For many people, even today, primary school holds many tender memories although, judging from all the violence that is visiting the schools lately, I suspect that I may be generalizing. My Spanish school memories in Panama, however, were not at all sweet. They were days filled with battles that turned me into a puny warrior ready to defend myself, and many political and social dynamics surrounding our Silver People had a lot to do with it.
Unknown to me at the time (1950) youngsters such as myself were showing up at “Spanish School” accompanied by their hopeful parents that their children would finally be able to attend the official schools, only to be denied admission. They would be met by the first line of hurdles- the teachers- who generally reflected a profound disdain for the likes of kids like me whom they automatically branded “troublemaker.”
My sister was somewhat protected from some of this frontal attack since her first name was Aminta, a Spanish name. In fact, many of the children of our generation had been given Hispanic first names and I suspect that it was for this very reason, to buffer their public school experience and make the children blend in.
Many times I felt trapped and totally out of place at school as our teachers would act as though they were doing us a favor just admitting us “Chombo” kids. Eventually this attitude on the part of the teachers would have its intended effect. Most of the kids who had started school with me that year who were Westindian would drop out and the majority would never see graduation. What I was witnessing was a phenomenon that would never appear in the journals of Panamanian educational history but I am attesting to it on the pages of this chronicle since this happened to so many deserving kids- kids who only wanted to educate themselves.
Determined, by that year of 1950 I was looking forward to graduation. Although I had had to repeat fifth grade, I had been skipped to third grade from first grade, so this kind of evened things out for me by sixth grade. Also, however bad off I felt at the time I knew that more of my Spanish surnamed classmates and neighborhood friends would never graduate from primary school or go on to any secondary education either. They were catching it as well, I guess, and much of it had to do with living poor.
The great wonder of the world, the Panama Canal, for me was no wonder at all. I considered the Silver Men and Women and my generation a true wonder to behold since we had done the greatest work on the Canal and managed to survive to the second generation. Although that Canal Zone had taken its toll on me and my whole family I considered myself fortunate that I had made it thus far and the school year was coming to an end.
In the meantime I still felt that I was unprepared with some kind of viable trade. I was still holding on to the hope that I would earn some payment if I demonstrated to “Doctor Clyde” at the dental clinic that I was worth the time and money he might decide to invest in me. I was in for another big disappointment.
The mechanical dentistry they constantly talked about in Clyde’s makeshift laboratory and clinic on Mariano Arosemena Street had, by now, attracted notice from people as far away as Puerto Rico and the United States. Their business was booming and I don’t doubt that my efforts had a lot to do with Clyde’s keeping up with his orders.
The clinic was more than a clinic for me since I had memories of that two room lab and clinic with the wicker dental chair since I was baby boy. Clyde was my father’s close friend and he had taken me there to visit many times. Clyde was practically a Godfather to me in my estimation. So I clung to a remote hope that Clyde would elevate what I had learned in his clinic to a fully learned trade.
At any rate, I had very mixed feelings during this period. I both had great expectations and I also feared what finishing primary school had in store for me because two summers had passed me by and I hadn’t made a dime. I hated relying on my grandmother for spending money, although I knew that I was her only help with her chores inside the house and her relationships in the community of Calidonia.
In so far as pursuing employment on the Canal Zone was concerned, my mind was just about made up- I was determined not to go looking for work in the Zone. I knew very little about being employed but I tried to avoid the idea of having to be employed on the Canal Zone. I often expected my aunts and uncle to someday approach me with the idea of working with the company or section they worked in Panama or the Canal Zone but the occasion never arose. That was fine with me since I reasoned that my entire family had suffered enough by being part of the Canal Zone labor force.
I looked forward to my 15th birthday and had determined it in my heart that I would not follow my ancestors or those individuals in my family in seeking work from the bottom of that pit of hell that the Canal Zone was to me. I was reaching for a miracle of some kind that would liberate me from the prospect of having to work on the Canal Zone.
Gradually school became more tolerable after I learned to have more patience with myself. Some of the literature I had been reading during the year had had a calming effect on me and, somehow, made things start looking better after so many bouts with disappointments and frustrations that made growing up a real challenge.
This story will continue.