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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Others added that teens and adults in the United States would get along
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
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
Semisonic's "Closing Time," about the closing of a bar.
But to focus on that, students say, belittles the significance of Balboa's
"It will be sad," Bowman said, "to see more than just a school, but a lifestyle,
Eighty-three classes of American children have passed through the school
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
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
clapping his hands shut. "We're closing it. It's over."