Homework for adventurers

This is part of a series called Stories Over Coffee, where I write about my memories of growing up in Bahrain and Qatar in order to preserve them. To understand why I do so, please read this anchor post.

SY 2002-2003, old PSB campus

Parents have a lot of fears when it comes to sending their children to school, but I think nothing quite matches the additional frustration that comes with dealing with homework notebooks. It has a never-ending list of reply slips to sign, homework to check, events to remember, and so many other notices from school that pile up over time.

Up until high school, my mom made it a point to check our homework notebooks as soon as we–or she, depending on the situation–get home to spare us any crying and screaming scenes at 9PM with the all-too-familiar refrain: Why didn’t you tell me you need illustration boards TOMORROW? The stationery shop closes at 10PM! Cue a stylized montage of crying while walking to the shop or flagging down a taxi.

[Ah, good days. More on this next time. Midnight requirements always make for a good story.]

At least this new homework assigned when I was in Grade 1 did not need any late-night rushing. Most of the things on the list were already available at home:

  • 3-5 canned goods + can opener, if possible
  • A change of clothes, including underwear
  • Basic toiletries such as toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo
  • Blanket and pillow or sleeping bag
  • Face towels, tissue, and alcohol
  • Plastic bags
  • Flashlight, matches, and candles
  • Duct tape

The same list was attached to my older sister’s homework notebook. Unlike with our other required materials, she had no questions about our task this time. That night, my mom marshalled us into assembling our own sets. The following day, she then dropped us off at the door of our classrooms to help us carry our extra homework bags. My six-year-old arms did not have the strength for it yet.

She was greeted by my Grade 1 teacher, who clearly expected the crowd of parents helping their own kids put the bags by their desks. My mom shared a tight-lipped smile with my kind teacher, and simply nodded at the other parents before going her way.

Inside the classroom, the grave air disappeared with the uncharacteristic glee over our goods. Although our teacher had us put them on our desks for a quick, customary inspection, we seized the opportunity to scope out each other’s stuff. It was a huge news day in our tiny world, and we just had to make the most out of it.

I got Vienna sausage!
Me too! What else did you bring?
I have tuna? And my blankets are pink.
My toothpaste is bigger than yours.
My homework bag has Hello Kitty!

One classmate popped his collar and held up a can of Purefoods corned beef. Everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed, forgetting Hello Kitty and the one who owned the most number of Vienna sausage cans. Someone would stand up and counter it with a small, flat tin of Century Tuna, and our first-grade crowd would riot anew.

Though Vienna sausages make
for a tasty and easy to eat baon for lunch, they were readily available everywhere: in baqalas or cold stores, in supermarkets like Last Chance and Lulu, and even in more upscale groceries Géant and MegaMart. Having a whole wall of Vienna sausage cans was definitely cool, but they weren’t the golden ticket of popularity. [Note: if you’ve ever met me in real life, you know what my kitchen cabinet looks like.]

The prized possessions turned out to be certain brands of canned goods that one can only buy at the Kabayan Store all the way in the souq area at the heart of Manama. It was a fairly small grocery store crammed in every nook and corner with goods from the Philippines, and many OFWs in Bahrain flock to it for a small taste of home. Since it was not always cost-effective to go there, anything we buy there is a precious treat–owing to the nostalgia we inherited from our OFW parents.

Some pupils had more canned goods and clothes and much more extra things that were not in the list. My personal pride and joy was my duct tape: I had thick rolls in both shining silver and dull gray, in contrast with the boring brown packaging tape that everyone else had. I coasted on my laurels for a bit, smugly glancing at the others as they scramble to pick something they could also use to gain some street cred.

For some reason, our usually strict teacher did not rap her desk with a ruler and shush us before our morning ceremonies. She let us huddle at each others’ tables and run around the room with unholy shrieks, her hands on her waist and her eyes soft behind her large wire eyeglass frames. No time-outs, no scolding today.

After inspecting all of our goods, she had us put them back inside our snazzy new bags and pile them at the small storage section at the back of the room. From what I remember, it looked like it was meant to be a walk-in closet or tiny bedroom of some sort before the villa compound was turned into a collection of school buildings. The door of the storage was freshly lined with silver duct tape, and some classmates eyed me as they spotted the new decor. My kind of duct tape did look prettier on the walls.

Our teacher then switched up part of our morning routine. In addition to our usual stretching and exercise, we also had to learn how to squat and roll on the floor. Giggles floated through the room as some had a hard time ducking beneath their desks, their heads bumping on the metal undersides and causing another racket that our teacher did not forcefully call out.

