EVERY time she comes in late for her class, Librada Avanceña Gemal gets the chance to polish her English-speaking skill.

She would often say to her classmates, who are mostly 12-year-old kids, “Good morning, classmates. I’m sorry I’m late because I came from my garden.”

Her fellow pupils then allow her to sit on her armchair.

As an expression of gratitude, the last sentence she usually throws is: “Thank you, classmates!”

The kids in white shirts reply: “You’re welcome!”

Gemal is 79.

She tends a little garden where vegetables grow in Tisa Elementary School in Cebu City during a class break.

Gardening, however, is not the main reason she is in school.

To speak English well and learn how to write drove her to study. Gemal is now a sixth grader.

“Maningkamot gyud ko matapos ko aning (I will do my best to complete) grade six,” said Gemal, a mother of five children.

When asked if she will move on to another level of learning if ever she would graduate next year, Gemal fell silent.

Then she spoke, with a hint of doubt.

“Naa pa ba ko diha, Ginoo (Would I still be alive by that time, God)? Di man kita maoy nagdala sa atong kinabuhi (You know, we don’t own our lives),” said Gemal.

In 2010, at 74, she decided to go to school.

No chance

During her childhood in the southwestern Cebu town of Barili, Gemal said she never had the chance to step inside a classroom.

As the eldest of 10 siblings, Gemal said, she was forced by her parents to till their farm while a younger sibling clung to her back.

She said she never enjoyed her childhood because she was unable to do one thing that most children do: play.

Gemal, fondly called “Nanay” by her classmates, starts her day by waking up at 4 a.m. to operate the electricity-powered artesian well in Kadasig Phase 4, Barangay Buhisan, Cebu City.

She started this job last June 5, before the classes start. She earns 30 percent of the proceeds from neighbors who gather water from the well.

Last June 15, she earned P1,504. She also accepts laundry from her neighbors.

Gemal said she often cannot do her homework because she is always busy doing household chores and tending to her 11-year-old granddaughter, who has a mental illness.

She came to Cebu City in the early 1960s, searching for a better life.

Gemal worked as househelp for several years until she married Loreto, who later died.

When she was a third grader, she recorded a perfect attendance and had an average grade of 82.

She later earned an average grade of 80 in grade four in 2013, but it dipped the following year to 79.20 when she was a grade five pupil.

Her grade four teacher, Marylocke Abellana, said she is glad Gemal continued her studies.

“She is a blessing to the school and an inspiration to the children,” said Abellana.

If she receives a passing grade, Gemal will graduate next year at the age of 80.

Eyeglasses

Sun.Star Cebu interviewed her when she was still a fourth grader.

She said she received a pair of eyeglasses from the staff of a TV program hosted by veteran broadcast journalist Jessica Soho, but this got damaged.

Without glasses now, Gemal has a hard time reading the writing on the blackboard.

She said she liked the job of a nurse.

In school, she plucks plants with medicinal qualities from her garden when she is tapped to take care of ill pupils and teachers.

“Kung naay makuyapan, akoy tawgon. Kung naay masamad, akoy tawgon. Kung naay mapiang, akoy tawgon. Kung naay gikabuhi, akoy tawgon (I am called when there is someone who fainted, got wounded, injured or suffered from heartburn),” she said. “Aw, doktor herbal ko pagkakaron (I’m a herbal doctor right now).” (Sun.Star Cebu)