Sweeney, Jim: Panama Canal Zone teacher, later DoDDS-Panama teacher: 1972–1999.

The school system in Panama was originally run by the Panama Canal Division of Schools, a branch of the Canal Zone Government. Prior to that, the tiny number of dependent American students attended makeshift schools during the early construction days.

By 1942, Balboa High School had a beautiful tile-roofed campus, a stadium, and a gym. Later, more buildings were added to include a shop, science and ROTC buildings, an auditorium, and a junior college wing, which later reverted back to the high school when the junior college moved to a new location in La Boca at a former Latin American employee dependents’ school.

The Zone had many elementary schools serving the military community, civilian employees, and American Panama Canal employees, as well as tuition students from Panama, including foreign residents. There were three American secondary schools when I arrived there in 1972: Cristobal Jr./Sr. High School on the Atlantic Side of the Isthmus, Balboa High School on the Pacific Side, Canal Zone Junior College in La Boca virtually under the Bridge of the Americas that crossed the Canal, and Curundu Junior High close to the entrance of a military housing area

There was also a parallel school system for Panamanian citizen students who lived in separate townsites and were dependents of Panama Canal Government and Company employees. Their two high schools were Paraiso on the Pacific Side and Rainbow City on the Atlantic Side. These schools and their elementary-level equivalents were labeled “Latin American” schools that followed a mix of US and Panamanian-style education taught by both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking teachers, who were also Canal Zone Government employees. Most of these students were of Afro-Antillean descent. Their ancestors were brought mainly from Barbados and Jamaica as construction workers for the Canal in the early 20th Century. Most spoke Bajan English at home rather than Spanish. Their parents were originally labeled “silver” employees and were segregated from the “Gold” US employees and paid less. Later, our schools were integrated, and many of their students chose to go to our American schools rather than go to schools in Panama City. Some of their teachers and administrators joined our campuses. Both groups were a positive addition to our school and educator population.

There was also a Catholic school on the Pacific Side that some American and Afro-Antillean students attended, as well as some students from Panama City. St. Mary’s included all the grades from first grade to twelfth.

My connection to the schools in Panama began when I met my future wife, Diane Asbury, during our senior year of college at UC Santa Barbara. I was fascinated by her stories of growing up in the Canal Zone. The exotic animals, the two oceans, the two big lakes, the jungle, the beaches, and the year-round summer weather intrigued me. She mentioned all the outdoor activities she enjoyed, especially boating. Diane had attended Cristobal Junior Senior High School on the Atlantic Side of the Isthmus at Coco Solo, where she was a cheerleader, played volleyball and basketball, was the Student Body Secretary, member of the Honor Society, honorary officer of the ROTC in very short shorts, homecoming queen and the loveliest girl on campus.

After we married and I finished a teaching credential, we drove down in a VW camper to the Canal Zone to visit her family and for me to try to find a job teaching. Her mother taught elementary school, her dad had been a lockmaster on the Canal, her sister became a teacher, and her brother-in-law taught PE and coached football at Curundu Jr. High School. All of Diane’s closest relatives were Zonians and had completed their educations in the Zone and later got jobs there.

I interviewed for a teaching position and discovered that a master’s degree and teaching experience were required for secondary teaching, and being a veteran gave applicants an advantage. I had neither, so we drove home to California, and I applied for high school jobs there. After two years teaching and coaching football and wrestling in California, having our first son, and finishing an education masters, I applied for a teaching job in the Zone. I was told to qualify I had to fly down there on my own and apply in person because I was not a veteran. I quit my job in California, drove to New Orleans, left my VW camper there to be shipped down to the Zone, and flew to Tocuman Airport near Panama City. I got the job as a social studies teacher, JV football coach, and Afro-American Club sponsor, replacing a guy who had left the year before.

We were given Stateside hire status, even though I flew down and was hired locally. This was a boon because we were provided with government housing, a tropical differential added to my paycheck, and biannual home leaves back to California with other benefits. They flew my wife and child down and shipped our household goods, and my car showed up.

I taught at Balboa High School and was hired to also coach intramurals, JV football, tennis, and JV swimming. I took as many extra coaching jobs as became available, as I enjoyed coaching and sports. I taught from 1972 to 1999 at the high school, Canal Zone College (part-time after school and in summers) and later full-time for two years, which became Panama Canal College when the Canal Zone disappeared. I spent four years at Curundu Junior High, teaching mostly PE until I got back to Balboa to finish out my career with DoDEA.

