May 14, 1999
Closing time for almost-American high school in Panama

                  BALBOA, Panama (AP) -- After Balboa High School seniors walk across
                  the bright green grass and out into their futures this weekend, it will be more
                  than just the class of '99 that will be gone. It will be a way of life.

                  The mix of English and Spanish bouncing off the walls of the crowded
                  corridors will fall silent. There will be no more lunchtime sprints for quick
                  meals of rice and "vieja ropa" -- a savory Panamanian dish of shredded
                  beef with a name meaning "old clothes."

                  The last of the teens who've enlivened Balboa High since 1916 will pack up
                  with their parents -- mostly U.S. military personnel, civilian base workers or
                  employees of the U.S. government's Panama Canal Commission -- who are
                  leaving Panama this year.

                  The students will leave their lives on Panama's military bases or in the lush
                  "Canal Zone" and move to new homes -- many to the United States. They say
                  they will miss the mix of American, Caribbean and Latin American cultures
                  they found in Panama.

                  Most of Balboa's 525 students are bilingual. Rap-flavored reggae in Spanish is
                  the music of choice. Friends follow the Latin custom of greeting each other
                  with a kiss on the cheek.

                  A group of "Zonian" seniors hanging out in the gym of the U.S. Defense
                  Department school wonders how they'll adapt to being Americans living in the
                  United States for the first time.

                  They worry about a U.S. society they see as materialistic, plagued by drug use
                  and violence, stressed by expressway commutes and uptight compared to the
                  beach-oriented, close-knit culture they've enjoyed.

                  Co-valedictorian Steve Bowman, who plans to attend the University of
                  Virginia in the fall, said one of the main reasons is "to find out if I can live in
                  the United States."

                  Like many "Zonians," Bowman admits he's had it pretty good. A nice home
                  only steps away from Balboa High. A housekeeper to free him from chores.
                  Surfing on the weekends.

                  Asked whether he was deprived of anything by going to school in Panama,
                  Bowman said no, then reconsidered.

                  "Well, it deprives me of a few things -- crime, having to go through metal
                  detectors," he said. "We don't have fights. We don't have drug problems. We
                  do not have the things like what happened in Littleton, Co."

                  The April slaughter-suicide that killed 15 shocked Balboa teens, not only for its
                  violence but for the idea that it could happen at all. Students here said they
                  know each other so well -- many since infancy -- that either they or their
                  teachers notice when one of them is acting strangely.

                  Cliques are based not so much on race or interests but on where kids live:
                  Howard Air Force Base, Ft. Clayton, the "Zone." There is nothing at Balboa
                  that would pass for a gang, students agree.

                  Even the idea of teen rebellion is foreign to many. Latin culture puts heavy
                  emphasis on respect for the family, especially for one's mother.

                  "If I disrespect my mom -- it's just something you don't do," 17-year-old Ed
                  Sall said.

                  Others added that teens and adults in the United States would get along better
                  if teens were given a little more freedom.

                  Panama's legal drinking age is 18, and even that is rarely enforced.

                  "I believe the problem in the States is since they have the drinking age so high
                  they want to find out: 'Oh what's the big deal about drinking?' " said
                  18-year-old Eddie Diaz. Families in Panama expose teens to alcohol at an
                  earlier age, "so you know what it's about."

                  Going to Panama City nightclubs is a big part of the social scene for many
                  Balboa students. Last month, they had a short-lived prom at a military
                  recreation center before moving en masse to a downtown disco.

                  Some joke that oddly enough, the song chosen to represent the class of '99 is
                  Semisonic's "Closing Time," about the closing of a bar.

                  But to focus on that, students say, belittles the significance of Balboa's last

                  "It will be sad," Bowman said, "to see more than just a school, but a lifestyle,
                  go away."

                  Eighty-three classes of American children have passed through the school on
                  the shores of the Panama Canal. Eight hundred alumni have signed up to see
                  Saturday's graduation ceremony.

                  After that, Balboa's cream-colored buildings and red-tile roofs shaded by palm
                  trees will be turned into offices for the Panamanian canal agency.

                  "It's like we're the last page of the book," 17-year-old Galen Herring said,
                  clapping his hands shut. "We're closing it. It's over."