“Hooooppee!!!” came the familiar shrill in the voice that wakes me up every morning. That wakes plenty of people up, actually. My mother’s voice has the power to silence me and make me stand up at attention instantly, all at the same time. But I love her. My mother is the kindest soul I know – a woman with nothing but pure intentions and the sincerest of consideration for others. She puts others’ good above her own… sometimes, too much that she has been easy prey to those who don’t. “That’s why we’re still just here,” I whispered to myself. With the usual groan, I sit up and stumble out of our rickety bamboo bed and made my way to the next room: the cramped, dark, slightly fetid space our family of four calls our dining room, kitchen, living room all in one.
“Here, your sister set this aside for you to eat. Eat up and get dressed for school quickly! Your sister has already to school,” said my mother, as she pointed to the two forlorn pieces of pan de sal (Filipino bread rolls) on the table. “I’m good, Mummy. I am not hungry,” I lied. “I want you to have it, please. Besides, I have to get moving and get to school earlier than the bell. We also have a group project to finish. Please, Mummy, have breakfast before you leave for the market.” I quickly turned away, not giving my mother a chance to protest. I have gotten used to skipping breakfast most days, knowing that my mother does the same, just so we, her three daughters, will have something to eat. “I just need to beat her at her own game,” I told myself. I quickly made my way to our small bathroom, which is about 3 ft. by 3 ft. of damp space in total, and serves as our bathroom, toilet, and laundry. Truly, it is not easy to live in a squatters’, but, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
My name is Hope and, along with my two sisters, I was born in this known, decades-old squatters’ community along Science Rd., at the heart of Sabo town. This has been home for the entire 11 years of my life; more for my mother and eldest sister, Grace, who is 12. My father left us right after my youngest sister, Faith, was born eight years ago. He said he had a lucrative job waiting for him somewhere, but we never heard from him since then. My mother has been single-handedly taking care of us from then till now. With every splash of water from the dipper against my head and body, I am reminded that all we have in our lives are all thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of our mother.
Every last drop of water coming out of the faucet has been because of my mother’s unrelenting love for us. I finished bathing as fast as I could – which is not hard as I try to use up as little water as I can. All I know is our mother pays rent for our tiny shanty, and we have sub-metered utilities which she likewise pays for to our landlord every month. Numerous times, I have heard my mother arguing with and enduring the threat of eviction from our landlord, Sir Leonard, over the exorbitant rates for running water and electricity each month.
“Enough of this!” I admonished myself. It will not do me any good to every day dwell on the deplorable situations from living in a squatters’ community my whole life. Or does it? Perhaps this could motivate me to strive higher, to do better. The challenge is to never allow myself to fall into the trap of getting used to one’s circumstances. “Never,” I muttered under my breath. This has become my daily mantra – my personal vow to myself to never grow comfortable in abject poverty.
“I’m leaving now, Mummy,” I said as I reached for her hand to kiss it. “Are you sure you took a thorough bath? You were in the bathroom really quickly,” she eyed me suspiciously. I playfully rolled my eyes at her and said “Bye, Mummy. Take care in the market!” I bid her goodbye with a smile.
My best friend, Eve, also lived in the community, and we went to the same elementary school. We are both in the Sixth Grade. As was the routine, I passed by her house sand we rode the jitney to school together. “Eve! Eve!” I would call from outside their shanty. If our shanty was depressing, Eve’s was even more so. Their walls were more bits and pieces of mostly scrap plywood pieced together to hold up the square structure barely resembling a home. “Eve! Hurry, we’re going to be late for school!” I yelled out again. “Coming! I’m coming!” my best friend yelled back from inside the house. A few seconds later, she bursted out of the door, looking as if she could not wait to leave the house – their house. Her hair was still in disarray and her school uniform was still unbuttoned at the blouse, showing her undershirt that had the fading prints of “Acme Paints” on the front. “Here I am, let’s go!”
“Eve, you smell! Didn’t you take a bath before putting your uniform on?” was the first thing I asked her the minute she came up to me. Up close, Eve didn’t just look unkempt – she looked utterly tired, as if she had no sleep at all. “We have no running water – again. Sir Leonard cut off our supply yesterday (we shared one landlord, as did several other houses in the community) because my dad was not able to pay for two months now. And Julio is sick. He’s been pooping all night and I had to help my mum fetch water from the construction site, just so we could clean Julio’s messes,” Eve recounted. Julio is Eve’s baby brother – the youngest of all six siblings. Julio is a small baby of seven months old and Eve is the eldest among them all. “All the water we fetched through the night were used up and I didn’t have enough time to go back to the construction site to fetch more water just so I could take a bath. You know I can’t be late to school again. A few more tardy days and I am going to get expelled! Now, who would you ride the jitney to school with?” she playfully asked with a wide grin.