I taught Behavioral Science, Humanities in Three Cities, Tradition and Change in Four World Societies, US History, Geography, Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, Psychology, Government, PE, and World Regions over a span of 13 years, three years after a sabbatical, and later three more years at the end of my career at Balboa High School. My favorite teaching job was at Panama Canal College, where I taught World History, US History, International Relations, Anthropology, and Sociology, and I sponsored the junior college honor fraternity and the student senate. I only lasted two years as a full-time teacher there; then I got cut along with the budget. I did four years at Curundu Junior High, teaching some geography but mostly PE before I was able to return to the high school.

My coaching experience in Panama includes three years as a JV football coach, two as an assistant varsity coach for the Bulldogs, eight as a head coach for the Red Machine, and nine as an assistant for the Green Devils. I also coached the Bulldog boys’ tennis team for five years, JV swimming for two, and varsity swimming for 24 seasons.  I had the Green Devil boys’ volleyball team for about twenty years, the Green Devil’s track team for eleven years, and the Curundu Middle School team for two years.  I also did intramurals: tennis, indoor soccer, weight training, track, lunchtime intramurals, wrestling, rugby, and flag football.

My wife was able to finish the teaching credential she began in California by taking classes at Canal Zone College and doing her student teaching through a program Penn State had. They brought down student teachers to work in our schools and live in a dorm to finish their credentials. Diane hooked up with that program, completed her credential, and was hired to teach fifth grade. She did her student teaching, where all four of our children later completed their elementary educations. She spent her career in Panama, mostly teaching at Curundu Junior High, which converted to a middle school in the nineties.

After living with her mother for a few months, we spent our first quarters in a wooden, off-the-ground, four-family tropical building. It was pretty basic, but Diane fixed it up. We had a small maid’s room downstairs where the washer and dryer were, and we parked our car. Nearly everyone had a full-time live-in maid as they were reasonable, got free room and board, and better pay than those working in Panama.

The adventure of adjusting to living in the tropics, in a system where everything was run by the government of the Canal, a true functional socialism, visiting the republic just across the border seemed so different, and discovering new friends from all over the US and the Zone was great making my first few years a wonder. And we enjoyed our home leaves in California, where we hit most theme parks, saw my parents, and old friends, and explored our home country.

Things got stressful in the late 1970s. The dictator, General Omar Torrijos, pushed for the US to negotiate an end to its presence in Panama and the turning over of the Canal Zone and the Canal itself to Panama. Our way of life, jobs, and housing were threatened as Jimmy Carter began intense negotiations to end US control of the Zone and Canal and the withdrawal of US military forces from Panama. We were constantly in the news in the US. We often saw US senators visiting neighbors to discuss the Canal treaty issue. Our unions sought to protect our jobs and privileges with visits to Congress, which legislated our laws and would decide our fate.

When one of the US administration’s officers supposedly called Canal Employees “gutless sheep” that could be pushed around to accommodate the preimplementation of the treaty by cutting the wages of some American employees to match those of local rate Panamanian employees there was a community uproar, demonstrations, and a sickout. Strikes by federal workers were illegal, so most of us found some illness to call in sick, often claiming hoof and mouth disease. Sympathetic American doctors at Gorgas Hospital went along with the gag. The pilots refused to work, and shipping through the Canal stopped. We teachers also struck, our union president went into hiding, and the students joined us.

In the end, we were promised fair consultation, and the strike ended. When the controversial treaty passed in the Senate in 1977, Congress passed implementing legislation that provided for some guarantees to current employees’ jobs and salaries and a program that gave us early retirement when the US left the Canal to Panama. If we were employees hired before the treaty and had at least 18 years of service at age 48 or 23 years at any age, we could retire, earning 2 ½ percent per year for the twenty years of the treaty toward your high three-years computation of retirement benefits. I had 27 ½ years, counting my unused sick leave, and retired at age 51 from federal service. My wife did not retire as she did not have enough years to make it worthwhile, and she transferred to other DoDEA Regions. I followed as a dependent and got some part-time or voluntary jobs at her schools.

