The first thing you notice about Rizal High School is that it’s big. Not just bigger than average or bigger than most schools. To call Rizal High a normal-sized high school would be like saying the Pacific Ocean is a lake.
There’s nothing small about Rizal High. The campus, spread over a large section of Pasig, a suburb of Manila, Philippines, goes on seemingly forever, covering 6.7 hectares.
By now you must be wondering how many students are enrolled at Rizal High. It’s a mass of humanity walking to classes at Rizal. How many are in your school? Two thousand? Three thousand? Four?
Rizal’s got more. Actually, it’s got more than any other high school. The Guinness Book of World Records calls Rizal High simply the “largest school.” It listed a world-record enrollment of 19,738 the last time it did a survey; however, the principal now says there are 21,139 students attending school there.
“It’s so very big,” says Julie Ann Nudo, age 17, of her school. “But I like the bigger school because there are many students and it’s easier for me to make friends.”
So each day Julie Ann and the rest of the Rizal High students put on the official school uniform: white shirt and dark brown pants for the boys; white shirt, red necktie, and red-checkered skirt for the girls. Then it’s off to a full day of classes at the school named for José Rizal, a Filipino patriot and writer who was murdered in 1896. The high school was established six years after José Rizal’s death.
A hand-painted sign in one of the school’s courtyards reads, “I am proud to be in this school, the largest secondary school in the world.” And the students are. But a select few find even more gratification in something else.
Among the students at Rizal are a handful who are members of the Church. With all the students wearing identical clothing, it’s not easy picking them out. Yet the Latter-day Saint youth here do their best to stand out anyway.
“I feel like I’m a unique person because I’m a member of the Church, not because I go to Rizal,” says Maritess Saldivar, age 15.
“I’m sad because most of the students at Rizal are not members,” says 15-year-old Ednar Pacardo. “I’m the only member in my classes. But I feel so happy that I have the priesthood, the power of God. I feel I have strength compared to my friends in school. I will do the right, and I will teach my classmates the right.”
Maritess understands the importance of being an example. “I know I’m different. My friends tell me all the time, and they love the way I am. In their minds, being a member of our Church means being nice. They always talk about how Mormons do good or how we are examples. So I always try my best to be an example to everybody.”
There has been an official Church presence in the Philippines since 1961, and there are currently 47 stakes, 14 missions, and one temple in this group of islands off the southeast coast of Asia. Yet many Filipinos—especially teenagers—know very little about the Church and its teachings. Even the people who know a little about the gospel have plenty of questions.
Each day the Latter-day Saint students at Rizal know they’re going to be outnumbered. And each day they know they’re going to have their beliefs and values questioned by some of their classmates.
Carmelita Gonzalez was once approached by a friend who wondered why she didn’t spend more time with their group of friends. “I told her I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” she says. “I had to tell her that sometimes the things they do are things that I don’t believe in. I said I could be their friend, but I also had to keep my standards as a member of the Church.”
None of this means the Latter-day Saint students aren’t having fun at school. Despite the sheer size of Rizal, school days are similar to those at high schools elsewhere—homework, tough classes, preparation for university.
The difference is in how they spend their time out of school. That’s when the Latter-day Saints draw even closer together.
Sixteen-year-old Jerusalem Santos, better known as Jerum, and Ednar, both members of the Pasig Second Branch, Pasig stake, are quite happy to meet at their ward building to play basketball or volleyball when they have free time. On Sundays you’ll find them preparing and passing the sacrament. The church is where they both want to be—where they feel comfortable.
“It seems like most of the students at Rizal High are drinking liquor and taking cigarettes. But I don’t,” says Jerum. “I feel that I have the strength to face the temptations that come my way, even though my friends always want to know why we won’t use some of that stuff. They say a lot of things, like I’m not a real friend if I don’t do those things with them.”
Maritess has done her best to be a friend to her nonmember friends by helping them understand more about the gospel. “Some of them are very curious about what Mormonism is. They ask me what the standards of a Latter-day Saint are,” she says. “I have shared the Book of Mormon with them, and I’ve told them about Joseph Smith and things like the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity. I try to understand who they are, but I think it’s hard for them to understand why we’re Mormons and what we believe.”
Even Maricar Mendoza, who admits she’s somewhat shy, didn’t hesitate to raise her hand when her teacher asked who in the class wasn’t Catholic. Maricar felt she had to speak up. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m a Mormon.’ I explained to her what our church is, and I was able to discuss a lot of things, such as latter-day prophets, Joseph Smith, and the plan of salvation.”
Maricar still considers herself shy. But she’s glad she spoke up.
It’s a Saturday morning in the Philippines. There are no classes, and the youth of the Pasig stake—many of them Rizal High students—have gathered at a local ward building for an activity. At the conclusion they all head to a nearby convenience store for treats. As many of them walk along Pasig’s busy streets, there’s nothing to suggest that these youth are any different from their contemporaries who are also buying soda pop and candy. But get to know them. Find out what they believe and what guides them in their lives, and the differences become clear.
In a metropolitan area as big as Manila, at a school you can find in the Guinness Book of World Records, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd and lose your way.
Unless, of course, you know where you’re going.