Eve is a remarkable girl. Even in a life filled with hardships, she still manages to find a smile to give, a laugh to share. Which is probably why I have not completely given up to depression myself. Eve is my best friend and I could never imagine what I would do without her by my side.
As Eve and I were waiting for the next jitney to board, I was, as I always would, marveling at the sprawling grounds of the Pacific Science High School – a nationally-renowned high school for an elite few. Only students with above-average grades and abilities get admitted to this prestigious state-run public school. If you graduate from here, you can pretty much go to any college (university!) that you wish and take up virtually any major you want. For years, I’ve known that it is both an honor and a privilege to get accepted to this school. Besides that you are validated as a high-achieving student… you receive the perks of a real state scholar. Successful scholars of the PSHS need not pay tuition and they get a free loan of textbooks. More importantly, scholars get monthly stipends, and monthly living allowances. It has been my dream to make it into this school. Maybe if I am able to attend such a world-class high school as a scholar, I can go to college and earn a degree that will land me a real job more than just selling fish and vegetables in the wet market. And when I have an amazing job after college, it means no more cramp, damp, and fetid spaces; the end of counting pan de sals; and no more guilty feelings over using too much electricity or running water. Oh, how I can help Mother make a better life for our family!
“Hope, here comes the jitney. Let’s go!” Eve’s voice breaks me out of my reverie. It’s time to go to school. In real life.
The next day, I was up long before the shrill in my mother’s voice could pierced through my ears. My eyes were wide open and darting back and forth, as if seeking to make sense of the stillness of what felt like the early makings of dawn. Everything was quiet, as if night had not completely separated from the break of dawn. Mummy was sound asleep to my right, with Faith to hers. Grace was also still asleep on my left side and it seemed like I was the only one awake. I slowly sat up and gingerly crept off of our bamboo bed, careful not to wake up my mother and sisters. I moved quietly to the only window of the bedroom and gazed out into everything that night stood for in our squatters’ community. The entire community was generally quiet, but it was not peaceful. Though everybody seemed to be fast asleep, there hardly was a feeling of rest anywhere. My eyes were drawn to the direction of Eve’s shanty. What do you know – it IS Eve’s shanty. It was the only home in the community with activity going on, under a pale glow of what seemed like a spatter of oil lamps or candlesticks or both. “What could be going on at Eve’s?” I wondered. I look past Eve’s window and into the horizon. There was a streak of red breaking through the horizon. Day break is coming.
“Hope, are you all ready for school? I need to leave for school now,” Eve said. I was surprised to get a knock on our door so early and Eve being the one to fetch me first when, usually, I was the one who called her down so we could go to school. “Wow, Eve, look at you, so early! We don’t need to leave for school for another hour, what’s the rush? Do you have a project to finish?” I asked. “Um,” Eve began. “I don’t have money for the jitney. I need to walk to school.” My best friend is almost embarrassed, but she knows she could tell me anything. “Give me three minutes, Eve. Let me just put on my uniform quickly and I will walk with you.”
As Eve and I walked out of the community and toward school, I handed her one of my pan de sals so we could have breakfast while we walked, to save time. “What’s going on, Eve?” I asked my best friend. “Julio is still sick and so all of Father’s money had to go to buying medicine,” Eve told me sadly. “I didn’t get any sleep at all again last night. It was another long, long night of fetching water from the construction site. The good news is, I was able to save some water for myself and take a bath this morning!” Eve finished off with a faint laugh.
By then, we had reached Science Road and were walking by the fences of Pacific Science High School where new announcement posters seemed to have been placed. “Eve, look! The National Competitive Examination for new 7th Grade scholars is happening in October! Just a month away! We should try it out it, Eve! Who knows? We might be able to make it!” My heart skipped beats as my dreams of attending the PSHS on a scholarship inched closer.
