20 May 1998
My old school has died. I was by there today and stopped to look at it. The grass has grown tall and the yard is littered with trash, not thrown there carelessly, only blown there by the weather and never taken up by the maintenance men. There used to be dozens of maintenance men, every day, driving round in tall 4-wheel-drive Ford pickup trucks in dark red or dark green with ugly black wheels and tall skinny tyres. The trucks all had manual shift– everyone drove manual shift back then. We used to see them creep by the windows when the guys were doing work in the yard, with the narrow lettering ‘Willingboro Township Public Schools’ stencilled proudly on the doors. The guys wore work suits with their names on them and worked quietly– I do not remember ever hearing any of them yell out loud or swear during school hours. They were hard-working men and reverent of the tasks they were performing. They knew, as even we did, that they were doing them for us.
We, the schoolchildren, were the pride of the whole township. We came to the new development when it was still an experiment, and we proved the founding fathers (seems so strange calling men in their 30s and 40s ‘founding fathers’!) were right. Our class in particular was the very elite, the creme de la creme of the entire district. By the time we would graduate high school, there would be an even 1000 of us in all, having attended 13 elementary schools and two junior-high schools through 30-plus students per class and split sessions and intra-district busing and some of the most unconventional and even fanciful educational programmes the state had ever seen. By and large we excelled where educators expected only better-than-average; we were sought by university recruiters all over the country and were accepted wherever we chose. We broke the mould and made a new one, and our aggregate achievement and attitude spoiled the teachers rotten forever. As students in the township we were never to be rivalled.
I walked up to the windows of the kindergarten wing, in the corridor on the way to the multipurpose room– there were only two kindergarten rooms, because in the days when this school was built mothers were home and there could be half-day sessions. I was in K-2, in the afternoon class, because I was older and would not need a nap. The last class of children painted flowers and grass on the inside of the windows, and little construction-paper clouds and suns dangle above them. Inside, everything remains as I remember– the little ceramic water-fountain, the blue tile of the toilet, the grey marble of the wash-up sink, the light switches so close to the teacher’s closet door. Above the three snaking rows of flimsy fluorescent lights, I measured the room by counting ceiling tiles– imagine a kindergarten classroom 26 by 40 feet! It was immense– a whole world behind that polished birch door. In that world we learned common courtesy (there was such a thing then), and how to write our telephone numbers and addresses. We heard stories and built with blocks and did not look under the girls’ dresses (little girls all wore dresses then). The teacher kissed us goodbye when we left, and we knew it was not to be polite, but because we were loved.
The floor looks original– brown and gold asphalt tile, incredibly well kept. The room is set with half a dozen round or hexagonal tables and little chairs, as if pretending to ready for a class, but there are no other furnishings in the room now. The tables are original– 37 years old at least! –faux white-ash Formica laminate over birch plywood, very heavy, with metallic pale-green steel legs, very Space Age, very stylish and state-of-the-art for institutional furniture in 1962. In those days the idea of school as an ‘institution’ was still palatable. It was the best example of an institution, where children were cherished and minds were moulded for the greater good of all society. This is not to say that we were brainwashed– on the contrary. We were nurtured. Our mothers stayed home in their housedresses and shared coffee at ten and watched The Edge of Night at noon, and hung washing out back and hoovered the carpet and waxed the floors, and when we came home our bedrooms were tidied and our windows were open to the crisp October air and the house smelled fresh and clean and new, like it really was, the house and township and whole experience of what we were doing. We had jelly sandwiches and changed into our play clothes and ran outside to do whatever it was all the other kids on the block were doing, since there were so many of them, Walt and Mike and Barry and Neil (or Ricky) and Elizabeth and Naomi and Paul and Robert and William and Brent and Cybil and Marcie and Jeff and Bobby and Gary and Bryan and Wayne and the entire extended neighbourhood. We had more in common than we had differences; we had all moved in at the same time and wore the same kinds of clothes and spoke the same slang and watched the same TV programmes, and our fathers had all been in the same war. Our fathers came home, one-by-one, from jobs in Philadelphia which could support their families in the lifestyle of their dreams, and one by one the kids of the neighbourhood would cry with joyous voice, ‘Daddy’s home!’ –and then every game would be split up till tomorrow, because there would be hugs or presents or news to share, and then dinner, then homework, then baths, and then another day of the same thing, all autumn and on through the winter and into the spring.
