in Calidonia, is still there, as ever, a
cultural fixture a few steps down from
my old primary school.
As I walked out of school I was already formulating what I was going to tell my grandmother and my aunts at home as to why I had been suspended from school on the very first day of classes. Feeling really bad at how easy it was becoming for me to get pegged at school as a troublemaker for God knows what childhood prank I felt sure that I wouldn’t escape a whipping from youngest Aunt who was ever ready to mistreat me at the slightest provocation.
As I walked along Central Avenue I passed the familiar “Flor Panameña” bakery and relived the entire sequence of events wondering how I’d gotten into this mess. All I remembered doing was backing off from trying to get friendly with this girl whose disposition just spelled foul. I hardly had time to sit and reflect on how I would fit into that class when the next thing I knew was that the teacher had dismissed me out of the class.
“You leave this classroom right now, and don’t come back to school unless your parent or guardian comes in to speak to me!” were the words that kept echoing in my mind. Even my classmates looked at each other perplexed. Nevertheless, the dark skinned girl who had accused me to the teacher sat looking on quite satisfied with herself. She seemed to brighten up as she heard the harsh words come out of the teacher’s mouth as though it was the most natural thing in the world to tell a lie and then watch everyone’s reaction.
As I exited the classroom I had looked back at her imploringly but she had this self satisfied, indifferent look on her face that told me that she was quite happy with what she had caused. Fighting back feelings of unworthiness I had difficulty dominating my countenance. It had been indeed a very hard five years to have gotten this far and I was anticipating a grueling sixth year if I wanted to continue my schooling.
Although I’d fought the notion ever since I could remember I had always felt that hateful rumors dominated the lives of my Westindian people. It was dangerous to become tagged or branded a “troublemaker” a “maleante,” a “wutless” (worthless) boy, etc.; once tagged always tagged without a hearing or consideration of the facts in the matter.
It was hard to witness how some really nice boys I had grown up with became, overnight it seemed, “criminals” on the run from the police; boys who, for the slightest infraction or things that would normally pass as childhood pranks, had been sent to the dreaded prison in Coiba. I prayed to be delivered of such a fate simply because my people were ready to believe any lie about me. I, nevertheless, observed how, as usual, one of my own race, and a woman at that, had contributed to condemning me to live forever as a runaway “street boy.”
I thought about the emotional struggles I had just experienced in the last three years having to serve time like a convict the previous year in fifth grade, and now this. And here I was a staunch supporter of the cause of the Black man. Now it was I who had fallen victim to the “bemba” of Black womanhood.
I quickly remembered how I had spent time supporting the Father Divine Lunch Kitchen on the other side of San Miguel Hill not far from the entrance to the Canal Zone. That was a worthy cause, I’d thought, since I was all for assisting poor black people. But now I felt trapped by my feelings since it was a black girl who had caused my present problem. “To be black and female,” I thought out loud still regarding my present plight, as I remembered how I could detect deep hatred and antipathy emerging towards him from that young woman. “Why does she hate me?” I thought to myself imploringly. “I’ve never done anything to her.”
The incident would weigh me down, however, as I walked slowly down the avenue swearing that I would never get involved amorously in any way with Panamanian Westindian women after this. That said I flashed back to the time I had seen my mother walking away and knew instantly that she was abandoning our home for ever without so much as looking back at her helpless children. The memory repeatedly played itself in my mind as it had become one of the biggest misfortunes of my life.
I was crossing a side street and approaching the area of the city known as La Cuchilla de Calidonia since it was an area I knew well, when I spied the room where I had spent some of the happiest years of my early childhood. There from across the street I saw the first woman to have offered me hugs and kisses, something I could not remember ever receiving from any of my real blood relatives.
Mrs. Callender was at her small balcony and I decided to stop by her place and just unwind before I continued on my way. I regarded this loving old lady as my surrogate grandmother since she had been our baby sitter on many occasions. She evoked instant feelings of love in me, more than I had for my real grandmothers on either side of the family. Before I turned on my heels to head for the one bedroom apartment I knew so well, however, I heard someone calling me. “Hey Juni…hey Juni! Where are you going?”
I stopped in my tracks and approached the Westindian mulatto man I barely knew but who seemed to recognize me from when I was growing up in the neighborhood. “Hey Juni where is your mother?” he inquired as I got closer to him and I began to think fast as I delayed in answering the man whom I only remembered as Big Red.
“Hey Red I need you to do something for me,” I said sounding really in need, which I was. Big Red did not hesitate to answer. “Sure pelao, anything!” he said immediately relieving me of a heavy burden. As it turned out, the “chance” encounter with this man would save the day for me since he agreed to show up the next day and pose as one of my concerned uncles who immediately reassured the teacher that I would walk the straight and narrow from then on. This only proved for me once again the power of my prayers.
This story continues.