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Martial Law Through the Eyes of a Preschooler

I was not even a whole month into my sixth year when President Marcos declared Martial Law.

It was impossible not to notice — the world ended. My world, that is. My six-year-old preschooler’s world.

It was the only world I noticed and knew anything about, after all. Precocious I supposedly was, but I guess it was the “steal kisses from five-year-old girls” kind of precocious, not the “read and reflect on the day’s newspaper headlines” kind.

But even from that obviously very limited point of view, the dawning of the Philippines’ Martial Law era under Marcos had a big impact and left one heck of an impression.

I’ll tell you what I remember.

I was attending a brand new school, Benedictine Abbey School in Alabang Hills, now called San Beda College Alabang. One small building with three preschool classrooms. That’s all it was. Surrounded by copious amounts of… nothing. Practically-speaking. Just hill after hill covered with talahib (tall wild grass) and speckled with the occasional lonely tree.

Well, that school was a huge part of my world then. And it closed. Martial Law suddenly closed everything down. Including, of course, my school. One day all was normal, then — poof! — no school. Stay home. And indefinitely, as far as anyone knew.

I’m sure I asked my parents why, and I have zero recollection of whatever it was they may have told me. I thankfully had no clue about any of the events happening in the country that led up to this world-shattering event. But this much I did know: This was not normal. Something major was going on.

Not that I really knew what the dickens “major” meant, as if I had a point of reference. Well, the declaration of Martial Law became that point of reference for me for years to come.

My parents did not let my sister and me leave the house. No one left their homes, as far as I could tell. It was deathly quiet and still outside, in the community where we lived, and with hindsight, everywhere beyond that. It was that quiet.

Home detention wouldn’t have been too bad if not for this other development: There was no TV. And no radio too, I guess. I just didn’t care about the radio then; in my world, the TV was it. And it was gone. Well, our big black-and-white Philips television was still there, of course — a thief would have to be really motivated to steal that huge heavy piece of 60s furniture — but programming? Totally nonexistent. I remember snow. Lots of it. Or was it that all-too-familiar static test screen image they broadcast during the off-hours that told you, “Dude, we’re sleeping and off the air.” I remember both. Regardless of my memory’s accuracy in this area, the point is, there was nothing on at all. No cartoons. No talking, singing and dancing people. No advertising with cheesy jingles trying to sell me Caronia nail polish. Just nothing.

Oh, I tried all the channels. And kept trying. By then I was already way familiar with this high technology and was the household’s designated remote control, with just enough strength to turn that highly-resistant analog channel selector knob (push-button tech wasn’t quite a thing in our household yet). I distinctly remember checking that TV and all its channels repeatedly throughout our incarceration. Without success.

Nor was I successful at poring through my daily feed of newspaper comic strips. Comics galore from at least two newspapers every single day! Well, no more… the newspapers immediately stopped being dropped off every morning in front of our gate. Martial Law put a stop to all media.

No preschool. No outdoors. No TV. No newspaper comics. Martial Law did one heck of a number on my six-year-old world.

Obviously things started going back to life and returned to what passed for normal back then. How long that took, I can’t really tell you — all those events and memories just compress into one big mass on my memory timeline.

But this much I do remember: When school finally resumed, and “Martial Law” was of course all we kids were talking about, the overwhelming consensus, unspoken even, was that Martial Law was negative.

I find that quite interestingly curious. My parents, at least, weren’t really political-anything around us kids, so it’s not like I had anyone “brainwashing” me that what was happening wasn’t a good thing. And here I remember a whole bunch of six-year-olds expressing that exact sentiment. Hmm.

In fact, not long after school resumed, we all went on a field trip to the brand new Las Pinas City Hall off of the Alabang-Zapote Road. My school bus passed by it twice daily, and I literally watched that first building being built, hardly anything surrounding it. I don’t think they even started work on the Perpetual Help Hospital building a couple of blocks or so down the road yet.

That was a memorable field trip. The “chief” who took us around (because heck if I really remember what that uniformed cop’s rank really was) toured us through the facility. A tour that included us walking right past the jail cells. Which had actual prisoners, standing behind bars, staring at us as we shuffled past just a few feet in front of them.

Eventually we ended up at the guy’s office, surrounding the man as he sat himself down behind a huge desk for a friendly Q&A — I guess that’s why my memory has labeled him the “chief.”

Our teachers (mine was Ms. Sevilla) started asking the man questions, for our benefit, of course, since we kids were ill-prepared for any of this. I’d be surprised if any of us students even really knew what “field trip” meant at that point of our school career.

The chief answered all of the questions pleasantly. Friendly chap. Friendly enough that he turned to us kids and asked us if we had any questions for him.

Uh, yeah, we did.

I don’t remember who it was, but one of the kids up front, hanging on the edge of his desk, loudly inquired:

“When will Martial Law be finished?”

The expression on the adults’ faces were priceless. Especially since that pulled the plug on the barrage of questions that immediately flooded out in rapid succession from the little people: questions about the ETA of their cartoons and comic strips and movies, when they could go back doing this and that, why many of the stores were still closed, and some that I didn’t expect, like, “Who are all those bald people I see working on the side of the road?” and “Did the prisoners we saw miss curfew?”

The chief didn’t reply to any of them. To his credit, he just started laughing loudly, a genuine hearty laugh. I bet he had a story to tell his pals later. Our teachers quickly thanked him for his hospitality and ushered us out of the man’s office and back to our rides.

At this point, we were all chattering along with each other about what we thought we knew about Martial Law. My friends and I were also engrossed in making stuff up about what we supposedly saw in those prison cells. I distinctly remember someone — I think it was Michael — who said one of the prisoners had a missing leg and some blood at the end of his stump.

Reliable informants we were not.

As time moved on, and sooner rather than later, we all no doubt eventually learned all about what Martial Law under Marcos was really all about. But I keep going back to this memory whenever talk about Martial Law pops up. Back to when sheltered innocents who could definitely see and feel that something not quite right was going on, still didn’t know enough to quite process the inputs and make sense of it all, let alone comprehend the true gravity of the situation the country now found itself in.

And we were there. Right at the start.

So it’s not really all that difficult to imagine how many of today’s younger generations totally fail to get that that was not a good time, that no level of rationalizing can possibly put a positive spin on what transpired, and that a repeat of that scenario must be avoided at all costs.

My batch of innocent preschoolers grew up and learned. I think it’s time today’s batch of adult coddled innocents should do so as well.