Can you miss a building almost as much as the people within? Perhaps.
10,151 days down, 24 left
My school is architecturally amazing. Built from stoic brick and mortar in 1925 on a site donated by a prominent town matriarch, its entrance looks and feels much like it might have eight decades ago. For 27 years I’ve enjoyed walking its corridors, but who notices when you’re busy running from one classroom to another, pushed by the bell schedule, pulled by the latest counseling crisis. Renovated time and again, new corridors connected farther reaches, courtyards bloomed and disappeared, gymnasiums and libraries exchanged purpose, and entire wings were added. It spanned wars and depressions, the growth of the downtown and a huge commuter train population just a stone’s throw across the street. But there it stands, a downtown edifice dedicated to learning.
There are strange off-set hallways that seem both connected, yet hinting at undiscovered rooms just beyond this turn or that. Though renewed, the auditorium feels as if a vaudeville troupe might mount the stage at any moment, its cornices and ornate ceiling preserved and held sacred to its origins and style. A projection room lurks, untouched for years, above and behind the balcony. I imagine a time when films of Lon Chaney Sr. and John Barrymore were projected to the screen onstage. Far to the opposite end of the school is an entire gym, outfitted with climbing walls and an array of cooperative game apparatus. There are classrooms in this section with wide windows and outside balconies (never to be used by the students!). This newest edition from the outside looks like a matte painting from a Star Wars film. The library shouts of modernity. More computers, less book stalls.
And the art! In the foyer to the auditorium are five murals commissioned in 1935 and hung in 1937 depicting actual historical happenings in our town. George Washington visiting an inn several hundred yards from our school. An actual battle scene between Native Americans and English settlers that took place in 1637 called the Great Swamp Fight. That’s just about 20 years after Shakespeare died. These are all W.P.A. project paintings, slowly darkening, mostly ignored. But the art only begins there.
As a bookend to the 1930’s paintings is student art. Everywhere. Sketches, drawings, pastels, pen and ink, etchings. In the last few years famous paintings by renowned artists have been copied, placed on walls and secured behind Plexiglas. But these paintings are actual communal works by students. Imagine Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grad Jatte” duplicated by youngsters. Our version, 12 feet across and 8 feet high contains 32 separate sections. One student per section, joined together, mounted and placed on a staircase wall. And that’s not the only one. There are duplicates of Warhol and Monet and Van Gogh. Perhaps this student work will be here for 75 years, not unlike the depression era masterpieces.
So I walk these halls for a few final weeks, trying to pay a bit more attention to the details surrounding me. I take a quick read of the plaques in the entrance naming Superintendents, Board of Ed. Members, building committee members. Some names are familiar and I must have had their children or grandchildren in my classes. I know that the oldest plaques no doubt contain names of people long past. The building they helped create may be our present and their lasting legacy.
We inhabit buildings but for the most part they are unchanged by us. After I retire, school will begin in late August, just as it always has for the past 87 years. It won’t miss me although I may miss it. In reality our buildings, and my school, are not living, breathing entities. It’s even an interesting concept that one calls a school “mine”. It’s no more “mine” than this sidewalk or that tree. Buildings only come alive because of the people who live and work in them. That’s especially true about schools. Without students and teachers it could be an office, museum or warehouse, but it’s not a school.