Besides the controversy over the Panama Canal Treaties, we then had to deal with housing issues. After five more years of housing provided by the former Canal Zone Government, it was determined that teachers, as transfer-of-function employees to a different federal agency, the Department of Defense Dependents’ Schools, we were no longer entitled to Pan Canal housing after this five-year transition from 1979 with the implementation of the treaty that ended the Canal Zone and its government. We now lived in Panama. We were forced to move from our comfortable four-bedroom, two-story duplex in La Boca next to my wife’s sister’s family to leaseback housing in Balboa. Leaseback housing was Pan Canal Housing that was given to Panama’s government and leased back by the Army and used to house US teachers and other transfer of function employees. We had no choice in which housing we got, as was the case previously in Canal Zone housing based on seniority and family size. The Army just said here are your new quarters. So, we had three boys in one room, our daughter had a room, no maid’s room, and a master bedroom with a small bathroom. We made due, and others we knew lived nearby. It was still a short bike ride to work at BHS. Because of the treaty, violence, and political issues between Panama’s dictatorship and the US government, we were forced to move five more times, often by evacuation, to avoid violence. We were used to all the riots, bomb threats, and actual bombings, and the blustering of Torrijos before the treaty, but when General Manuel Noriega became dictator, his criminal activities and relations with the Bush administration deteriorated to a great extent, threatening our security and safety, as well as stability at our jobs.

My son and his friends were arrested for sedition because the color of the Civilista opposition in Panama to the dictatorship was white. My son and his friends were happily driving home from a Saturday morning SAT prep class at the high school when the back window of their car was open, and a bunch of white notebook paper blew out into the street. They were followed home by an SUV with smoked windows and  G2 (think Gestapo) officers with a guy holding a machine gun in the back. They were taken to our old Canal Zone Police Station, now run by the Guardia National, and arrested for sedition. When the G2 guys left, the friendly local officers sent our kids to the juvenile court in Panama City, where we parents followed. They were very sympathetic and warned our kids how dangerous things were now in Panama and sent them home.

Later, my niece and her male student friend were taking pictures of wrecked cars that had been spray-painted with graffiti and parked in a lot next to where we had an ice cream stand, library, and school headquarters, which was now the Guardia’s Transito Police headquarters, so technically a military facility. These two kids were arrested for spying and immediately sent to night court in Panama City. They were just curious amateur photographers looking for interesting subject matter. My brother-in-law and the other father were allowed in the courtroom that evening. I went but wasn’t allowed in. Two Guardia officers stood in front of the judge until he declared sixty days in the awful Carcel Modelo or sixty dollars fine. When these two Guardia officers left, the judge reduced it to thirty days or thirty dollars. I drove home and came back with money, my brother-in-law paid the fine, and my niece went home.

It just so happened that the date of their arrest coincided with the anniversary of the Flag Riots of 1964, which began at Balboa High School’s flag pole when Panamanian students attempted to raise the Panama flag, and their flag was torn somehow in a tussle with the Canal Zone police resulting in days of violence. My wife and her friends on the Atlantic Side also were shot at. American students had been attempting to keep an American flag raised when the US president at the time declared that only both flags could be displayed because the US and Panama shared sovereignty in the Canal Zone. BHS only had one flag pole, so students disobeyed the principal trying to enforce the rule and maintained vigil over the US flag until Panamanian students arrived with their flag, and pandemonium broke out. I read about this in the news in high school, little knowing I would someday marry a girl from the Zone and teach at the site of this famous conflict.

Eventually, President George Bush the First cut off Noriega’s payments from the US for the canal lease and for other services, such as our rent for leaseback quarters. To get us out, Panama cut off our water, then our electricity, and finally our telephones. We were able to jury rig the electricity and water back but not the telephones. When I was away on a jungle venture with our college science teacher, the US general came by our neighborhood and told us we should move. We moved to temporary quarters in enlisted housing on Fort Clayton and searched for housing in Panama City. A new general had decided that we should receive free housing, which was the norm for teachers in other regions of DoDEA. We found a beautiful duplex in the city on Cocaine Hill overlooking the jungle, with a pool, hot tub, maid’s room, four bedrooms, four levels, with balconies and a garage, all paid for by Uncle Sam. We were still setting it up when we were evacuated because of the election crisis in Panama when Noriega negated the freely elected president and put his own guy in the presidency after having his goons beat up the elected officials, including Vice President Ford, an uncle of one of my daughter’s friends and her mother, who was our school secretary. Ford’s bloody face was on the cover of Time. The newly appointed lacky president for Noriega was a neighbor, down the street.

