By Elizabeth Ballard
“You’re making a mistake. Your son is only nine. If you move to Panama, you could mess up his entire educational future! ”
My friend Valerie’s concerns were valid. She was a veteran mother of four terrific boys; she was also a specialist at the master’s level, teaching reading to young children. I had to ask myself: Did I want to jeopardize my son’s formative learning years in exchange for a life that I hoped would be freer — less dictated by technology? Was trading in a good education, in his native English, for the possibility of a richer cultural education a fair swap?
In 2006, when my family was still in Florida and my son was eight, I had begun to think I was fighting an uphill battle. The forces I was up against weren’t evil, but they didn’t fit my vision of bringing up kids. There were the electronics devices that kept kids in their grip for whole days. There were over-managed, highly structured schedules that lelt little time for kids to have natural rhythms of play. I had wanted my son to have “free-play” play dates like those of the summers of my youth–languishing with my best friend in the woods on moss-covered rocks, climbing trees, building forts, swimming in the pool until our bodies were wracked with shivers, and coming away only when our mothers hollered for us.
As an adult I had become part of a society of distracted, anxious, workaholics.
So, one day, I made the decision to simply cancel my cell service, and within minutes, it was gone. I was no longer tethered to the outer world but instead, connected to what was directly around me. I imposed other rules: only enroll my son in one extra-curricular activity at a time; leave my brief case locked in the car after work; allow no incoming phone calls at story/bed time.
Meanwhile, my husband was beginning to tire from decades of managing night shifts at a busy tourist restaurant. Having spent a good amount of time in Costa Rica in his twenties, he had long harbored a dream to live again in a Latin country.
We were an extremely hard-working couple and our collective jobs supported a decent—but less than extravagant—lifestyle. We had a mortgage we could afford; we didn’t own a big screen television; we drove small, used cars. We belonged to no clubs and had no expensive hobbies. We paid our bills on time and only twice in ten years of marriage, did we take a family vacation lasting more than a few days. Together, we earned over six figures, yet as is true for many couples, there was little left over at the end of each month.
It wasn’t my husband’s dream alone that propelled us toward the move abroad. I had traveled in my youth, once as an exchange student to the Southern Philippines during high school and later to Mexico. I had come to see travel as a great teacher and I wanted our son to have a broader world view. I also wanted him to speak another language.
Boquete is known for its lush beauty. Peppered with gated neighborhoods, it is nevertheless a farming town. It’s nestled in the mountains of the highlands, in what is often referred to as “the valley of the eternal rainbow.” Even the heart of downtown is rich with flowers, rivers, little farms, and livestock.
Uniformed children walked hand-in-hand to school; farmers chased herds of stray cows through town; chickens and goats and dogs and children were everywhere. And, as with most small towns, everyone knew everyone.
Oh, I thought, as we signed on the property, only two days before returning to Florida, This is where I want to raise my son!
Over the next two-plus years, and largely from a distance, my husband oversaw the construction of what was to be a dream home. I stayed somewhat removed from the project, involved with mothering, work, caring for my beloved dad (who had become ill), and feeling torn about leaving. I wanted something different, but it is not always easy to give up a settled life.
My breaking point came one day after school. My son was now beginning third grade; confident and happy and just getting a grip on reading. One afternoon, he stepped off the bus looking long in the face.
“Mom. Robby said he’s in the ‘gifted reading program’ and he said that I’m dumb because I’m not in the gifted reading program.”
My heart sank.
“Hey, buddy. You can be in the gifted reading program, if you want to. But they give way more homework and I didn’t think you wanted extra homework.”
“Oh! Okay, Mom. Want to go skating?”
Three months later, (by this time, my father had passed away), we were on a plane to Panama, just two suitcases each, one of mine packed with clothing and the other stuffed with a distance learning curriculum.
My son, then nine, spent mornings working an accredited distance learning program with his dad, and three hours in a local parochial school, just a kilometer from our house. He played with the neighbor kids, all local, and on weekends he saw children from the handful of expat families around us. After ten months in Panama, we distanced him completely from expats so that he could blend even more, and the Spanish really kicked in.
Life was indeed simpler. Most of my son’s friends lived nearby and played outdoors every day after school. All the children wore uniforms to school, the boys sported the requisite buzz-cut hair, and these were great equalizers, eliminating any battles about what to wear or whom to keep up with. If neighbor kids had electronic games and such, they were usually broken or quickly lost. Skating rinks and skate parks were missed, but these were exchanged for soccer and basketball. Birthday parties were a welcome family affair, and not only for younger kids, but also for the famed quinceañera (sweet fifteen) birthday parties attended by peers and parents alike.
There were little things that made life simpler, such as being able to make and take baked goods to my son’s classmates, or to any school event, without issues. (This was not the case back home, where the school board had ruled that parents could not take home-made treats to school. All treats had to be store-bought and presented in their original wrapping.)
When my son was eleven, we moved to the center of town and I broke down and purchased a cell phone for him, as this was the best way to locate a kid running free with his posse of friends.
When he turned fourteen, I buckled and gave a green light for my son to get his first “Play Station.” (A decision I regret!) And, despite my earlier vow to wait until he was sixteen, I gave the okay on a Smartphone. Like nearly all kids and grown-ups today, this device has become my son’s lifeline to his social circles.
Still, I had him close for a long time, longer than I suspect I would have if we had remained in Florida. He is completely fluent in Spanish and moves easily between the two cultures he embodies. He wants to return now to the United States for his last two years of schooling and also to reconnect with his cousins, and just be a regular American high school kid.
I doubt my son will be quite the regular “American” kid he thinks he is, because he’s now and forever bicultural. Will he need to catch up, academically? Time will tell. He has navigated some tough waters in order to blend in, make friends, and learn a language. I trust he has the skills to face whatever comes next and we will be there to guide him, whether it be here in Panama or back in the United States.
Elizabeth Ballard is the author of “Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive: Advice on schooling, making friends, fitting in.” Her book is available on Kindle. The first chapters are free and can be found at: http://withloveandbutter.org/my-book/