Brick by brick, the school that set the stage for so many of my childhood memories is being knocked down and hauled away.
Built in 1923 according to the sign above the entry, this once majestic high school and elementary eventually closed in favor of a new building. It ultimately fell into decay, but in its glory it featured hardwood floors, art deco honeycomb tile, and tall windows with the best views of our beloved small town.
On my first day as a kindergartener, I entered the front doors and climbed the impressively wide staircase to the wrong classroom – and sat in the second grade for part of the morning until they discovered I had tried to skip a couple of grades! It never occurred to any of us that it was unusual that if a person wasn’t going up the stairs, the only other option was stepping down towards the lunch room or other classrooms. Or walking down a hallway to go up a few stairs to the gymnasium.
Last fall, on a chilly October morning, I had the chance to walk through these halls one last time. Rather than being greeted by vintage lights and shiny floors, the peculiar smell of mimeographs and crayons, and the giggles of children, a quiet darkness and the litter of unwanted junk filled the rooms and hallways. What was surprising, however, was that after chalkboards were stripped away from the interior walls, curved masonry was revealed, which appeared to be the brick outline of a window frame.
Broken glass let the outside in where we once stood next to hot radiators while watching the high school marching band practice for upcoming parades. Empty library shelves that once were filled with Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries stood empty next to peeling paint, and I could still see the kind librarian sitting at a big wooden desk that was no longer there.
While it’s sad to see the shell of so many remembrances be erased from our town’s landscape, our memories are never removed. In retrospect, it was never about the building anyway, but the people who graced its halls and classrooms. In reality, the current condition of the structure could never be repaired without sums of money that no one wanted to invest.
The bricks will soon be gone, but we’ll always envision racing down the sidewalk under the tall shade trees. Dancing under the streamers and lights at prom in the old gym. Riding down the three story tall spiral fire escape that was a pitch black thrill ride until daylight at the bottom promised an exit. Hot runzas, chicken noodle soup, and cinnamon rolls made by hand by lunch ladies who loved us like their own and gave the hungry boys as much as they could eat. Singing Christmas carols with Mrs. Pearson in the music room which used to be a science room in my mom’s high school days. Hiding in the teepee Mrs. Classen built for us as we learned about Native Americans in Nebraska. Picking snowball blooms from the shrubs between the high school and the grade school on our walks to the cafeteria. Playing in a giant cement culvert which we thought was one of the best pieces of playground equipment when we weren’t playing kickball. Mrs. Jarzynka’s cheerful smile while teaching us ABC’s and 123’s.
As the school’s dismantling nears completion, more history seems to be uncovered, whether it was forgotten with time or an assumed common fact. Brick walls in unexpected places perhaps point to memories long before 1923. It’s possible that this school had been the home to our community’s children even before 1900 and that the “new” school was really a massive remodel and addition.
And appropriately so, these old school grounds will be another grand place for children in our town’s future with plans for a new swimming pool and park. One thing is knocked down, but another is built.
While we watch with a little sadness as the old school disappears, we know it’ll be great fun to tell our children and grandchildren that they’re swimming where we once grew dizzy on a merry-go-round. That they’re diving where we once had epic dodge ball battles and forged lifelong friendships. Where we found a community pride that stretches back farther back than our imaginations can travel. There’s no better place than this for the laughter of tomorrow’s children.