Agatha Jn Panel: A Laborie girl at heart

Agatha Jn Panel: “I don’t follow anyone blindly.”

One of the defining characteristics of someone from Laborie, a Laborian as they affectionately coined, is the strong community spirit.  Agatha Jn Panel is a Laborie girl, born and raised, in every sense of the word.
On a trip to Laborie we surprised the woman who many call one of Laborie’s great architects.  Her jaw dropped as we pulled into the driveway, she wondered who could be calling on her so early in the day, and on a weekday nonetheless!  She welcomed us with open arms, ready and willing to assist which the STAR later learned is another quality people from Laborie exude.
Jn Panel has a long history in Laborie, especially with the Laborie Girls Primary School.  Smiling she exclaimed heartily, “Laborie Girls has been my baby, is my baby and will always be my baby!”
Jn Panel first attended Laborie Girls during her girl days as the name suggests.  After successfully completing her Common Entrance Exams, the manager of the school and her teacher recommended to the then Education Department for Jn Panel to become a Pupil Teacher.  She was a Pupil Teacher One (PT1), sat exams graduated to PT2 and moved up to PT3, PT4.  From there she graduated to Probationary Assistant One (PA1) and then moved on to PA2.  From PA2 she sat an exam for her certificate and was lucky to get a chance to go overseas to study.  In those days the options were Trinidad, Barbados and Antigua.  Jn Panel attended Barbados’ Erdiston’s Teachers’ College in 1963.
She said: “That was the same year St Lucia Teachers’ College opened.  I went to Teachers’ College with Minister Gaspard Charlemagne, Kenneth Combie, Lynnie Daniel who is now Lynnie Cazaubon, Paterson Toussaint and a host of other people.”
In her fruitful prime, Jn Panel returned to St Lucia and continued teaching. She told us: “I was made Acting Principal of Laborie Girls in 1968.  I acted for quite a while, six years.  In fact I got a little mad and I wrote to my board, the Catholic Board and told them I was tired of acting because my then principal had gone onto Canada to study and I knew from the grapevine she wasn’t coming back.  The Archbishop responded to my letter and told me the board was pleased with my work at Laborie Girls but said the matter rested with the Education Department.  He forwarded my letter to them.  I received a letter soon afterwards confirming in my post as Principal of the Laborie Girls Primary School.”
There was a nostalgic glint in her eyes as she spoke of her years at Laborie Girls.  Eagerly and proudly she boasted about her former school.
“I served as principal for over thirty years! I have turned out so many wonderful girls and I’m so proud of them. There is always this thing where people boast about who is the best school in the district, the best school in the south and who is the best school on island. That was never the first thing on my mind. All I wanted to do was turn out well rounded girls—girls who would take the place in society.  When they went for the Common Entrance Exam, they may not have been the top student but I knew these girls would do well wherever they go.  I am happy to say I have lived to see them attain the highest positions in the St Lucian society and elsewhere.  To me, that is worth more than all the gold in the world.”
Her exuded joy as she continued to speak highly about the school and its students.  “I used to tell my girls Laborie Girls must shine.  Wherever you go, shine.  I was so pleased after so many years of my retirement, I went to Canada about five years ago and I met a stranger at a wedding and the person told me ‘You are Agatha Jn Panel, Principal of Laborie Girls.’  I said I’m retired now.  The person said to me ‘Oh! That’s where so-and-so got this thing from.  Whatever she does she tries to give of her best.  I asked her where she got that drive from and she said my principal told me that wherever I go, Laborie Girls must shine!”
Squealing with glee Jn Panel told me, “Child! That was like winning the lotto!”
Smiling she said softly, “When my girls meet me, it is so amazing to see the women they have become.”
Jn Panel’s contribution to her village did not stop after her retirement.  In 2000, the St Lucia Labour Party, the ruling administration at the time, approached her to serve in the Senate.
Recollecting the experience she confessed, “To be honest, I was asked to serve and would you believe I wasn’t very keen at all because I know people like to brand you.  True I have always supported the Labour Party, not blindly supporting them though.  Their philosophy and their principles are something that I believe in.  When I was asked I didn’t give an answer right away.  Would you imagine, I spoke with someone who said to me ‘you are being called upon to serve in the highest capacity in your country, why not give it a try.  I think you can make a contribution.”
She mulled over the decision for some time.  After careful discussion with her children, Jn Panel agreed to serve.  This Laborie girl is proud of her achievements in the Senate.  For her, it was a decision based on being able to assist her community.
“I will do anything I can do first for my village, I’ll be honest with you, and second for my country.  There is a guiding principle in teaching which says proceed from the known to the unknown. Therefore you start with where you are.  You bloom where you are planted then you spread out your branches.”
Jn Panel admits she is not a politician in the traditional sense nor is she a party hack.  She says, “I am a politician, in that I support what is fair, what is just, what is right and I support any initiative that betters my community, my country.  That is the type of politician I am.  If you are someone with your mind screwed in one way and you don’t see either side then I’m not for you.  I will not be in your company at all.  For this I got a flack because when I was a senator in the House I supported an opposition senator on a point that he made.  Eyes were turning around.
“I didn’t care because he was saying something which was true therefore I supported him.  I don’t follow anyone blindly.  My father taught me, no man should ever give anyone a hundred percent support.  Never.  No matter how true the person is, my father told me always reserve a ten percent for yourself.  This has been my guiding principle.”

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