I did not move to Panama, sight unseen, to retire, to visit friends, nor to see the Panama Canal, one of the world’s Seven Modern Wonders. In 2007, I came to work as a teacher at an international school. The hiring process was conducted via fax, email, and telephone calls that had to be coordinated to account for the eight-hour time difference between Panama and Tunisia, where I had been teaching since 2004.
The signs were unambiguous that it was time for my departure; I was feeling more and more uncomfortable with an administration which seemed to be coming under more control by the U.S. Embassy. It didn’t help that my keynote speech at the 2006 Senior Graduation ceremonies caused raised eyebrows among the American diplomats, including the Ambassador. The following Monday, I was summoned to the Director’s office, and after a fairly innocuous conversation, all was smoothed over, but I got the distinct impression that all future speeches by school personnel would be scrutinized before delivery.
Another sign that it was time to leave was the completed sale of my house in Oakland in January, 2007, several months before the bottom fell out of the housing market throughout the States. With this financial cushion, I could now accept the lower-paying position in Panama.
With high hopes for a successful transition to the International School of Panama (ISP), I arrived in Panama City in July, 2007. However, within three months, I realized that it was not a good fit.
From the extremely capable hands of Liz Thornton as IB (International Baccalaureate) Coordinator, I landed in the midst of political, social, and educational dysfunction, that I attributed to Panama’s five-tiered class structure. At the top were Panamanians of European descent, mainly Spanish, and Italian, followed by those of Latin American descent. Next were those of African descent, mainly from the West Indies whose ancestors came to build the canal. At the fourth level were those whose ancestors were enslaved Africans, brought in by the Spaniards. At the lowest rung were the indigenous groups who had been defeated by the Spaniards, and their lands confiscated. After an armed uprising in the mid-20th century, two of the largest groups, the Guna Yala and the Embera-Wounaan, were given autonomous regions, which they govern, but are engaged in an ongoing fight to prevent foreign mining and logging companies from gaining access to their lands to pollute the water, destroy arable land, and destroy their way of life.
Once again, I found myself in the minority—a person of color teaching a core subject, English, and to compound the anomaly, I taught IB English, a rigorous, two-year program that does not, among other things, allow for remedial instruction. Because of the 'expectations' of the affluent and influential whose children attended the school, entry into the program was open to anyone who applied, regardless of English fluency or proof of the capacity to succeed in an intense learning environment.
Not only was I the only POC teaching a core subject, I was one of only two POC teachers in the Upper School; the other teacher was a Panamanian woman who taught TSOL, despite having a Masters Degree in English from an American university. She was also coordinator of the school’s year book. Her friendship, both on campus, and outside in a social group to which she introduced me, was a welcome oasis in a desert of unfamiliar rituals and traditions. All of the rest of the Black female teachers taught in the Lower School, as glorified baby sitters, in my opinion. All of the Black male teachers were concentrated in the Physical Education department; the only exception was a permanent substitute/library assistant. This man had an advanced degree in history and taught part-time at the University of Panama.
At the December semester break I decided to nullify my two-year contract, citing medical concerns. Despite having succeeded in getting the seniors accustomed to the rigor and demands of the program in order to not only pass the April exams, but to also make a smooth transition to university/college responsibilities, my conscience would not let me remain in a toxic environment and pretend that all was well. The toxicity was rampant in the racism and class divisions. There was not one Black student in the IB English class, nor for that matter, in any of the IB classes, which included history, physics, mathematics.
All transplants require nurturing soil (family/friends), sunshine that triggers growth, (constructive/positive measurement of work), and water that sustains life (spiritual community).
Up to a point, trust your intuition in making decisions, but never neglect to do the research, (unknowingly, I had put in motion the rationale for a collection of short stories several years later), and most importantly, make sure that your leaving one location for another, is for something better, rather than running away from an uncomfortable and unsteady situation.