When summer vacation came we fled the hallowed halls of our school, never appreciating that our own children would not know such comfort or sense of purpose. We pretended to hate school, but inside perhaps we all knew that it was crucial to our well-being, and we all attended all the time. We did homework and read the book and studied for tests. When the teacher told us to sit, we sat. We did not talk back. Those who did were severely ostracised. I can remember the horrid feeling of staying after school for some minor misinterpretation of the class rules (for none of us was ever truly bad), and sitting there alone in a quiet room with all the chairs put up on the desks, their metallic light-green legs surrounding me like some foreboding institutionalised forest, while the teacher worked quietly at the teacher’s desk, grading homework or quizzes and pretending not to notice how awful I felt, even as the tears of knowing I had somehow transgressed the boundaries of what was expected of me by the school and the teacher and my peers and my mother (worst of all!) streamed out of my eyes. We all knew that there were expectations for us to meet, and we knew that meet them we surely must. Dissent was unthinkable. One day in fourth grade about twelve of us– almost half the class– decided en masse that we would rather play dodge-ball than report to choir practice, so when Mrs Joyce insisted we go, we rebelled by announcing we had all quit the choir. She gave us some very stern words of disapproval and made the defiant dozen sit silently in our seats, writing a three-paragraph essay on something like why things like choir are important, and none of us played dodge-ball that day– or failed to report to choir practice next week. Thirty-five years hence, a teacher would have been hauled in front of a Board hearing for infringing upon our rights, and the ACLU would never have let go of it.
The changes in educational philosophy have been dramatic, but they are not to blame for the closing of the old school. With a mindset of centralisation and falling population, or falling school attendance, the township committee have obviously elected to let it die. This is the new renewal theory: demolition by attrition. J Cresswell Stuart Elementary School (named for the orchard grower whose lands made up most of the early development) is the oldest one in the township, needs plenty of maintenance and is now surrounded by shopping centres and too much traffic. It has become redundant; and Willingboro has fiscal problems. They need revenue desperately, and liabilities must be neutralised at any cost.
Even so, however unsentimental, no councillor can ever happily sign an order to demolish a perfectly viable school. It may not even matter if the accountants swear that removal of insulation or whatever will cost more than the building is worth as a community asset. There is something profoundly disheartening about terminating a school building. It represents the passing of something that can never measured in cash value nor superseded by something ‘new and improved’. It is akin to the removal of a gravestone or the replacement of a wedding ring. A school building is only so much brick and steel to one who never attended there. But, to those who did, it is the very memorial in material form to what those experiences therein have wrought.
As I peered in between the painted flowers on the windows, I noticed the clock is an hour off. It was never changed for daylight savings time. It occurred to me that it will probably never be changed again. No, I thought. This place will never be brought up to the times. Too much has changed already, and that time is gone forever. The clock is a symbol of the school; it is slightly behind the time to which we have come now. There is such a thing as progress, and such a thing as being stupidly uninterested in the values of the past. Something transpired in this room long ago that can never be recaptured, if only because the people who could now effect it never went to school here. It is not part of their past, and so, as with too many Americans, the experience of someone else is irrelevant to them. They are blind to anything but what they know personally. They did not grow up in our class, where we learned to notice the world, inspect the world, understand the world– the whole world, as far as Telstar and Cape Canaveral and Vistadome and Chromacolor could help us see. If we were a homogeneous community, at least we were an educated and enlightened one. Our parents chose this township and this school for us because they knew better. They chose for us a life better than the lives they might have known, a township where their values could remain secure while the prospects for their children could be broadened. Their houses were not ‘investment property’ for them– they were our homes. We went to school because we were raised to believe school was important, not because it was a place for childminders to deposit us on the way to work. We belonged in school– there was simply never a question about that. Our school was our garden, where we were fed and cared for and nurtured, and, when necessary, pruned back a little; and we always knew, though we never consciously acknowledged it, that one day we would no longer be physically part of the garden, but that the garden would always still be there, bearing at least some small reminder of having known our presence there, just as we would forever bear the fruits of having been there too.
The yellow and green paint of the flowers painted on the windows has faded, having baked in the sun over a year now. I wondered if the children who painted them ever come back from wherever they are going to first grade now to see their handiwork, and what they think of its still being here, with no new children to see it and appreciate it. Then I worried about what will become of their painted garden into which they had put so much happy effort and which they had been so delighted to see every day. It was a difficult thought to consider for me, but I decided that someday, when the workmen come to dismantle the building, I hope they just accidentally break the glass and then have to get it out of the way without another thought. Who, who had ever been a kindergarten child, could bring himself to shatter those windows?
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