There is an old school near where I work. I pass it on the way home. It had to have been built a century ago. It is a three-storey brick building with what might either be a bell tower or a housing for an air raid siren or something. It is huge and old and it exudes character. It has been vacant for quite a while; months or years before I started working there. There was a for sale/for lease sign on the fence for a long time. Then one day, there was a sold sticker over the sign. Cool, I thought, someone bought it. It would be a good place for a clinic or a homeless shelter or a hospice or something. It was probably pretty cheap, considering how long it had been vacant.
Last week, I saw construction activity going on and then as my bus passed it, I saw a wrecking ball going at it. An excavator has been picking up the debris and loading dump trucks with it. I was really disappointed. (Jack, however, was thrilled by my description of it and asks for updates daily)
There’s something about a half-demolished building. It can either signify new beginnings, or the end of an era. I guess it’s back to Gramma Betty’s glass-half-full outlook. I look at this place, where probably generations of kids learned the times tables and the alphabet, and it’s literally being bulldozed in the name of progress. So far, they have taken off the classrooms on either side of what looks like a central hallway. The bell tower is still standing. You can see the classroom doors, all gone now. Once, if you were walking those halls, they would have opened onto industrious little kids poring over a spelling test, maybe a mischevious little boy dipping the pigtail of the girl in front of him into his inkwell. Now, they open onto thin air. The chalkboards are still on the walls that remain. I would like to get close enough to read the ghosts of chalk that they must still sport.
How hot would it have been on the third floor in mid-June? How many kids gazed longingly out at the playground as the clock seemed to go backwards? How many decibels would the collective shouts of years of 3:30-on-the-last-day, years of September back-to-school-grumbles be? How many spitballs flew? How many apples given to teachers and how many indoor recesses on rainy days? Schoolgirl crushes, friday night dances, field trips. And who needed a gymnasium when you trooped up those three flights a few times a day? What is your fondest elementary school memory? Generations of kids did that there, too. Lofty aspirations and blinding disappointments. How many times did the dress code change to adapt to the lengths of girls’ skirts? How many times was the national anthem sung between those walls? God Save the Queen/King?
I guess the Principal’s Office is gone (I always capitalize that phrase in my mind). I wonder how many former pupils, once scarred there as naughty children waiting interminable minutes for their strapping (and disciplined more by the thought of it than the actual event itself, if it even happened), pass by now, and subtly feel a weight lifted from their shoulders to know that that particular chamber, fundamental to their Formation (in whichever way it formed them) is gone. I wonder if the halls still smell like that combination of chalk dust and lunch and books and mimeograph and kid that every elementary school once shared; I think, I hope, that those smells are such a part of the fabric of the place that the smells of exhaust and rain and the city would not take root, despite its years of vacancy and its current state of doorlessness.
I wonder what they will build on the site. It’s not going down easily, it is solid brick. I hope some of it can be recycled. I wish I had gone to look at the building when it was for sale, posing maybe as a prospective buyer. I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with it, but it would have held stories. I like the idea of a hospice, where people could go to die peaceful deaths, when they choose, away from heroic measures that prolong agony. A re-comissioned school would be a good place for a hospice. I imagine painting walls and refinishing floors, and thinking about all the bean sprout experiments that started on those window sills, or seeing a stain on the floor where some terrified five year old threw up on the first day of kindergarten before a kind teacher cleaned him up and gave him a hug and it was all better, or finding a name carved into a wall by a kid told to stand in the corner for being disruptive. I think there would be good karma there for the dying.
I guess this particular demolition has me thinking about innocence lost. Generations of kids learned the Three Rs there, not knowing yet about wars and cancer and disfiguring car accidents and epidemics. They were trust personified. All they knew of the big bad world was that if you dipped a girl’s pigtail in your inkwell, you might get the strap. There was no terrorist threat. There was no crack, no twelve-year-old prostitutes, no gang shootings, no abductions. No 9-11. And even if my twenty-first century six-year-old hasn’t been faced with those things directly, yet, the fact that I can’t imagine a time when I would let her walk the 500 metres to school unaccompanied by an adult is proof enough that she is affected by those unfortunate by-products of “progress”, at least indirectly.
I want whatever they replace this building with to have some merit, some consideration of what came before it. I hope like hell it won’t be a parking garage or a strip mall. I guess I will hold on to the thought that the spirits of those Blank Slates, those bundles of Opportunity, the kids that spent the best years of their lives walking those halls, will infuse whatever ends up on the site with their innocence and that it will turn out to be a glass half full.