It seemed like a normal day. But what constitutes normal now is no longer the normal we were used to.

It was Oct. 5, and it was the first day of classes of our public basic education system for the school year 2020-2021. People were gawking at us teachers for wearing our Monday uniform—for “ma’ams” the pink one, and for ” sirs” the white one.

It had been more than six months of “vacation” since the community quarantine protocols were imposed in the middle of March due to the dire threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. People may have felt excited, or perhaps dismayed, to see us in our very own battle gear, which could have easily translated to: “Welcome to the new school year!”

A few meters away from school, I could already see people. This looked so normal, I thought to myself. But these individuals were not our playful, smiling, and sometimes rowdy learners. These were their parents and guardians, all wearing masks, forming a quiet queue near the gate and following the safety protocols set by the school. I wondered who among them were really thrilled to be in this place today.

As the flag ceremony was being held, I felt my skin tingle with anticipation even before the national anthem was played. As the music reverberated from the radio speaker, a feeling of melancholy enveloped me. I had missed this sight, even as I also remembered how I sometimes came to school late and missed the ceremony.

I looked around. The acacia trees were still here. The covered court roof was still filled with holes; one time, our “Buwan ng Wika” celebration had to be stopped when the floor was flooded ankle-deep due to a heavy downpour.

The learners were the life of this room. They were the young blood coursing through the veins of this school. And yet today they were not here.

The canteen where I used to order banana fritters and champorado with swirls of evaporated milk on top? It was closed and silent.

I opened my classroom, making sure that everything was in order. I placed sanitizer by the door, put up posters of health and safety reminders, and unpacked the learning kits and materials of the learners–the reason parents were here today. I sighed. This was not my classroom. Where were the morning laughs from my students? Where were their silly stories on the latest twists and turns of “Ang Probinsyano”? Everything was so strangely quiet.

The schedule for the distribution of the learning materials for my class would still be at three in the afternoon. The morning schedule was for the lower elementary grades. So, I sat down, switched on my laptop and waited for life to appear on the dusty rectangular screen. There was still plenty of time for reminiscing. Switching my laptop on in the morning was a routine I had been doing in the past years. Once I had it connected to the overhead projector, we were good and ready to embark on a new learning journey. But today, there wasn’t an urgent need for a projector.

I opened a folder on my laptop and saw a familiar video. I smiled. I clicked play. It was the last minute of the basketball game in a sportsfest we joined two years ago. There were deafening cheers and jeers. The game was so intense, and one of our players scored a deadly three-point shoot in the last remaining seconds of the game. Pandemonium. I chuckled mildly, because I remembered that we were still defeated by a mere one point!

I opened one of the drawers of my table. I saw a brown folder, and sticking out of it was last school year’s copy of our school publication, a qualifier in the 2020 National Schools Press Conference (NSPC). If today had been the normal life we were used to just months ago, my campus journalists and I would have already been preparing for the different writing contests. I remembered their reactions every time I said, “Change this or repeat this!” They would hesitate and say, “Ang hirap naman, sir!” I would just calmly stare at them, and we would laugh together afterwards. Some of them were able to penetrate the regional schools presscon last year, and I was sure they would have had their eyes set for the NSPC this year.

I glanced at the corner of the room. There behind the cabinet was the old silkscreen we used for the t-shirt printing activity we did last year. I was sure it was one of the kids’ most memorable and favorite school activities, their fondness for the arts evident. I saw how creative they were with their own stencils.

I looked around. I smiled, reminiscing the moments when this room was filled with laughter, and sometimes a mix of other emotions especially when the students didn’t understand fractions.

I also felt sad. This dreadful, unforgiving pandemic has indeed changed our way of life. I tried to comprehend how difficult life has become.

The learners were the life of this room. They breathed life into this realm. They opened their minds here, spoke their hearts out, nurtured friendships, learned to protest or keep quiet. They were the young blood coursing through the veins of this school. And yet today they were not here.

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