The National Institute of Panama

Instituto Nacional de Panamá with its familiar double Sphinxes guarding the entrance. Image thanks to, a forum for architects.

The experience of just entering a school as famous as The National Institute of Panama made me feel reassured that I had a place in the history of that institution. My family history, after all, had been seeded with the essence of that school with my Uncle Eric Reid being one of the first to brave what it had meant to be one of the sons of Panama and a member of the institution in its early days.

The school, however, had been one of the first official schools to offer advanced educational opportunities above and beyond the basic education necessary for advancement in the Panamanian society of those times.  So, I was truly grateful just to have been accepted.

Upon entering the first day of classes, I immediately set to the task of confirming the many good things I had already heard about the school that had held such positive sway over me since I started hearing my grandmother’s first rants about my Uncle Eric and his days in The Institute.

At assembly that first morning I was impressed to see the multitude of boys who would make up all the classes for the First Cycle of education- the first year of High School. After the ceremony as the professors directed the flow of students to their respective classes I noticed that I could not find any one I knew from my own Magnolia Building neighborhood.

I was more than shocked, saddened in fact, after realizing that I would have to start all over at making new friends. An even more sobering realization hit me when I looked around my classroom in which our profesora – the lady teacher- suddenly announced, “You will all be together for the next six years you will remain in this school.”  As she emphasized those words my head panned around the room to see that I was the only representative of the colored community to be in that class- class “B”- which ranked second to the highest.

The day had been cut short because the teachers were scheduled for a meeting. So, making my way home that first day it started to feel no different from any other day as when I was in primary school. But, there was a big change.  The flavor of the school had remained with me the same, I was sure, as when my Uncle Eric had attended.

No special uniform was required; not even a neck tie would distinguish the hordes of the Instituto Nacional from any other government sponsored school. Still I felt that assurance that came with being a new Institutor.  I hurriedly continued my familiar route home to change out of my “school clothes.”

That night my grandmother Fanny announced in her classic way, “You stay home because I want you to go with me.” No explanations and no other clarifications were given as was usual with her.  I decided not to go to the dental clinic that evening so that I would be available to my Mamí. Something important was on her mind.

We left home some time before 7:00 p.m. and hopped on a Chiva to an area I had always known as San Francisco de la Caleta. When we got off the bus we walked for some time and ended up in a classic “homemade” church, one of the Beji-nite type churches. I would later discover that I had been to Mother Lindo’s Church.

I was just over 15 years of age and the only male, it seemed, at this “session,” where Mother Lindo, a good looking Westindian mulatto woman held services. Nothing new to me, it promised to be the usual type of Beji-nite service attended by women wearing their colorful turbans, singing and dancing their sacred dance with some falling into what we called the “Spirit.”  When they fell in the Spirit someone would always be there to attend to them if they seemed to have trouble returning from the depths of their trance. This time, however, the only part that I was now required to participate in was when they anointed everyone present with oil on their forehead. This led me to believe that I had been to a blessing ceremony.

The question of religion came up again in school when our religion teacher asked us who had not been baptized in the Catholic Church. “Now raise your hands all of you who have not done your First Communion,” she said.  Although I was reticent to raise my hand for fear of being the only one, I looked around the room and to my total surprise I noticed quite a few hands go up.  I felt a sudden surge of valor and joined the raised hands to be counted in with the rest of the class.

This story continues.

5 responses to “The National Institute of Panama

  1. What an elegant looking building that houses El Instituto Nacional.

    In Abel Bravo we used to assemble every Monday morning before class session in the gymnasium. As much as I love singing the anthem, I also like sleeping a little longer. I had a good plan on how to sleep a few minutes extra, arrive just in time as the students were walking out the gymnasium and then move on with them to class as if I had been them in the first place.

    One morning our Sub-directora who presided our assembly and a very smart woman, let the students out very early. As I arrived with other students who maybe had a similar plan , we were stopped by the Subdirectora and she immediately called for the Music Director of the school. We all had to line up and sing the National Anthem in the school patio. One of the biggest embarrassments of my life because the entire student body was looking over the balcony of the patio laughing at us. ¡Que pena! Pero que pena!

    From that day on, every Monday morning I was in the gymnasium listening to the Sub-directora address the school and singing the National Anthem.

    Panamanians are always trying to push religion(Catholicism) in school.What Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation has to do with school? Lol

    I always joke with my Panamanian friends how everything in Panama is practically done in the Catholic Church. Most Panamanians marry in the Church even if they are not Catholics. Then they baptize their children as Catholics and in school teachers ask them if they made their First Communion and bingo this is why the country is about 90% Catholic.Only in Panama.


    • That was a funny story Ana. The Sub-directora was rather creative in her way of disciplining you kids.

      About the Catholic Church in Panama: although when given the choice I decided to become a full fledged Catholic, Baptism and all, I was glad- now that I look back- for having been introduced by my grandmother and the other Mothers to the Beji-nite African tradition type church which I believe saved me from a great deal of tragedy in my life.

  2. Roberto: I have no problem with the Catholic Church. I was brought up as one and I met God for the first time and had a relationship with Him as a Catholic. As a matter of fact, today,the Catholic Church is the only church that keeps its door open so that its parishioners can come in and pray during the day. And despite its problems, I have seen the works of nuns and priests in helping the poor of this world.

  3. Roberto: Sorry to get off topic but I believe you or some of your readers may be interested .
    The long awaited research that a scholar at Vanderbilt University was conducting on Panamanians of West Indian descent has finally concluded and is on the web.
    The link is Voices from Our America.


  4. Thanks for the update on this project Anita. Our readers will appreciate it.