We had a quick moveout and evacuation with an early school closing, my son’s senior year, 1989, and we fled to the US aboard a military cargo plane full of ragheads — light-fighters from Fort Ord in California with ankle injuries and other minor problems in need of care. Our four kids and our dog went to my parent’s home, where we now live.

We returned to Panama in the fall to new quarters on Ft. Amador Army Base at the entrance to the Canal. It was a joint base shared by Noriega’s Guardia National Forces, US Army quarters for enlisted and officers, American civilian employees, like us teachers, and Navy personnel. Noriega had an office there, some Cuban witches housed in former Army officers’ nice quarters, and a rifle brigade in former US Army barracks. There was an Army golf course, a softball field, a place where we played rugby, youth fields, a pool, an officer’s club, a restaurant, a Balboa Yacht Club, and a place where the youth of the Zone partied.

Our Duplex at Ft. Amador was a short way from the entrance to the Canal, and it was easy for me to put my canoe in the water for a paddle, go for a bike ride, or jog on the beautiful Causeway linking Ft. Amador to several small islands and a public beach. When we shared the base with the Guardia National, we had to drive home through Panamanian guards holding machine guns and staring at us. Nearby the road were several anti-aircraft guns, not aimed at the sky, but at the nearby US officers’ quarters across the golf course. The area we used previously for Saturday rugby games now had a memorial to Omar Torrijos, the dictator, who signed the Panama Canal Treaties with President Carter in 1977. He had died in a plane crash, and his remains were supposedly in the sarcophagus where we used to score rugby tries.

When my son was home from college, and we were celebrating the return of Zonian students for Christmas vacation, even while times were tense and some families were evacuated, we were enjoying some time at Panama’s beaches. We heard of increased tension in the Zone, as Noriega had declared virtual war on the US, announced at what was our formerly favorite movie theater. An American officer’s wife had been harassed and her husband murdered by the Guardia, and Bush was taking action.

We hurried home. Our teenage son and his sister went to a Christmas party, and we stayed home with our two younger boys. I went out to take out the trash and saw the parking lot behind our quarters full of Humvees and very serious-looking US soldiers. Drills like this were common during these tense times, and I walked over to say hello and ask what’s up. I was told to return home, sit on the floor and stay put. A while later, all hell broke loose. The US Just Cause Invasion began. We heard bombs exploding, gunfire, machine guns raining down by nearby US quarters from attack helicopters, and Puerto Rican soldiers ordering the young Panamanian riflemen in their barracks to surrender or die. Many died, and some fled by swimming in the canal at the back of their quarters. The US quickly retook our whole base and attacked other facilities, including the police station where our kids had been arrested for sedition previously, using spector gunships the pore down small bullets on the previous Canal Zone Police Station, destroying it and spraying the back of one of my students, who was laying on top of his mom in the bathtub of their wooden quarters to protect her while their home behind the police station was peppered with misapplied bullets.

Our son and daughter were at a Christmas party with many other Zonian friends in Los Rios, a few miles from our quarters. My son and his friends went for beer at a shoppette and saw American soldiers taking down Guardia soldiers. They decided to hang out in a safe location in quarters near the high school, where the US was setting up a base surrounding the school with concertina wire.

Our daughter was evacuated to Ft. Clayton through a back gate to stay with a military family when a mortar landed near their party in Los Rios. We lost contact with our children for a few days as we sat on our rug and watched CNN Atlanta to find out what was going on a few yards outside our living room.

A US helicopter was shot down by Guardia gunfire into the Canal near our quarters, killing one man while the other made it to shore. The wreck was hauled up and deposited in front of the Amador Officers’ Club, and I was able to walk over to see it and talk with the US Reserve Officers near a tank. One guy said they entered the witch house and found some pretty weird stuff used by Noreiga’s Cuban witches: bloody stuff in the refrigerator and candles and other stuff in the addict crawl space.

