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Matô was the househelp of one of our neighbors. We would always cross paths with her because we lived in the same compound. We were nice to each other. I discovered during one summer of the mid-1990s that Matô was illiterate.

The discovery

Before the advent of the Internet and social media, people would watch the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) games on TV. There was a small betting game called ‘ending’ back then. The goal was to guess the last digit of each team’s final scores. Bettors would put their name on a small cardboard with the list of all possible combinations from 0-0 to 9-9.

pba ending card
Sample ‘ending’ cards. People would guess the last digit of each team’s final scores per PBA game.

The date was written at the top of the card along with the names of the playing teams, the game number, how much the bet would cost, and the prize money. Bettors can choose any number of combinations on the card, and they would sign or initial the space beside their choice(s).

Since we were just kids and afraid to hold large sums of money, the bet was just 1 peso and the prize would be 100 pesos. (In the 90s, that was already a huge amount.) Some adults, however, would have higher bets, raising the stakes. Some would also have multiple cards, increasing the chances and the prize money even further. The aim was to fill in all the spaces before the listed game starts. I would go around the neighborhood, sometimes with my sister, and offered the card to people.

We were having fun one day as it was one of the best ways to spend the afternoon, until I asked Matô to place her bet and sign the card. She was hesitant but took the pen and signed anyway. She placed an ‘X’ beside her chosen combination. I can’t tell you how much confused I was.

Matô, seeing my bewilderment, blushed. I asked why her sign was just an X, and she said that it was how it was. Maybe it was out of curiosity or naïveté (or both) but I asked her what grade level she finished in school. She flat-out replied without any hint of embarrassment that she only completed grade one.

The conversation somehow turned into an “interview” and we talked about her life. Their family was poor from the province so she wasn’t able to continue attending school. She eventually ended up in Metro Manila working as a househelp for our neighbor.

How it affected me

Our discussion bothered me thereafter. That night, I had a full-blown existential crisis. For my young mind, it was incomprehensible for someone to not be able to read and write something as basic as their own name. I imagined how life would have been if it happened to anyone close to me. I somehow ended writing my name multiple times on a piece of pad paper just to check that I knew how to write and read my name.

That night, I vowed never to take education for granted.

Just to share, my mom never got to finish her schooling also. The Japanese invaded the archipelago 1940s and everything had to stop. She started working when the war was over. But my mom knows how to read and write. She has a beautiful cursive handwriting which is rivaled only by mine many decades later.

That conversation with Matô haunts me to this day. It breaks my heart to know that there are people who are illiterate because of unintended circumstances. Everyday you see and hear reports of the dire need to improve Philippine education as it slips in global rankings. It’s just mind-blowing.

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I’m really scared when I think about this especially for the future generations of my family. Right now I am just glad that despite the noise and distractions of social media, my nephews and nieces are still able to read and write.

I do have hope as there are people who promotes reading in their own little way. Hernando Guanlao (or more fondly called Mang Nanie) has started The Reading Club 2000, a free-for-all public library. This small library gives access to people who love reading but don’t have the means to buy books.

Meeting Matô for the last time

As for Matô, she left our neighbors a couple of years later. It was rumored that she was physically abused with an iron although I can’t recall if it was thrown at her or if she was branded by her employer. What I do know is that she reported it to the barangay and they had a meeting.

Years later, I saw Matô on our street during one Christmas season. She shared that she was happily married and the toddler she was carrying was theirs. We then parted ways and it was the last time that I saw or talked to her.

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