People always talk about how home always feels like home no matter how long you’ve been away. But for us, our 10 months away in Manila in 2013 made us feel disconnected when we came back to Puerto Princesa in 2014. Sure, we were so relieved to be back, but also felt untethered. We’d lost touch with a lot of friends, our house smelled stale and dusty, and the places we knew and loved looked different or weren’t even there anymore. We needed something that would help us feel stable again, with both feet on the ground.

My parents decided to put up a preschool. It was an idea they had entertained long before the move to Manila, but the timing wasn’t right, until now. A progressive preschool where kids were surrounded by nature and play, not pressured by rankings and academics, felt like the perfect fit for a place like Palawan. So, with the idea and concept in place, it was time for the legwork. My brother and I tagged along with my mom during the whole process of starting a business. We looked for the perfect site, canvassed the prices of construction materials, applied for business permits, and even helped with the naming of the school. We were informed by DTI that our original name for the school wasn’t available, so we had an impromptu brainstorming session right there in their office. In an hour or two, the name Scholaris Learning and Development Center was born, and we hopped right back in the car to continue our search for the most reasonably priced cans of paint.

Scholaris opened its doors on September 4, 2014. Its growth was full of ups, downs, and other surprises in between. My brother and I found ourselves surrounded by toddlers and kindergarteners, and soon became actual friends with them. When class was over, we would play with the students in the garden, teach them how to make bracelets out of santan flowers, and read stories aloud for them. We taught them the little things we knew, like hand-slapping games like “Nanay, Tatay,” and were sometimes invited to their houses for playdates. We were Ate Elise and Kuya Nacho.

Their parents were cool, too. Because their kids were so much younger than we were, they didn’t treat us too much like kids. There were times when I’d get advice on life from them and what really matters in the long run, and other times I could talk about my latest obsessions because at least one parent loved them, too. Sometimes, I would be asked my opinion on things, which only usually only happened with my parents. It was one of the first times that I felt like my point of view mattered. I felt really grown up and valued.

That newfound feeling of maturity was put to the test when, in the summer of 2015, I was sent to Manila alone for the first time. For two weeks, I packed my own bags, managed my own money, jumped from one relative’s house to another, bonded with two sets of cousins, attended a week-long summer camp, and formed new friendships. I rode the plane back and forth on my own, too. This was my first taste of independence. At twelve years old, I felt the oldest and coolest I ever had. When I came home to Palawan, I felt different, as if I had drastically grown up in two weeks. So what if I carelessly left some belongings at my Lola’s house? My eyes, ears, nose, and heart had experienced the potential of what my life could be like when I grew up a little bit. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to grow up.

Every summer after that, I chased that feeling of excitement and independence. Two weeks became three, then a month became two. Slowly but surely, my thoughts and dreams started to be set in Manila, among my cousins, the new friends I had made, the cool new places I’d been to, the boy I had a huge crush on, and all the activities, workshops, and experiences I could be going through. I was like a sponge absorbing all the information and stimulation I didn’t have in Palawan. I started becoming more active in my summer camp community, having sleepovers and outings with my cousins, making the most of the nearby KFC and Burger King, and even managing to make my way around malls without getting lost. During that time, I became a Junior Inquirer correspondent for Palawan but was assigned mostly media-focused articles instead of local ones, and enjoyed the Manila-based workshops and assignments the most. I learned and grew so much during those summers, more than I ever could have in Puerto at the time.

The downside was that, when I would finally come home, all I ever did was dream of going back. I was convinced that Manila was where I was really meant to be. Puerto Princesa for some reason lost that golden glow of childhood, and instead became a place I really wanted to leave behind for somewhere busier, more stimulating, and more exciting. I became fixated on the idea of going to school there for high school, like a lot of other Palawan teenagers, even my dear friends here. After much discussion and tears on my part, my parents and I had an agreement: I would apply for senior high school there, but I was first going to grow up here in Palawan, close to them because I really was really not ready yet. It was going to be hard, but I was determined.

The years and the summers passed by, and I had the same dream, the same goal. As my term as a Junior Inquirer correspondent ended, I was grateful for everything I had learned and experienced but expected that I wouldn’t be writing for a while. But to my surprise, one of the grandmothers of the students in Scholaris, Mrs. Susan Evangelista, approached me about a unique opportunity. She asked me, “Are you interested in the idea of writing for Palawan News?” She had a column in Palawan News too and introduced me to the editor herself, Ms. Joy Tabuada, who offered me something I never expected: my very own column. I was so nervous to accept; the idea of this kind of responsibility was scary. But my parents gave me the push and support I needed to take it on, and iSpeak was born and my first article was published. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Having to write an article (in the beginning) twice a month forced me to start paying attention to my community, my relationships, and myself, searching for stories and meaning in anything and everything. Something as little as one of my first multicab rides alone became one of the my favorite things I have ever written about. Learning arnis, getting involved with the Katala Foundation, interviewing the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, and cleaning up my messy closet have all been experiences made more meaningful because I had to reflect and write about them.

My eyes were opened to all the amazing things happening in Puerto Princesa, and to all the people making it all possible. There were various active and passionate people around me who want to contribute to their communities in the best way they can. There is so much passion in all corners of the province, from both locals who want to help their hometown grow and flourish and from “dayo” immigrants who chose to live in Palawan and contribute in their own ways for their chosen home.

Even within Scholaris, we were supporting local fairs like Binhi and Rurungan sa Tubod, participating in outreach projects with the Batak community, taking field trips to nearby farms to support small and local farmers, visiting the police and fire stations, and going together as a school, as a community, to the many nature-related activities around the city. The amount of social and volunteer work happening on this island is overwhelming. There is so much love and care for the people, environment, and biodiversity of Palawan.

I had beenwas so engrossed thinking about what I was missing outside of Palawan that I had missed out on all the people and things happening around me. Now, the friendships I’ve made in Palawan have proven to be so much more solid and precious than the fickle ones of Manila. The quality of shared experiences and interests here is so much more meaningful, too. The obvious hassles of traffic and flooding of Manila have always been there, of course. But I also became more exposed to the amount of stress, scrutiny, and pressure people place on themselves in the big city. Now, I don’t really want to grow up. I want to stay a kid in Palawan forever.

My days are numbered in Puerto Princesa as the final preparations to leave for senior high school in Manila are underway, just like what I wanted all those years ago. My parents think I’ll be ready by the time I need to leave, and yet my heart is heavy. And now that I truly feel connected to my home and know that everything I am is because of Palawan, I must go.

It’s been a crazy ten years, full of ups and downs. But I know that in the years to come, no matter where I may end up, I’ll always have Puerto Princesa, my home in Palawan to come home to.

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