The invasion went on for a brief time, but it was fairly bloody and destructive. The Carcel Modelo prison and headquarters for Noriega’s Guardia National was bombed and attacked. A Zonian husband of my kid’s kindergarten teacher, was in prison for running a clandestine anti-Noriega radio station. A helicopter landed there to free him successfully but at some cost. The slum near the Carcel, Chorillo, caught fire during the conflict, perhaps set on fire by retreating Guardia, maybe by gunfire, who knows. The residents fled to Balboa High School, where they set up camp in our gym, volleyball courts, stadium, and on the football and baseball fields. The Army provided protection, food, and shelter for these refugees, as well as medical assistance, as our school now had soldiers living in classrooms and hallways, and the ROTC building, as well as a clinic. I walked around where I usually coached sports and found neighborhoods reconfigured under our football grandstands and on the bleachers.

When most of the fighting ended and the Guardia was defeated, looting occurred. Many Panamanians from all social classes raided stores and neighborhoods in Panama City, and even some Zonians collected abandoned Guardia equipment or souvenirs. I captured two large painted PVC candy canes that Noriega had included among many on our base for the Christmas season. A US MP chased me down but let me keep these big candy canes. I gave one to my brother-in-law and I still display the other during the holidays here in the US.

Sadly, many American military personnel and Panamanians lost their lives in the invasion to rid Panama of its dictator. Some Panamanians were convinced to join a Dignity Brigade, a kind of anti-US militia, called the Ding Bats by our soldiers. They were poorly trained and armed and often from the lowest class of citizens, including some thugs. They caused lots of problems during and after the fighting, from what I heard.

The only US civilians to die in the conflict were two US teachers and one of our students. The first was driving home with her husband from a dinner party just before the US attack began. She was the gifted and talented teacher at Curundu Junior High and taught our son. Her daughter was a friend of our daughter. A Guardia sniper hiding in the bushes shot at their car, and she was hit, dying in her husband’s arms as he sped home. The second person to die was a student trying to get home to his mom from the same party my kids were at. He and a friend drove through a roadblock thinking it was manned by Guardia. It wasn’t and they radioed ahead to the next roadblock very close to the boy’s home. The US soldiers shot up the car killing the American student with friendly fire. His uncle was the third US civilian death. He was our computer teacher at Panama Canal College. When our director told all of us teachers living in Panama City to move back to the Canal Area to be closer to the US Bases for protection after the Election Crisis, this teacher refused to move. He lived in a lovely high-rise in the city overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His wife was Panamanian, and he stayed put. The Guardia kidnapped him from his apartment along with a neighbor who was a Panamanian working for the US Army. I heard they had him in the trunk of a vehicle and eventually murdered both men. Others connected somehow with the US fled via balconies to neighbors’ balconies to escape.

There is lots more to relate about that short war but not on this forum. It disrupted our schools, turned them into makeshift bases and refugee camps, threatened our families, and eventually rid Panama of a dictator and put it back on the road to democracy.

Prior to this war, we former Canal Zone Schools Division Teachers had to adapt to now being employees of the DoDDS schools, a very different outfit, with different ways of doing things, different pay scales and benefits, and less connection to our previous traditions. New administrators arrived from overseas, along with teachers who had not been hired by the Canal Zone Schools Divisions. The local teachers’ union, which was affiliated with the AFT, was challenged by new teachers who had been affiliated with branches of the NEA in their previous locations. We had elections, and the local union always managed to keep control, though some kept their old memberships in the NEA.

It took a while to adjust to this new system, and we missed some of the perks of being Pan Canal Government employees, especially our housing, our local leadership, and the extra perks of traveling during home leave. We now had to fly on cargo planes or cheap low-bid contract airlines, like Arrow Air.

We got used to it over time, and through meeting teachers who transferred from other regions our world opened up a bit. I tried to communicate with coaches in other regions to create an international coaching association to share ideas and results for sports we all had in common. Perhaps creating an all- world DoDDS status for our best athletes worldwide based on stats, particularly easy for track and swimming.  I wrote the principals in all the overseas high schools to see if the coaches might be interested in communicating and maybe having virtual track meets or swim meets.  My efforts and research were nixed when a principal complained for some reason, and a union official thought I was proposing a new union. Most principals and coaches had positive responses, but with two complaints, my boss called me in and told me I could not respond to any of the letters I received back from other coaches and principals. Oh well.