“Oh, Hope. We both know I don’t have what it takes to make it to PSHS, much less on a scholarship! You’ve seen my grades, right? The number of lessons I’ve missed because of all my absence and tardiness in elementary school alone makes me ineligible for any kind of scholarship!” As Eve told me this, she was half-laughing, half-tearful. And my heart tore a little for her. Eve sounded like she had surrendered. “Eve,” I began carefully, trying hard to scale back the excitement from my voice. “Don’t you want the chance to make a better life for yourself and, in turn, for your family? Getting in PSHS is a huge step in that direction, Eve. We can study to become scientists! Engineers, even! Eve, it’s our huge step away from the squatters’ community! Besides, you wouldn’t know until you tried, right?” I wanted to take the scholarship exams with nobody else but my best friend. “Hope… I’m just trying to be realistic here. You are a PSHS material. No doubt there. But me… I’m not. And my Daddy said that upon my graduation from grade school this year, maybe I can start helping Mummy in the market so we can sell more vegetables. We can rent another market space and I’d manage that. So, double the chances to sell more in a day, see? That’s making things better for our family, too.”
Never give up. Never give in to poverty. Never. “Eve, listen. You can be so much more than a wet market vendor. Wet market vendors earn enough for the day. Okay yes, sometimes more than what you need for the day, if you’re lucky. But having a solid education with a real purpose will get you so much farther than just a day,” I pleaded with Eve. “Come on, Eve. It will be so much more fun and meaningful if you and I spend our high school lives together in the same school!”
Eve quietly took my hand and just held it in hers. “Let’s walk faster. Engineer Hope can’t be late for school!” Eve joked and was silent the rest of the way.
“Hope, let’s go home. Mummy told me to come straight home after school so I can help my younger sister watch over Julio. Now that Julio no longer has diarrheoa, My Mother was back to selling in the market full-time,” Eve explained as she tugged on my arm. “Sorry, Eve, I’d like to stay on for a little bit and read up in the library. The National Competitive Examination was just two days away and I just wanted to read some more. Maybe you would hang out with me in the library. You did say your sister is already watching Julio, right?” I cajoled Eve. “I’ll even pay for your jitney fare going home, if you stay and review with me,” I added with a grin. “Well,” Eve started, seemingly interested with my offer of company and free ride home. “Throw in some fish balls, and it’s a definite yes!”
Eve and I spent two hours in the library, poring through scientific journals and studies. Later on, in the jitney ride home, Eve seemed to be in good spirits and was almost non-stop in talking about new things she learned from our two-hour jaunt in the school library.
The moment Eve stepped into their house, her new-found excitement over added learning was cut short as she was confronted with an enraged mother who was red in the face from all the anger. “What time is it, Eve?! Where on earth have you been?!” yelled Eve’s mother. “I was in the school library with Hope, Mummy. We were studying. I learned a lot of helpful things, Mummy!” but her mother would hear none of it. “Wasn’t I clear, Eve, that I wanted you straight home after school? So, can you help your kid sister watch over Julio? You disobeyed me! And now, Julio is throwing up and pooping like crazy again and your kid sister had all but gone mad, watching over the baby by herself!”
“That’s just the thing, Mummy! I think I found some answers why Julio’s diarrhea and stomach troubles seem to keep coming back. I read up on it! It’s our water, Mummy! And I think I know some things we can do to help keep Julio and everyone else healthy!
“It’s our water, mummy! We’re not sure if the water that we’ve been fetching from the construction site is clean and safe for drinking. Neither is the water from our own tap – you know, if Sir Leonard doesn’t cut off our supply. Either way, what we can do is to boil the water first before we drink it. And should we start to get our tap back, we can filter the water that comes out of our water lines,” Eve was on a roll. “Also, let us make sure, too, that the containers we have are not contaminated themselves…”
“You don’t understand, do you, Eve?!” her mother cut her off. “We have neither the time nor the luxury to do such things! Your father and I are both busy working so we all can have food to eat and your brother to have his medicines. Your brother is sick! Sick! And all I asked of you is to come home straight after school and HELP! He probably wouldn’t be sick right now if you had come home as you were told!” Eve’s mother was exasperated.
Eve continued, “But mummy! If we can start to make changes to how we treat our water, then we will have less problems to worry about and we would not need to be spending so much on medicine. If we only had clean water to drink and to bath ourselves, we would not have to clean so much mess in this house…” but Eve’s mother’s hand descended across her face hard even before Eve could finish her thought.
“How dare you answer back so insolently? It is not enough that you defied me, now you talk back to me this way! Is this what you learn in school? Maybe we should stop sending you to school, then?!” Eve’s mother threatened.
“Mummy, please…” Eve began to plead. “No, you get away from my face and don’t speak to me until you’ve learned how to better respect me, your own mother!” her mother yelled.
The following morning, Eve did not go to school with me. Instead, she handed me a hand-written letter telling me about the words she exchanged with her mother and how she needs to stay home that day and watch over Julio who is sick again while her mother and father went to work. I felt a touch guilty for making Eve stay in school with me yesterday. “But hey, if I don’t see you between now and tomorrow, I want to wish you ‘good luck’ on the National Competitive Examination tomorrow. Wow them all, Hope! You could very well be the first from the community to make it to PSHS… you are our hope, Hope!” and Eve ended her letter with a doodle of a smiley face.
