Friends, family, traffic laws, and flour are what Jen Wallace missed while living and teaching in the Philippines for the past four years with her husband, Stephen. Though initially envisioning their relocation to the Philippines as a five – to seven-year adventure, opportunities and concerns conspired to compress their timetable.
The opportunity came in the form of a prod from History Department Chair John Lyons who jokingly tried to entice Jen back to the Circle in the summer of 2010 by indicating that a position in the department was going to open up in the year ahead. Initially amused but dismissive, Jen became more attracted to the idea as months passed and what seemed a far-fetched notion became more reasonable and potentially ideal.
The decision to relocate to the Philippines five years ago grew out of Jen and Stephen’s wanderlust. Both international travelers, Jen had spent two years teaching in Beirut, Lebanon, prior to coming to Groton 11 years ago. Stephen had spent many years abroad as a photojournalist and had deep ties to the Philippines, having spent over six years there during his youth, including one year as a high school student at the International School of Manila. They were well aware that moving abroad would be fraught with a multitude of challenges and potential potholes, and as they were traveling with their aging dogs, Jaya and Grover, they wanted to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. The Wallaces also had a number of close friends who could provide additional assistance as complications would inevitably arise.
The first challenge was to find a teaching position in the Philippines. Because of their geographical limitations, Jen couldn’t use an international search firm and needed her resume to break through the multi-layers of gatekeepers that exist in the hiring process. Ironically enough, it was her position at Groton that helped open the necessary doors at the Brent International School. Brent was founded by the Episcopal Missionary Bishop to the Philippines, Charles Henry Brent, in 1909. Bishop Brent was an admirer and acquaintance of Endicott Peabody and modeled his school after Groton. Each year during Brent’s Founder’s Day celebration the connection to Groton School and the Rector’s ideals are highlighted. Thus when the current Brent Headmaster, Dick B. Robbins, saw that Jen’s resume included seven years teaching history at Groton, he quickly contacted her and the resulting conversation led to the offer of a position at Brent. Jen taught International Baccalaureate (IB) in History and Economics. Brent students are a talented mix of Filipinos and international students whose parents are either expatriates working in Manila or who have relocated with their children to the Philippines to ensure a rigorous English language education.
Jen enjoyed teaching both the IB classes and her students, and she was even tapped to coach the boys varsity volleyball team. Working at a day school had its benefits as well; her workday was completed by 5 p.m. and on weekends she and Stephen could take off for their farm and spend time in the mountains away from the city. Their farm was a ½ hectare — approximately two acres — plot in the province of Cavite, near the town of Indang. There they grew a variety of vegetables and fruits, including many varieties of bananas. Bananas proved to be the most amusing of their crops, as the banana plant is more grass than tree. Once the plant produces fruit the stalk is cut down, but in the meantime it has pollinated and spread its seeds in a wide area. Bananas grow quickly and suddenly. Where a low bush seemingly existed just the day before a 12-foot stalk stood in its place. Their farm was abundant and they were able to provide fresh food for themselves, their caretaker on the farm, and a family in town. Jen enjoyed the weekends living in an indigenous hut known as a kubo, learning to live with the ants and the cockroaches with whom she shared the space.
The gift of time was the most refreshing for Jen, as she found that she had more than enough time to prepare for classes, coach, teach, and then some. She began to run more regularly and liked it more and more. Her increased enjoyment of running enticed her to try a marathon, and not only did she finish, she signed up for another one. In total she completed six marathons, and is currently in training for the Baystate Marathon this October in Lowell.
Despite all of the pleasant parts about living in and around Manila there were also intense frustrations. Coming from a country with defined, followed, and enforced driving rules, every outing in Manila was an opportunity for frustration and amazement. Driving anywhere ensured that one could witness a fellow Manileño’s creative use of the roadways, which inevitably resulted in a traffic jam so snarled that it made Boston traffic seem tame by comparison. The unique challenges that the traffic flow offered, combined with an erratic procurement process, turned shopping for simple staples such as flour into an hours-long trek. One might only have the pleasure of witnessing two epic traffic jams and then return home without the needed flour because the grocery store was out of it, and the manager couldn’t be sure when it would be re-stocked. Despite Manila’s and the Philippines’ high standard of living for those who can afford first-world goods, it was difficult to reliably procure staples for the kitchen or home. But neither the intense traffic nor the inconsistent access to needed goods prompted their departure from the Philippines; it was the lure of family and the concern for their dogs.
As with any favored pet, managing their health and well-being over time can be a tricky process. Their original decision to stay abroad for five to seven years included the assumption that their aging dogs would make a one-way trip to the Philippines and find their final resting places somewhere on the farm. Neither Jaya nor Grover got that memo and seemed to be enjoying their new lives and doing amazingly well, which meant that they would be even more elderly if Jen and Stephen stayed abroad for the entire seven years. The dogs’ longevity called into question whether they would successfully make the return trip to the United States, but it also meant that the odds were against the dogs if they waited too much longer.
So throughout the summer of 2010 and into the fall, Jen and Stephen pondered the notion of reapplying to Groton. Jen opened serious conversations with John Lyons and Rick Commons and decided that it would be terrific to return to Groton School. Once that decision was made the details fell into place. A friend in Manila who had been looking to buy a farm and had admired theirs, quickly offered to purchase their land. The dogs were booked on a one-stop flight through Amsterdam, and Jen and Stephen packed their belongings, bade good-bye to their Filipino friends, and have taken up residence back on Farmers Row.
They are both thrilled to be back in the company of friends and family and are looking forward to getting to know the new Groton community that has emerged since their departure.