The National Institute or Instituto Nacional de Panamá represented for my Uncle Eric Reid, as well as many other intellectually gifted Panamanian Westindian youth, a great challenge in their careful but determined ascent up the ladder of success. He, along with a few other hardy souls, would brave the volatile and hostile political climate to even consider entering government sponsored secondary education and plan ahead to university education.
That such a first time opportunity would be available at gaining professional training for the likes of these exceptional young people was a miracle sent from God since the brand new University of Panama, founded in 1935, was still sharing space with them at the National Institute.
However, the all male preparatory school was one elite institution of higher learning that could not help but take notice that on the 15th of June, 1937 the boxer Joe Louis Barrows would knock out James J. Braddock, a white man, to become the first black heavyweight Champion of the World. These events in world boxing would, ironically, make life very difficult for the likes of a very sports-minded Eric Reid.
Being one of the only Westindian students enrolled in his first class of A-students would attract much unwelcome posturing from some of his white classmates. This, in addition to the fact that he could afford to be flashily dressed as any of the other elite class boys would be further cause for confrontations. Eric could not help but shine and his good looks, intellect, wit and style now attracted invidious remarks from his very competitive classmates.
The fact that a black man had knocked out a white man in the manly sport of boxing several thousand miles away in the states set boys like Eric up for challenges to fight from even the most moronic and least suited to fight of his classmates. Nevertheless, Eric had become accustomed to making it through life on his own and handling these peculiar issues at school since his mother was employed full time on the Zone the very year he had been deprived of his father’s presence and he handled these confrontations as a gentleman.
As I mentioned earlier, money was not a problem for Eric since he handled his newspaper route as a serious and enterprising young businessman and his savings began to mount. He was also the only other member of his household to be able to contribute to expenses so, early in life, he began demonstrating the confidence that older men of his Westindian race did not possess at such a young age in those turbulent times. Again, and ironically so, matters would be made worse for him since his outstanding school record made him a source of pride for his teachers who recognized his brilliance and recommended him throughout his primary and secondary school experience. How so? Well, he would become the target of much envy for his ability to stand out and be a leader.
As the National Institute was the first and only secondary school of its kind at the time to offer academically oriented preparation, not trade or vocational instruction as the other schools did, it became a bastion of thinkers and leaders, as well as the Nest of Eagles- “Nido de Aguilas.” Many key historical figures, lawmakers and even presidents of the Republic have graduated from the Instituto Nacional. To even gain entry into that institution was not based on space availability alone but on the written recommendations of your primary school teachers and, of course, on the excellence of your grades.
At this time other Westindian teachers appeared on the scene in the cities of the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts. These personages, I might add, braved criticism and stumbling blocks both from the official sector and from their families and friends to open private neighborhood English Schools as their only business. They also took in many “charity” cases and even started admitting Spanish speaking students from the neighborhoods.
There was, of course, Teacher Phillips, who founded his school on Avenue B in the Marañon section of the Calidonia. Even today he is remembered by some of his students in an area of the city known for its majority Westindian population. Not too far behind was the school run by Teacher Maynard which was backed by the organized Seventh Day Adventist Church. Several gifted students, including myself, would eventually learn our basics- reading, writing and arithmetic- under these dedicated teachers and then go on to enter the officially sponsored schools. It was the directors (and owners) of these English Schools, in fact, who opened the first Union of Private School Teachers.
Government schools soon followed in that area of Calidonia that later would also become known as Curundu and would house some of the first official primary schools, Pedro J. Sosa and Guillermo Andrede primary schools.
This story continues.