Come Monday morning, right after the National Competitive Examination, I passed by Eve’s house again, hoping that she will be allowed back to school by then. Eve’s sister, Lanie, told me that Eve has already left for school an hour ago. She needed to leave early because she was to walk to and from school today.
In school, I caught up to Eve during break time and I offered to walk home with her after school. “That would be great, Hope! Then you can tell me all about the National Competitive Exam and how it went for you. Just make sure to walk briskly, okay? I can’t be late making it home again!” she finished with a wink.
This went on for several days – Eve leaving the community earlier because she was no longer given money for the jitney ride to school. She explained that she doesn’t want to trouble me to leave an hour early each day and make me walk the two or so kilometers to school every day with her. On some days, Eve would let me walk the distance home with her after we’re done with school, but on most days, she would just quietly head on home by herself. “I have to get right on home and take care of Julio. He’s still sick.” Or he’s sick again. Or Lanie is sick. Or another sister of hers.
The day I’ve been waiting for finally came. I was by the gates of PSHS at the break of dawn, joining the hordes of people who are also hoping to find their names on the list of successful scholars for the next school year.
I am now an incoming 7th Grader Pacific Science High School scholar!
As I raced back to the community to share the greatest news to what I anticipated would be an equally ecstatic mother, my mind was racing as well which strand I will choose when I reach the 10th or 11th Grade. Do I want Science? Or am I more inclined to Technology? Oh wow, I can be an Engineer if I want to be! Or am I exceptional enough at Mathematics? No matter what I choose, I know life, from now on, will be better. Not just for me, but for everyone in my family.
After I shared the good news with my Mother, the next person I wanted to know about my good fortune was Eve. Maybe now, Eve can believe it better when I tell her that any dream is possible, with hard work and determination.
There was unusual activity around Eve’s shanty. There were scores of people huddled at different tables, playing with what appeared to be cards and were laying down coins and paper bills. I noticed a spatter of people coming and going through Eve’s front door. As I observed closer and closer, I saw what appeared to be a pair of bright lamps emitting yellow light, filling up the entire house. The lights from inside Eve’s house were not from oil lamps or candlesticks anymore, no. They were electric shinning bulbs. My heart started racing again, but this time, it wasn’t the ecstatic kind of pounding – there was a sinking feeling of dread with every heavy beat of my heart. By the time I reached the door way, I can smell the eerily familiar scent of flowers and candles. “Oh Lord no, please don’t tell me something terrible has ultimately happened to Julio,” I prayed silently in my head as I inched closer and closer to Eve’s doorway. As I was about to enter the house, I found Lanie, Eve’s kid sister, carrying a fussy Julio in her arms. “Oh my God, Lanie. I was afraid something terrible has happened to Julio! And look, he’s okay! Thank God! What’s going on, Lanie? Why are all these people here?”
It was only after my barrage of words came out that I noticed Lanie’s tear-drenched eyes. “It’s not Julio, ate Hope. It’s Eve. She was walking home from school yesterday when she got hit by a speeding car. Maybe because it was dusk when she made it home, that’s why the driver of the car did not see her very well.”
It’s been nine months since I lost my best friend, Eve. Life has not been the same without her, I must admit. After she was gone, it was a tad harder to see the silver lining to things, unlike when Eve was still around and she always had a reason to smile under any circumstance. Living in the squatters’ community was actually a little more bearable with Eve around. And now that she’s gone, every cramped, damp, and fetid corner seemed more so. The crowd seemed to be closing in a little bit more; it was harder for sunlight to reach every nook and crevice, and the odor of stagnation seemed to fester a little bit more.
Maybe this is the silver lining. With Eve gone, I am less inclined to bear what living in the community does to us. With one less reason to smile in this place, comes one more reason to do everything I can to try and get my family out of here.
That was the thought that carried me from the moment I opened my eyes this morning to the front of the class where I am standing now.
“Good morning, everyone. My name is Hope and I live right across the road. It may not be for long, though, as I know that my being here today and for the next six years, means I can go places. And I will. Because I am here to learn doubly well. I am here to learn for both myself and my best friend who would have also been here with us if only she was given the time.”
For life to make meaning, requires many sacrifices. This, I know now. But it is sad that we live a life where there is so much sacrifice for little or no reward. I will not let you down, Eve. Never.