of him - he'd be ahead of us in the school we were visiting if he felt we were dallying on the road. He'd go by horseback, or carabao sled to the distant ones where the road was inaccessible by bus - and at his age! Then, on our visitation to barrio Tungkod - you know that place, don't you?"

Miss Noel nodded.

"On the way to the godforsaken island, that muddy hellhole, he slipped on the banca - and well, that's it."

"How terrible."

"Funny thing is - they had to pass the hat around to buy him a coffin. It turned out the fellow was as poor as a church mouse. You'd think, why this old fool had been thirty-three years in the service. Never a day absent. Never a day late. Never told a lie. You'd think at least he'd get a decent burial - but he hadn't reached 65 and wasn't going to get a cent he wasn't working for. Well, anyway, that's a thorn off your side."

Miss Noel wrinkled her brow, puzzled.

"I thought all teachers hated strict supervisors." Mr. Sawit elucidated. "Didn't you all quake for your life when Mr. Ampil was there waiting at the door of the classroom even before you opened it with your key?"

"Feared him, yes," said Miss Noel. "But also respected and admired him for what he stood for."

Mr. Sawit shook his head smiling. "So that's how the wind blows," he said, scratching a speck of dust off his earlobe.

Miss Noel deposited the supervisor's orchids in the corridor. They had reached the reconverted classroom that Mr. Sawit was to occupy with two others.