Miss Blake’s Balcony School

A traditional penmanship exercise.

Miss Blake’s balcony school would be our first school ever and, although it was run by the grandmotherly figure of Teacher Blake, it fit into the mold of the traditional English Schools of the Panamanian Westindians. The small school was conducted from a second floor balcony which was adjacent to Miss Blake’s one room rental living quarters in a two story wooden building.

At the time it was adequate for a class of small children and she seemed to be able to keep control of her charges in her own gentle way. I say gentle because, although she wore the familiar badge of authority- a 1 ½ inch leather belt- slung over her left shoulder at all times, she never used it, recurring to a milder form of discipline whenever it was needed.

We spent most of our days practicing penmanship, writing out lines upon lines of slanted o’s and cursive i’s, which, if nothing else, served to teach me patience. My writing slate, however, didn’t hold up as well as my only writing instrument. It suddenly started to break up in my hands with the slightest pressure put upon it. It was so brittle that after a while I was extremely mindful of not bearing down too hard and completely losing the bit of slate I had left. Life was sweet, though, and I enjoyed the routine and the company of the other, perhaps, ten children in our little school.

Soon, however, and much to my disappointment, our routine at Miss Blake’s balcony school would end as we were abruptly notified by my mother that we could not attend Teacher Blake’s school any longer. Disappointment not being new to us, however, we soon settled back into our old routine of being left alone at home most of the day.

I continued my penmanship practice using part of my broken slate and, before long, reverted to my old brown shopping bag paper from the Silver Commissary bags left in the trash and pieces of old cardboard. I also continued to copy letters from old newspapers in the Spanish language. It must have been during this time that the light of inspiration would dawn upon me to reassure me that I could actually read what I was secretly, and compulsively, transcribing.

There came a time shortly thereafter that we were left in the care of baby sitters who quickly became our surrogate family. For me, however, I would again become one of the actors in my father’s never ending drama at work as it was a time of continual demotions and his frustrations mounted on the job on the U.S. Army Base on Fort Clayton in the Zone.

As evening would rear its threatening countenance, since it was in the evenings that my father would return home, I would normally look for my Spanish playmates from the neighborhood, and even harbor the hope that my father would be in a good mood.

Then there was Mr. Lawson, the Black American, who would be arriving about the same time and who always had a cheerful greeting. “Hello Junior!” he would say with his usual Yankee twang that delighted me and he would park his brand spanking new dark green Buick with all the shiny chrome adorning the sides and around the bumpers. The sight of Mr. Lawson parking that magnificent vehicle always fascinated me and I would think to myself, “I’m going to keep an eye on that car as if it belonged to my father.”

One evening, however, while I stood there at the corner expecting to be able to see either my father come home in his boxy 1940 black Studebaker, or Mr. Lawson in his gleaming Buick, the evening tropical sun shone brighter than usual as if it meant to start another day. Suddenly, I noted what appeared to be some white men in our neighborhood, and some had photographic cameras around their necks. An unusual sight in our barrio, I was extremely curious as to what they were doing in our neck of the woods.

This story will continue.

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