The Month of May is for High School Graduation
by Louis J. Barbier (BHS 57’)

Remember when you graduated from high school in the old Canal Zone?  For me it was Balboa High (BHS). For you it could have been Cristobal High (CHS). As we think back to our graduation, the event that catapulted us into what we are now…lets go back to our first day at our high school.  That may be too far back for some of us. 

But let us all consider a rainy morning in early September when we reported for our first day at school as a freshman. We were a bit lost. We might have had sweaty palms and we were intimated by the upper classman. It was fear that made us quake in our shoes. We were assigned a locker in the hallway. It most probably a bottom locker and we place out Master combination lock on it and closed our locker for the first time. Everything was happening for the first time. During the day after visiting with our Educational Counselor we had our courses and class schedule. Practically all the courses were mandatory except US Army JR ROTC. I had to get into that. I wanted to wear a uniform.  My Dad and most of my uncles had served in the US Army during World War II, except one who had been in the US Navy.

The school days were like being on a treadmill. We picked up our books at every classroom and loaded up our locker in the hall. The sounding of the bell of 10 minutes before the hour was the signal that the current class session was over and it was off to the races to get to our next class. The hallways were always jammed with students trying to squeeze in 10 minutes of visiting, taking care of business in the rest rooms, placing and retrieving books from your assigned locker in the hall and wondering when the bell sounded if you would get to your next class on time.  A no-no was to arrive late at a class. And roaming around the halls without a pass was an infraction that meant a possible visit to the principal’s office for extra remedial training on the importance of being on time. Hall monitors were an extra curricular activity for some teacher.  At about 11 AM it was lunchtime.  Back in my day we did lunch at the Balboa Clubhouse. For one hour hundreds of students hung out at the clubhouse. It was cafeteria style with a soda fountain for the sweet tooth in some of us. Lunch was cheap. The bite was only 85 cents tops! Then about 15 minutes to one we all would start scurry back to school. We looked like Leaf Cutter Ants…you know Red Army Ants as we hit the crosswalks in front of the Panama Canal Commissary. There was always a friendly Canal Zone Police Officer to stop and direct traffic.  In some cases it was somebody’s Dad. So, right after our chatter and scoffing down of our lunch the first period in the afternoon was Homeroom. It was an administrative time when we got caught up on things.  Some also did some cramming or worst slept for the 50 minutes, Not good but the siesta was so refreshing. It was almost like Cocoli Kindergarten for me. Yea, it really hit the spot! Everybody should enjoy some quiet time during the 8 hours of work or study as we pursue our vocation.  After that from 1 to 3 there was lab, geometry, English Lit and a study period before the classes ended for the day. Then it was fun and games. School Club meetings, the parakeet newspaper, intramural sports, Junior Varsity League, marching off demerits in front of the school by the flagpole and last for some of us pumping iron at the YMCA.

Then it was catching the Canal Zone bus to Cocoli via the Miraflores swing bridge. I had to be home by 6:30 PM for supper with the family and to say the Holy Rosary around seven. Once a week the whole family sat before the shoebox sized black and white TV and saw the Archbishop Futon J. Sheen hour on Fort Clayton Armed Forces Network. But most nights it was in my room studying and doing my homework as I listen to Lucky Strike Hit Parade Hour or the Lone Ranger. By 10 at night it was time to turn in and get some rest…for we would be at it again bright and early.  School nights I was usually spent at home.  Weekends were for weekends.  

Then we all moved on to the second year of high school. We were now seasoned students we knew our way around.  We were sophomores. We were looking ahead to playing varsity ball, getting our first stripe or 2 in JR ROTC, taking charge of our lives and wondering when we could become Juniors. We were then Offered a few electives in our course of study. Many of us took Spanish. Hey, it was a natural living in Panama. During the day some of the guys would also talk Barbashian with some of the West Indians that we interacted with during the day. Like Mr. Wright who handed out the gym baskets for physical education class in the Boy’s Locker room at Balboa and mixing it up with a Cuna Indian Chief at the YMCA. Yes, those were the days. We were starting to spread our wings.

Then we all became juniors. We were now upper classman. We were involved in lots of extra activities and the treadmill was on a high speed run almost every day. Wednesday nights it was Saint Mary’s for Catholic Religious Instruction. We were also hearing it from our parents and our educational counselor…”What are you going to do after high school?  You best start getting those letters out to your favorite college.” My junior year went by like a flash! 

Then the King Kong year arrived! Yes, we were seniors at the best high school in the world. Much had been accomplished in the last 3 years. But we only needed this last year to say we were ready for the next level in our lives. Yes, when we would go into the world and find our niche.  Or what we would do for the rest of our lives. Some of us said, “Not yet! I’m going to try CZJC (Canal Zone Junior College) before I leave paradise.” Some decided that the Panama Canal Company apprentices programs were where it was. Hey, that was a great move! You could stay in paradise forever. Others decided the military was where it was at for them. The Naval Reserve Training had prepared them to go on active duty and see the world. Another great move. Then there were the selected few who went to a military academy. The Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York would prepare you for a life at sea and maybe later you could return home and be a Panama Canal Pilot. Others went on to a college or university that had said yes to their application. But the reality carefree and happy days at our high school alma mater were coming to an end. Then it ended with graduation!  

Yes, we were proud of our accomplishments. Our teachers looked at us
differently. They could see a little bit of themselves in their students who
had earned their degree.  The senior prom had been held at the Tivoli Guest House. The baton was being passed to the juniors. Everybody was enjoying the moment in the eye of the tiger. It was all going to change in a heartbeat, as that precious diploma was present to all us at the graduation ceremony at Balboa Theater. Our parents beamed with pride as our names were called to walk up to the stage. Flashing lights from Kodak cameras followed us to the stage.  Yes, high school days were now history.

We were on our way to our next level in our lives. Places where dreams came true and a new history in our book of life was being written with the last notes of Pomp and Circumstance ringing in our ears. “Were we ready? Sure we were! This was what life was all about…stepping up and taking your turn at bat. Your whole future was now!!!”  I sure hope that it has been fun. For through the ups and downs in our lives there is always tomorrow.  Yes, “Manana, manana is good enough for me!”  

Well, that is all for now. Take care. God Bless.