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Literature and music have greatly influenced veteran educator Shelley Grace Calangi. Now a children’s author, she is passing on her life lessons, everyday observations and good humour in the form of poetry.
A short crop of silver hair, infectious smile and warm laugh – Shelley Grace Calangi makes an unforgettable first impression. After immigrating to Macao in the late 1980s, Calangi made a life and developed a reputation as one of the most enthusiastic, effective teachers in the city. She has been an educator in the city for three decades, leads the choir at the Instituto Salesiano Sunday English mass with Father Aidan Conroy and has recently published her first book of children’s poetry, Now, I Play.
Education, music and literature have been themes throughout her life. But her story begins in Manila, where she was born in August 1961 into a large family (the fourth of six children) and attended the now-closed St Theresa’s College with her two sisters – one of the best educational institutions in the Philippines.
“I was fortunate to have been raised by parents who valued education first and foremost,” she says. “They raised us in English, put us in English-language schools, and were the kind of parents who would not allow us to watch TV during weekdays.”
Her mother was a teacher (a “disciplinarian”) and her father worked as an accountant (“the quiet one”, who was “very quick with numbers”). They made a great team when it came to helping their children with projects and nurturing a love for reading and writing from an early age.
“Because my mom was an English teacher, she exposed us to a lot of literature, from Kipling to Shakespeare,” she says, adding that all five of her siblings eventually worked as teachers in Macao. Each child had their own stash of books in their rooms and the family also shared a library, where they would gather after school.
“Back then, there was no internet, no Google,” she says, adding that her parents invested in a complete encyclopaedia set. “The books and common library were their way of keeping us all together. They expected us to work together as siblings, even though we each had our own bedroom.”
“Even as we grew up, we still stayed really close and lived nearby whenever we could, thanks to that connection we felt as children,” she continues.
Music also figured into her daily life. “My dad played the guitar and, when [my parents] got married, he bought my mom a piano because she really loved the instrument.”
Calangi grew up tapping away on the piano’s black and white keys. She also picked up the guitar, recorder and some percussion instruments.
Many years later, when Calangi enrolled in an architecture programme at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1979, music got her through a tough period in her life. Calangi couldn’t finish her studies due to a family issue that she prefers not to discuss. At 24, she dropped out of school and worked at an audio-visual company, learned how to DJ and scored a job at a nightclub.
“Music and prayers have and always will be my go-to anti-everything,” she says. “The melodies and rhythms act like anchors tethering me to what’s important, to what makes sense, while prayers strengthen me.”
Lessons in the classroom
This was also about the time that Macao came on Calangi’s radar. A year before, Calangi’s mother had moved to the city for a teaching job at the Chan Sui Ki Perpetual Help College.
When Calangi visited the then-sleepy Portuguese enclave in the summer and for holidays, it made an impression on her. Compared to today, the streets felt quieter, she recalls, with fewer cars, no reclaimed areas, and a much more affordable cost of living.
Bus fares cost around 50 cents, while the taxi flag-down fare started around MOP 7. You could also buy a mixed grill – a platter 12 inches across filled with big pieces of beef, chicken, pork, sausages, bacon, carrots and potatoes – for just under MOP 15. “It was a very stable, simpler, peaceful society, with an underlying sense of security,” she recalls.
Over the next few years, Calangi’s family members joined her mother in the city one by one. In December 1988, Calangi made the move with her daughter, Jools Calangi, who was just about to turn one. Two years later, she gave birth to her son, musician and songwriter Ari Calangi.
At first, Calangi worked as a DJ at the President Hotel’s Skylight Disco Nightclub, which has since closed, on Avenida da Amizade for around a year. However, she didn’t enjoy Macao’s nightlife scene and instead took a teaching job at the Santa Rosa de Lima English Primary School.
“I couldn’t picture myself in the classroom with kids at first,” she says. “Then eventually, I tried teaching music, which I loved.”
Soon after, she started teaching other subjects she loved, such as dancing and sports. A quick study, Calangi learned on the job, grew more familiar with the children’s needs and was able to overcome language barriers, since she could not speak Cantonese. As time went on, she taught English, literature, mathematics, history and drama.
She also learned how to instil discipline with what she describes as “not a very strict face” with a laugh. Rather than sticks and carrots, Calangi developed her own relaxed, approachable style. She realised students respond well to sincerity – it helps them warm up and pay attention. “I honestly feel [a strict approach] wouldn’t work with this generation,” she says. “It might create a bunch of rebels.”
Now, still at Santa Rosa de Lima English Secondary School, Calangi teaches geography to Form 5, geo-literacy to Form 6 and drama to Primary 2. To keep her classes engaging, she always brings in real-world applications. For instance, before the pandemic, she would travel and take photos of water and landforms for her geography students to study.
Reflections and poetry
As part of her teaching philosophy, Calangi emphasises classroom discussions because she feels it is one of the best ways to learn. There is no wrong answer, she says, since even wrong answers “might inspire other ideas”.
“If you ask me, more learning takes place through errors because errors not only foster realisation but also reflection and evaluation,” she says. “When students are brave enough to take chances and possibly make mistakes, they also open themselves up to fresh ideas, new thinking processes, and new perspectives – that is learning!”
When she taught literature, Calangi took her students to art exhibitions where she asked them to choose pieces that inspire poetry and describe why that specific piece resonated with them.
“When we assign work, it shouldn’t be about meeting quotas but giving something that’s meaningful. That is where the challenge is,” says Calangi. “Thankfully, I’m [teaching] geography and it’s very interactive.”
After having taught hundreds of students over her 30-year career, Calangi has watched many of her students grow up, and lead their own unique lives. She has considered retiring and travelling the world but she’s not quite ready for that yet.
In fact, Calangi has been working on a creative passion project in her spare time. Having written poems for her children to recite at recitation competitions under the pseudonym “Softwinds” for many years, Calangi turned her collection into a book, entitled Now, I Play, which will be part of a trilogy. The second and third instalments are due to be published in the coming years.
Designed for children, the book features illustrations by Filipino visual artist Qathleen Sioc to bring the poems’ energy, scenes and lessons to life.
Poems for children tend to be image-based and rhythmic with simple language, but that doesn’t mean they “don’t have deeper meanings,” she says. “Often, they have life lessons strung between the lines.” Calangi loves writing poems, since they help her observe the world around her and celebrate everyday beauty and quirky interactions.
Much of her poetry, she says, came about from everyday life – whatever catches her eye. For instance, she remembers bumping into someone who was “forever in a bad mood”, which resulted in the poem, “A Day in the Life of a Grouch”.
I’m a grouch,
though not the violent kind.
And, as usual, I am furious.
Just don’t ask me why.
“I suppose it’s just a matter of being more aware of what’s going on around you and having the imagination to create a story from what you see and making something out of the ordinary,” Calangi says. “But this much I’ll say, I tend to be quite observant.”
Calangi has come into contact with “quite a number of interesting and inspiring people” in Macao, who she often features in her writing in some way or another. Perhaps mentioning a particularly humorous interaction, their unique traits or idiosyncratic mannerisms.
“When an idea hits, the words just flow,” she says. “My observations stretch beyond my workplace, and so do the inspirations for my poems.”
After all, she continues, teaching and poetry are similar – they’re both about learning, exploring life and sharing ideas. As Calangi says, “teaching sort of makes life a never-ending poem.”
You can purchase Calangi’s first children’s poetry book, Now, I Play, via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online distributors.