Ten years after high school, some Staples graduates work at jobs they hate. Some still live at home.
David Gold is doing exactly what he loves: teaching and being an entrepreneur. And he’s doing it in the old quarter of Panama City, a neighborhood he calls “exciting and vibrant” in a capital city that’s “beautiful and historic yet modern.”
Earlier this year, David opened Casco Antiguo Spanish School. The school offers a variety of Spanish language instruction — half-day survival courses; week-long sessions, even a month — to anyone wanting to learn while immersed in the environment.
The school also provides opportunities to volunteer in the neighborhood, tour the area, and partake in its nightlife. It’s a full-service language course. Just a few weeks after starting, Casco Antiguo has nearly outgrown its building.
It’s a high-stakes adventure, but one David seems born to. After graduating in 2002 from Staples — where he starred on the wrestling team — he headed north to McGill University. He then took his degree in international development and economics to the Peace Corps. Assigned to Bolivia, he worked in agriculture and taught small business ventures to women’s groups.
His next gig was teaching 4th grade at an international school. He spent 10 months backpacking around South America, before moving to New York.
“I was thinking about what was next — maybe banking or law — when I realized that was not what I wanted to do,” David says. While temping — “stuffing envelopes, literally” — he realized he wanted to return to South America.
He started a business offering SAT tutoring in Panama City — a place he loves — with just $150 in his bank account. Next: teaching English to Dell customer service representatives.
He borrowed $1,000, and began teaching English in a storefront. He’s still doing that, having added a children’s program and classes in “survival English” for front-line hotel staff.
But David also wanted to teach Spanish, to non-Spanish speakers. Six months ago he found an old schoolhouse to convert into rooms for his venture.
His aim is to help the Casco Viejo neighborhood — Panama City’s old quarter — make its next transition. Once it was filled with beautiful homes. Then it fell into disrepair. Now — safe, pulsing with nightlife, sitting right by the entrance to the Panama Canal — it is poised for rebirth.
Others hope to learn more. One class is filled with the wives of mining company executives. A woman from mainland China enrolled; she did not even know enough Spanish to say “¡Hola!”
The age range is 19 to over 70. David’s first student was the founder of the Toronto Film Festival. He was in Panama City to plan a festival there.
Soon, David hopes, students will include people for whom his school is a destination. He wants them to come from all over the world. They’ll learn the language in the morning, then stay for volunteer opportunities and fun.
Among the volunteer efforts: helping local children with homework, arts and dance; aiding women with job skills; teaching English, and working in a nearby orphanage.
The staff of 10 teachers includes a full-time director — David hired her away from the Peace Corps — who wrote all the course materials.
Nearby housing options include youth hostels, apartments and 5-star hotels.
Feedback, he says, is “fantastic. People love the instruction, the restaurants, the wine bars, galleries, theaters, everything. We’re really at a tipping point.” The neighborhood has embraced the new school, because it has embraced the community.
In fact, all of Panama is thriving, David says. “There’s an energy here I haven’t seen anywhere else. People are doing really cool things. There are hundreds of islands, beaches, mountains — it’s amazing.”
There’s not a huge marketing budget, so much of the buzz comes from Facebook. Casco Antiguo got a big boost when Ricardo Martinelli — the president of Panama — posed for a photo with David and the school’s sign. “He was just hanging out in the plaza, talking to people,” David says. “I went up to him, told him what I was doing, and asked if I could take a picture. He thought it was a great idea.”
So do many others.
“We’re already so booked we’re holding classes in the hallway,” David says. “Luckily, we have a great view of the Panama Canal.”
(For more information on Casco Antiguo, click here. To contact David directly, email email@example.com)