Ilokana teacher and writer Monica Supnet Macansantos notes in her paper, “Crossing Geographic Boundaries: Transporting the Ilokano Homeland,” that for the diasporic Ilokano “moving away… is not an act of abandoning one’s home, one’s heritage, but… a way of adding to the community’s history, by grabbing, like the Ilokano epic hero Lam-ang, the chance to become heroic…”¹
This is true for Efrenia Fé A. Maclean, an Ilokana from Bacarra, Ilocos Norte who was at UP Baguio on 05 October 2009 to share insights from her successful teaching career abroad in a lecture on “Language, Culture, and Identity.”
She has made a name for herself in the U.S.A as a teacher and educator for over thirty years now. Three of the awards she recently received are the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, Fullbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program (Japan), and Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She is also featured, along with two American teachers, in The Learning Classroom: From Theory to Practice, a documentary film cum multimedia instructional material jointly produced by the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Starting out in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a highly effective kindergarten teacher in the early ‘70s, she went on to build a distinguished career being a curriculum developer for the bilingual/bicultural education program in Hawaii, gradeschool teacher in Michigan, National Science Foundation (NSF) fellow, Reading First facilitator with the Michigan Department of Education, and presently an associate member of the Washington-based Teacher Advisory Council under the aegis of The National Academies.
Maclean’s professional track record bears imprints of her Ilokano identity. Her early exposure to a multiethnic society, for instance, enabled her to treat her Black, Hispanic and White students fairly at a time when racial discrimination was rife in America. And at a time when teaching “Culture” in America was tantamount to stereotyping other cultures, she offered a “horizontal” approach for studying culture – "there’s just one race, only different ways of life." One way she instilled this concept in class was through a “family tree” project in which her students learned lessons on cultural commonality and diversity. Of course, it was natural then for her to teach her students a traditional boardgame called sungka, the Philippine version of the African mancala or the Indonesian congklat. Coming from a very “musical culture,” she also had the chance to introduce songs from the Philippines to first graders who at the time were not really expected nor taught in school to sing “with the right tune,” a skill which was supposed to be developed in higher grades.
Growing up in a rural school where students regularly and successfully competed with those in the urban centers also helped, for her first teaching assignment was in a rural school where most lived below the poverty line. Here, she had the chance to help boost the learning competence of students normally not expected to excel academically, thus proving that poor children could compete with their more privileged peers.
Her being kuripot (frugal) paid both material and non-material dividends too: discardable things became award-winning teaching materials that proved more durable and practical than the commercialized ones; recycled papers which a nearby factory deemed useless became valuable scrap books showcasing children’s creative works; neglected stacks of wood were turned into sturdy benches and desks through a parent-child-teacher cooperative project, which instilled pride and a sense of ownership among “Section 2" gradeschoolers who did not get enough furniture as those in “Section 1” did. Owing to a sound training at the Philippine Normal College, she was averse to the idea of segregating “smart and not-so-smart students” into different classes, and did her best to provide avenues of learning to all regardless of the section they belonged.
“When one always buys things, when one always depends on others, he becomes lazy,” she would remind her pupils. Her class learned to be productive, economizing on the use of available resources and optimizing time. Guided by one who walked her talk, the children developed the habit of saving used or throw-away things for some projects and doing things without being told. Here, she would inject the Ilocano concept of being manakem (sense of responsibility, precociousness; from nakem = roughly, “conscience”).
In these and other snapshots of her teaching career, Fé Maclean concretizes the fact that, as she put it, a Filipino’s “American experience… is a product of what he brings and the circumstances he encounters in the United States. He uses language to participate in the immediate culture he finds himself in and chooses his own identity.”
No doubt, the identity she had as a top Philippine Normal College graduate about 40 years ago is far different from the “Filipino-American” that she is now. But there is no doubt that a diasporic Ilokano like her continues to extend abroad the reach of an identity commonly and chiefly characterized by frugality, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and productivity.
So she is home even when far from home. For America may be in her name, but Ilocos is always in her heart.
¹ Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, et al., eds., Sukimat: Proceedings of the 2007–2008 Nakem Conferences (Batac, Ilocos Norte: Nakem Philippines, 2009), 88.