There were a few advantages of now being Department of Defense employees. We got commissary and PX privileges that were not open to Pan Canal employees. We could use the military recreational facilities, and our kids could join the sports programs offered by the military bases, which I had my kids do. So we could use the Pan Canal sports facilities and have our kids join their recreational programs as well as those the various bases offered.

We found out that DoDDS offered sabbaticals on half pay, so we took one and spent 1985-86 in California, where I earned credits to qualify to teach history at our community college. My wife was granted reemployment rights so she could live in the US for a year and return to her old job as if hired from the States, therefore earning the 15% Stateside hire differential to her salary. She was also given home leave to where we lived during the sabbatical. It was a real win-win situation.

I returned to Balboa High School and my old teaching job and my wife to Curundu to hers. We now owned a house in California and started visiting there each summer, even on years we had no paid home leave.

After the war in Panama, things improved, and tensions lessened for the most part, except for the usual difficulties with school administrations and changes to long-standing traditions when we got new administrators who wanted to remake our region to be like theirs was somewhere else.

This particularly affected our sports programs. When I arrived in 1972, we only had three varsity programs, plus some JV teams. There were the Canal Zone College Green Devils, the Balboa High School Bulldogs, and the Cristobal High School Tigers. Each had JVs in some sports, and Curundu also fielded JVs in all the sports played by the varsity. There were usually only four football games, plus a pre-season Jamboree and post-season Palm Bowl, where the champs played a team made up of the other two as all-stars. Even though the season was short it was a very popular time of the year with the stands full every Friday there was a game. Trains carried players, cheerleaders, and spectators across the isthmus for away games at Cristobal.

All the seasons were shorter than in the US due to the lack of schools to play. We sometimes played Panama’s teams or the Latin Schools in some sports, but that was fairly rare at first. One of my athletes played in all five sports seasons, lettering and sometimes winning All Zone (like all-league). He played football and basketball, ran track, played baseball, and finished the year in volleyball. The students voted him most athletic in the yearbook.  There was a week or so overlap with these five seasons, so later, when we added more teams, we went with a four-season format with no overlaps. My daughter did cheerleading in the fall, followed by girls’ soccer, tennis, and volleyball as a senior. Sports at nine degrees north if the Equator had to adjust to a wet rainy season and a dry season better adapted to baseball, track, and tennis. Our rainy season was called “winter” April to January, and January to April was “summer.”

We tried various ways of adapting to our number of schools, population, and facilities. We split the junior high football program into two teams, adding two more games to their season. The next year, we split Balboa’s JV in half, giving us an interesting eight-game season to the varsity’s four-game season. We all played home and home competition. The next year we dropped an official JV program, moved the youth football program sponsored privately and on the bases to the fall from the summer season, and split Balboa High School into Red and White Teams based on the first letter of the students’ last names, A-L (later A-K) and M-Z (later L-Z). We now had 6 home and home games.

This worked out so well that most of the other sports adopted this format. Eventually, a new Regional administrator arrived from Okinawa and had us go to a draft system. The college was getting the benefit of experienced players from three other high school teams, so it was suggested to lump all the players into a single pool and draft four Pacific Side teams, two sponsored by the high school and one each by the college and junior high. We now had five varsity teams made up of a mix of ninth-graders from Curundu, 10-12th graders from Balboa High, and Frosh and Sophomores from the college. We could now have eight home and home games, plus Jamboree and a Palm Bowl. It went pretty well, and lots of kids played lots of football. With a mix of college kids on our Pacific Side teams, the level of play was pretty good, but it hurt Cristobal, who didn’t have access to college-age players.

The other sports followed suit and, in addition, allowed seventh—and eighth-graders to join the draft. Some were talented enough or needed enough to round out teams that they played at the varsity level. The JV team gradually diminished or became informal as most athletes were absorbed into the four varsity programs. We sometimes included Panama club teams, St. Mary’s School, and in a couple of track seasons, a missionary school from Panama’s interior.

