The fact was that I was receiving instruction in a field of endeavor for which no words of how to perform were needed between my Teacher Ana Sanchez and me- it was all observe and learn for me. Previous to these evenings my thoughts would probably have turned to what I was planning to do with a piece of dental work that presented a challenge back at Clyde’s clinic, without seeking any advise from the men I had known since infancy. So far, however, everything I had been involved in recently in or out of school could not compare to my new experiences with Ana.
You could even say that at fourteen years of age I had gradually turned into more of a recluse due, in large part, to my experiences that very year at school. The dental lab, at first, was a way of staying off the streets of my neighborhood of San Miguel. As I mentioned before, I thought it an excellent way to also learn something useful that I might be able to do later on in life.
At any rate, the evenings spent canvassing with Teacher Ana was definitely something new and challenging to me although I would end up exhausted at the end of the day and unable to attend my imposed duties at the dental lab. For the moment, however, I planned to continue with my work as an apprentice in the field of mechanical dentistry- something from which I derived gratification.
Often, while I sat at my small work table at the only Westindian lab in all of San Miguel, I had visions of greater possibilities for my life. However, while I showered during those evenings after marching up and down the main avenues with Ana, my spent energies from the days walk made me conclude that the evenings at the lab would never fit into what I had been recently drafted into.
Fund raising as an occupation, in and of itself, could be a viable alternative I thought if such an opportunity should ever present itself in the future. I suddenly thought that I had never heard of anyone becoming a “professional fund raiser.” That was something unheard of as yet in the nation of Panama.
While enjoying the evening showers I relished my newly found “separateness” and feelings of uniqueness now that I had found a legitimate way of avoiding the other residents at Magnolia Building. Never mind that the other kids would always remember me for “shifting” them- “shiffin” as they would call it. “¿Me estas shiffeando ‘a Juni?” they would ask me much later; meaning that I was avoiding them, and quite frankly I was. The complexities of life for me had turned into an urgent quest for bettering my opportunities. I just couldn’t see getting comfortable in what the Barrio held out for its young occupants.
A good night sleep would heal all sense of tiredness, I thought, as I dried off after my evening showers and gathered the wooden pallet I used to stand on in the communal shower stall and headed for our apartment to seek some privacy.
The next morning, however, as class was beginning Teacher Ana Sanchez would show up on time and as had become customary with her, to extract me from the class. We were into the end of the fourth week of this fund raising project and she had done the same thing since the second day of our long sojourn throughout the city. Nevertheless, those three weeks with her for me would be as interesting as when we had started out that first day she called me out from among the other children.
By the fourth week of canvassing I was now accustomed to the routine of approaching and interacting with the string of businesses Teacher Ana would seek out. I had had ample time to scrutinize and follow with determination this woman that I had instantly come to respect since the very first day I met her. I mean, although her school teacher demeanor might throw some people off, her character was nevertheless imposing and I could see why the business people would inevitably give her just about anything she requested for her beloved school.
We would usually walk in silence with me at her side ready to help out in any way I could. But, lately Ana had started to converse with me more as a friend than as the detached pupil she noticed I had become. There was a real bond between her and me now as she noticed that I had taken on the role of her protector. And it was an unmistakable posture on my part since my concern for her grew as I noted her chain smoking and her bouts of suffering during the terrible and violent coughing spells she endured.
We must remember that back in 1950 no warnings were imprinted on the packages of the American cigarettes that she was so addicted to, no Surgeon General findings that cigarette smoking caused a deadly gamut of preventable diseases- preventable if you would stop smoking. But, it appeared to me, even in my innocence, that she was hooked on these evil smelling cigarettes and it was gnawing away at her health.
We would enter yet another business establishment and the businessmen would invariably receive her with the deference I had come to expect. Honestly, she had a Midas touch in that sense. I could tell by now that she had started observing me and really getting to know me; the boy she once thought she knew she now suddenly admired. Little did I know that she was preparing to tell me what she felt about me and my future as she saw it.
In the meantime, the strange people at the store, people I knew were totally unknown to Ana, were looking at her with genuine admiration for this slender, frail, and dedicated white woman with her ever-present colored charge at her side. They would just beam as if they too felt honored at just meeting this commanding lady for the first time. They, in turn, came to admire and respect all her charges at the public school she represented.
As we’d walk out of each business establishment my dear Teacher Ana would excitedly begin speaking to me as if possessed. “You have to promise me here and now,” she would say both in Spanish and then in her perfect American English, “that you will go to your father and come back to Panama and be a very important man!”
This story will continue.