Six months after we’d moved from the United States to Ireland, I discovered I was pregnant.
New husband (Lief and I were married one month before we made the move together to Waterford), new country, new business, new home… why not a new baby, too?
A few days after I shared the news with my 9-year-old daughter Kaitlin that she was to be a big sister, she came back to me with a book she’d produced titled “Jack’s Story.”
Kaitlin’s drawings showed the three of us—Kaitlin, Lief, and me—at home in Ireland… then me over successive pages with an expanding midsection… followed by Lief and me painting a nursery…
Then a scene with us rushing to the hospital… one in the hospital maternity ward, me holding a tiny bundle wrapped in blue…
Followed by a drawing of us again at home in Ireland, now a family of four.
The final page showed the smiling face of soon-to-be baby Jack surrounded by question marks and Kaitlin’s wish for her brother:
“We can’t wait to see what you’re going to become,” she wrote.
Today, 17-year-old Jack is shopping colleges.
During one campus tour in the States this month, when asked by the admissions counselor to introduce himself, here’s how Jack shorthanded his story to date:
“I was born in Ireland but grew up in Paris and Panama,” he told the group.
Depending on the timing and his mood, Jack might tell you, should you ask, that home is Ireland, Paris, or Panama City.
He’s excited to attend college in the States. For him, it’s a next chance to go abroad.
“I want the full U.S. college experience,” he told me recently. “I want to see what it’s like to be an American.”
Lief and I did not set out to raise our son in Panama. We came to this country, in 2008, to start a business and intended to return to Paris before Jackson was in high school. We thought we’d spend three or four years in Panama City full-time, establish the Live and Invest Overseas operation, then return to Paris to open a satellite office.
Ha, ha, ha.
That is, at the end of four years of effort the LIOS infrastructure was nowhere near developed enough for Lief and me to leave it for extended periods.
By the time the business was strong enough to carry on without Lief and me in full-time residence and we told Jack that we were ready to readjust our home base back to Paris, Jack surprised us by saying he didn’t want to go.
Jack asked if he could stay and finish high school in Panama City.
While we weren’t paying attention, our son had put down Panamanian roots.
As his mother, I have to admit I was not only gratified but also a little relieved to find out how happy Jack seems to be with his Panama life.
Panama City isn’t Paris. All these years in Panama I’ve wondered if we weren’t letting Jack down by basing him, during his most formative years, in the Hub of the Americas after he’d had a taste of the City of Light.
When I decided I wanted to start the Live and Invest Overseas business, Lief and I knew that meant leaving France.
“But where to?” I asked Lief that afternoon in Paris when I first told him I wanted to go into business for myself.
“Panama” was his immediate response.
I agreed, but, before we committed to Panama, we confirmed something we’d heard some years before—that Panama City is home to a French school.
I don’t mean a school where French is taught… or where classes are in French… but a school administered by the French Ministry of Education.
France exports its education system. It’s a unique model that includes more than 480 primary and secondary schools in 130 countries. These schools could all be in France. They follow the same curriculum and calendar as French schools and are staffed 100% by French teachers, who rotate from France to Panama for a year up to six or seven years at a time.
Textbooks, exams, field trips, extracurricular options, and grading are all, likewise, just the same as in France.
For Lief and me, it was important that Jack retain his French fluency and that he be educated as part of a global program.
In addition, again, when we came to Panama, our plan was to be here full-time three or four years. By attending a French school in Panama City, we figured, Jack’s transition back to Paris for high school would be transparent.
Our plan didn’t work out as originally conceived. Still, we are happy today with our school choice. Jack will graduate this year with a French Bac from a French lycée that just happens to be located in Panama.
In addition to the Paul Gauguin Lycée Français, Panama City is home to 13 international schools. A parent moving to this city today has many good choices for where and how to educate his (or her) child.
Educational options are the priority starting point when considering relocating to a new country with school-aged children. The next question for us was to do with lifestyle. What would Jack’s life be like in Panama City, Lief and I wondered a decade ago when we first considered the idea.
Back then we imagined that the answer to that question would have a lot to do with beach escapes and jungle adventures, and, these past nine years, Jackson has enjoyed both. He has zip-lined through the Panamanian jungle canopy, seen alligators up close, journeyed through the Panama Canal on a friend’s family’s private boat, learned to surf, fished for marlin, and camped among the indigenous Kuna on the white sand of San Blas Islands.
However, Jack’s life in Panama has evolved to become more cosmopolitan than outdoorsman. As Jack has grown up these past nine years, so has Panama City. Always the only real city in Central America, Panama City today is more of a real city than ever. Our day-to-day life here with 17-year-old Jack looks a lot like our day-to-day life might look with 17-year-old Jack living in a comparably sized city anywhere.
Jack and I are up by 6 a.m. each morning. He walks his dog while I make his lunch. He showers, packs his backpack, and heads down to the lobby of our apartment building to wait for his bus… along with dozens of other kids in our building doing likewise.
Used to be the bus returned Jack to our place by 4 p.m. each afternoon. However, this year the parents of Jack’s best friend Valerian bought their son a car. Now, at least three or four afternoons a week, Jack accompanies Valerian to Valerian’s house after school so the two can study together.
At least that’s their story.
Jack is home in time for dinner with his dad and me followed by an hour or so of video games before bed.
Weekends he goes to parties, movies, dinner dates…
Most recently, Jack has taken fencing lessons. Over the past nine years, he has also taken martial arts, swimming, surfing, horse riding, tennis, guitar, and piano classes. He has played in a basketball league and, when he was younger, Pokémon tournaments.
My point is that a kid in Panama City can engage in any of the activities a kid might want to engage in anywhere in the world.
One thing a child reared in Panama City could be said to miss out on is culture of the kind you find in a city like, say, Paris. We have tried to compensate for this by filling Jack’s summers with do-it-ourselves Grand Tour family holidays in Europe.
And we try to round it all out by making sure Jack visits our family in the States as often as possible.
In fact, we were able to visit with my family in Baltimore while in the States for our recent college visits. We spent time with my sister, who has three children, two in college and the third a sophomore in high school. As we were about to take off for our college tour with Jackson, higher education was a primary topic of conversation.
My sister has had all three of her kids playing lacrosse since the age of 6. She’s taken it seriously. Lief and I have joked that she’s been nearly obsessed with making sure her three offspring become superstar lacrosse players.
Now we understand why. It was part of a long-term plan… my sister’s strategy for helping her kids get into good colleges.
Today it isn’t enough, it seems, to get straight A’s and top SAT scores. To get into a decent U.S. university today, you need an advantage beyond good grades. For my sister, that advantage has been sports. Lacrosse has been the reason her two sons have gotten into the schools they’ve gotten into… and now my niece, her high school sophomore daughter, is being courted by college lacrosse coaches, as well.
Over dinner one night, my sister looked across the table at Jack, who was lamenting his lack of a sports resume, to say, “But Jack, you’ve got a thing. Your whole life experience is your thing… living in three countries, speaking three languages… that’s how you stand out.”
So much of Jack’s story has yet to be written, but this chapter in Panama has positioned him well for whatever great things lie ahead.