All went along fairly smoothly, even as our school population shrank as we moved closer to the end of the treaty’s twenty-year extinction countdown. Then we got a new administrator from Germany who dumped the program. She prevented the college from participating, as they didn’t have DoDEA colleges in the rest of the world, and she prevented the junior high from participating with the high school and college kids. This prevented lots of kids from continuing in a program that was unusual but worked. My youngest son was drafted on a tennis team in grade seven and played a varsity match against a college student and won. My daughter started her varsity tennis career in eight-grade. When I had a track team having a bunch of active junior high girls always helped the team win points. The junior high girls consistently beat the high school girls in swimming. So age was not always a determinant in our programs, but that didn’t matter to our new boss. Now all four drafted teams could only be from grades 9-12 at Balboa High School. When Cristobal closed in 95, that really cut down the number of games and pool of players, but we continued as best we could. The college established its own intramural six-man tackle league and a Panama Club team joined our football program, and some other teams participated in soccer and volleyball in our leagues. When this administrator left and a local boss replaced her the college and the junior high, which now was a middle school, grades 6-8, rejoined the sports program with the high school.

Another new principal from Guantanamo brought his school’s sports tradition to Balboa. He sent all-star teams to play Antilles High School in Puerto Rico. This eventually evolved into a home-and-home contest between the two schools, while we continued on with our regular home-and-home games, Jamboree football competition, and Palm Bowl for a while. At times, we sent football teams, basketball, and soccer teams to play in Puerto Rico, and they would come to Panama. Guantanamo even sent a very weak basketball and volleyball team to play in a tournament with them at Balboa High School

As our population shrank in the late 1990s so did our sports program. We went down to three football teams, all drafted from a shrinking pool of high school students, eventually to only one team in the last year of the US schools, playing against Panama’s now several good club football teams and other sports teams. The swim team swam against the middle school, and the younger girls still won, though the little middle school swimmers could not beat the two boys’ teams. Same with track. The split in a half-girls high school track team could not beat the middle school girls, though the middle school boys were only token participants. One of our new principals cancelled tennis and replaced it with girls softball. So it seemed that the sports program was always in flux.

Our administrators brought education gurus down frequently to provide seminars, often for credit for our recertification. Usually there were special seminars given in the summer at prime locations on various subjects. Sometimes we were sent to Europe for training with other DoDEA teachers.

One summer, my wife had a seminar in New Hampshire, and another summer, we both attended a geography seminar in San Francisco. My wife was sent to Germany for a seminar before Thanksgiving, and I was sent to England for another one after Thanksgiving. We linked up in London with teacher friends. Those were nice perks.

When 1999 rolled around all the US schools closed shop. Students graduated and went on to other things. Teachers retired, like me, at an early age. Others, like my wife, transferred to other overseas regions. We went to Iwakuni, Japan, then Gaeta, Italy, finishing up at Rota, Spain, in 2012. Some teachers stayed in Panama and founded a new school in Ft. Clayton, now Panrama’s City of Knowledge, named the Balboa Academy. Other teachers stayed in Panama as retirees along with some students who attempted to make a life in the country where they were born and grew up. Some became employees of the new Panama Canal Authority.

Despite various issues and crises, life in the tropics was pretty good, and we have mostly good memories of the schools, our kids growing up, and enjoying adventures in Panama. Those of us who lived there have a special bond with our peers that lasts a lifetime. Many still go to a Panama Canal Reunion each July in Florida, and others get together when they can. As with other overseas educators and students, those years were unique and usually an important part of the lives of those who experienced them. That was certainly true of those of us who studied or taught in Panama, whether for the Canal Zone Schools, the Department of Defense Schools-Panama Region, or for many of us, both systems.

The small picture included is of our family dugout canoe or cayuco. Students each year would workout for the Ocean to Ocean Cayuco Race that began in Colon on the Atlantic Side. The four person canoes, made by Indians, and modified for racing, would paddle nine miles to the Gatun Locks on the first Friday of Spring Break. They spent the night in transit quarters and then raced 24 miles in the Gatun Lake to Gamboa in the middle of the Isthmus. On Sunday the race finished in three parts: 12 miles through the Culebra Cut made in the mountains of Panama, then going into the Perdro Maguel locks to race a mile and a half through Miraflores Lake to enter Miraflores Locks and descend to the Pacific for a five mile sprint to the finish at Diablo boat ramp. The race was a huge part of growing up for Canal Zone students and was sponsored by the Explorer Scouts. It became kind of a right of passage for Canal youth and the serious crews worked out sometimes twice a day for months. My youngest son and his crew won the race twice and broke all kinds of records. We teachers often joined in a category open to adults and enjoyed the experience.

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