After that, all twenty of us trooped back into the strange silver-lined storage area, where we fidgeted against our sweaty classmates and complained about bumping into sacks of rice or some other stuff that was stashed in there. We were all on the verge of breaking out into a collective tantrum when our teacher shushed us again, her ruler rapping against the door. We all stopped and stared at her in silence.

Do you know, she began, that we’re practicing for an adventure?

Our eyes widened at the story, and we all held our breaths as she went on. She was also our English teacher, so we knew we had a good tale in store for us.

Are you scared of the dark?

Nooooo!

Let’s turn off the lights then!

The squealing began again, this time with happy challenges to be braver. We’re practicing for an adventure, after all.

When the noise died down and we were deemed brave enough to manage the dark, she opened the door and slowly let us out one by one. We went back to our places, curled up under our small desks and trying not to bump into the metal drawers.

That was fun. I wish we had more homeworks like that one. Sadly, we didn’t have any new instructions in our homework notebooks, other than a reminder for our parents that they could still add items to each pupil’s “emergency kit”. Is that what our homework bag was for? An emergency kit?

When we got home, my mom let me practice our new adventure skills: ducking under tables, braving the dark, and quietly waiting for our signal to go back to our place. She patted my head in response, promising a trip to Kabayan store soon. However, she seemed distracted that evening– her body hovering over the phone and her eyes darting to the door, as if waiting for someone to knock.

Are you waiting for Daddy?

Yes, I am, she said as she smoothed my hair and tucked me in bed. I’m also waiting for the bells to ring.

Why would they ring, Mommy?

It means that the adventure will start!

But we’re not at school?

No, the adventure can also start here. If the bell rings, or if Tito Butch calls, we start doing what you practiced, okay?

Okay!

Let me tell you more extra adventure skills! I snuggled up to her as our story time took another weird turn, this time about smoke and towels. We needed to wet our towels and hold them over noses, she said. If we had enough water to spare, we also had to keep one blanket damp and cover ourselves with it.

One blanket for both me and Ate?

Yes. Stay together, okay?

Will we fit?

She laughed. Good night, sweetheart.

My dad came home later that evening with more rolls of duct tape, and he proceeded to cover every hairline crack and every visible corner with the dull grey duct tape. Ever the artist, he crossed the silver duct tape over the walls, forming an abstract and geometric mural.

I woke up to him putting finishing touches on his duct tape art. Do you know that our door also has duct tape? I stood on my bed and ran my hands over his handiwork, tracing the triangles formed there. But it isn’t as nice as this.

My dad breathed slowly, and then turned to smile at me.

Good to know your bomb shelter does, too.

What’s a bomb shelter?

He paused, still holding his brittle smile. An adventure.

I waited for the adventure to come, but fortunately, it never arrived. It was year 2002, and the US campaign against Afghanistan heightened. I remembered no warning bells for air raids, but my mom did. She kept her phone on at all times for any notice of evacuation from Tito Butch, a church uncle who worked at the Philippine embassy.

We would wake up to damp towels by the doors, and in school, we still eyed our prized possessions hidden away in our secret storage. No missiles struck except for the few that managed to land in empty deserts, and no adventures were to be had. The homework remained nothing but a strange memory.

Others don’t have that privilege.


If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I hope that you take at least the same amount of time to educate yourselves on the ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestine. What is currently happening there is no fun adventure, no practice drill, no wacky school activity.

At the very least, please pray and uplift the voices of people who do not have the privilege to flee or have makeshift bomb shelters. Even refugee camps have been bombed.

I have the privilege to write about my own memories twenty years after the fact and treat it as a strange disruption in my childhood. Other people do not get that chance. Please, if you can do something for them, then please do.


Update (11 June 2021)

My dad still makes murals out of silvery duct tape. He also recently discovered that a popular warehouse chain sells duct tape in so many different colors like pink and turquoise, so his recent “pieces” include the most badass balikbayan boxes or delivery parcels DHL has ever beheld 😂 This was a screenshot from a Zoom call, so the artwork can’t be readily appreciated.

4 thoughts on “Homework for adventurers”

    1. Thank you for reading it 🥺 I tried to keep it as concise as possible, but I didn’t know how much of the staples in that worldview–Kabayan store, the embassy–could be easily understood without an info dump. After Googling some details, I realized that many of them were lost to time (the campus, Last Chance, etc.) and migration. This was my only way of preserving what my 2002 looked like.

      Liked by 2 people

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