The first thing you have to know about Rizal High School is that it’s big. Not just your everyday, ordinary big either. To call Rizal High a normal-sized high school would be like saying the Pacific Ocean is a lake.
When it comes to this high school, there’s nothing small about the place. The campus, spread over a large section of Pasig, a suburb of Manila, Philippines, seemingly goes on forever. It looks much more like an American college campus than any high school you’ve ever seen. The school covers 6.7 hectares, the equivalent of 16.5 acres.
And as long as we’re talking about those things large, let’s not forget about how many students are enrolled at Rizal High. It’s a mass of humanity walking to classes at Rizal. How many in your high school? A couple thousand. Three thousand? Four?
Rizal’s got you beat. Actually, it’s got everybody beat. The Guinness Book of Records calls Rizal High simply the “largest school.” It listed a world-record enrollment of 16,535 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, 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 and 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 Jose Rizal, a Filipino patriot and writer who was murdered in 1896. Six years after Rizal’s death, the high school was established.
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.
Of all the students at Rizal, only a handful are members of the Church. With all the black-haired students wearing identical clothing, it’s not easy picking somebody out in the crowd as the students walk en masse across campus. Yet the Latter-day Saint youth who attend school at Rizal High 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, 15.
“I’m sad because most of the students there are not members. I’m the only member in my classes,” says 15-year-old Ednar Pacardo. “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.”
Ironically, many of the LDS students at Rizal, through the examples they set, are doing as much teaching as many of the teachers there.
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 mind, being a member of our church means being nice. They always talk about how Mormons do good or how we are an example. 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 49 stakes, 13 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. And for the people who do know various things about the gospel, there are still plenty of misunderstandings.
Each day the LDS 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 participate more 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 just aren’t right and are things that I don’t believe in. I said that I could be their friend, but I also had to keep my standards as a member of the Church.”
None of this means the LDS students aren’t having fun at school. Despite the sheer size of Rizal, their school day is very similar to high school anywhere. There’s homework, tough classes, easier classes, preparation for college.
The difference is in the social scene. That’s when the Latter-day Saints seem to form an even closer bond.
Sixteen-year-old Jerusalem Santos, better known as Jerum, and Ednar, both members of the Pasig Second Branch, are quite happy to meet at their ward building to play basketball or volleyball on the court outside the chapel when they have free time. On Sundays you’ll find them preparing and passing the sacrament. The chapel 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 being 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 one day asked who in the class wasn’t Catholic. A discussion of religion was going on, and 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,” she says.
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 the LDS 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 things begin coming into focus.
In a metropolitan area as big as Manila, at a school that you can find in the Guinness Book of Records, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd and lose your way.
Unless, of course, you know where you’re going.