Wednesday, August 08, 2012

To Hear Yourself Think

I've had some time to myself as of late, with Murat visiting his family, and two long drives from the airport to my own family's town in Ohio, and then back, this past weekend. It flew by, that time alone. Like a missile. But thanks to the XM radio in the rental car, a missile with a cheerfully 80's soundtrack.
I have a niece just entering  junior high school, whose elementary school in our town had been razed a few years back. Our town is shrinking, quickly, and they're continuously consolidating the schools in response. She was upset, this niece, when they tore down her school. "They've taken my memories," she cried when it first happened (she was about 8). We adults cooed our condescending commiseration between chuckles, "Ahhh, sweetheart! It's ok. You'll have other memories in your new school."
And yet, I think she may be much wiser than I am.
"I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born." - 2. Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Walden, Henry David Thoreau
My own elementary school looms large in my memory. I still have dreams in which I'm walking down the long hallway to my 5th grade classroom, past the water fountain and restrooms, past the other classroom doors decorated with seasonal motifs and with animated teachers' shadows cast on their pebble-glass windows. Down to the room I should have already been seated in, where I'll have to enter sheepishly, to endure the glares of my teacher and giggles of my classmates. Usually only then to realize I'm either still in my pajamas or its the last day of class, there's a tome of a final exam lying on my desk, and I can't recall having studied, anything at all, for years.

Horace Mann Elementary School.
Image from Google street map. Year, unknown.

Some of the most profound memories of my life took place in that classic 1960s horseshoe-shaped building, with its high-ceilinged auditorium/cafeteria/gym titling its shape heavily to the left as you looked at it from the front and the large field out the back that served as extended playground and adventurous terrain for our over-active imaginations during lunchtime. We played "Gilligan's Island" or  "Lost in Space" out there for hours.
Among the more indelible memories I carry with me was the time I witnessed Brandon, the school bully, beat the living sh*t out some long-haired kid none of us really knew in the playground (to this day I still wonder what his offense had been), just to learn later that Brandon was beaten at home nearly every day of his life. There was the time I, yes me, as incredible as it seems (I was a tiny child, far smaller than most classmates, until I reached age 14), caught the long pass and made it across the goal line in the casual football game during lunchtime. In my memory that was the winning touchdown, but I'm actually not at all sure. I do remember the cheers and pats on the back from my equally astonished team mates. Then there was the time two friends and I wrote a joint confession of love to Terri, the tall blonde new girl, and slipped it to her as the class was ending. The letter asked her to choose from among us. She kindly chose all three of us...but we debated the significance of how she had checked each of the boxes next to our names for weeks.
Just outside the auditorium/cafeteria/gym were a few trophy cases, then the window to the kitchen where they served us the packaged lunches (Thursday was pizza day!), and finally there was the placard on the wall, near the main offices, where they listed the "Students of the Year" going back to, I believe, 1965 or so. One year, never you mind which, the name listed on the placard is my own. A few decades later it is that of another Winkleman, one of nephews. 
After I finished grade school, my family moved across town, and so I rarely saw the old side of town that often. During my visit this past weekend, I had some time to drive around by myself, and decided to visit the old haunts.There was our first house, near the elementary school. It's now abandoned, as are perhaps 2 to 3 houses on every street in that part of town. It's eerie to see the boarded up windows, or burnt-out shells (a lot of arson is helping the earth reclaim that lost city, as weeds and young trees grow up through the charred ruins), and even the odd empty lot, such as where Walter's house used to be (he would chase us off his lawn with a mean scowl, but then laugh as we scurried away...if I recall correctly, it was him who had fought in WWII and continued to hold a  grudge that that service hadn't stopped the resentments about his German background).
Anyway, I also drove past the small park up the street with the pond that we used to play hockey on in the winter, and which one impatient time, I fell through the thin ice up to my hip and seriously thought I was going to die on the two-block rush home. There still stood the ancient swing sets and monkey bars, rusting, as well as the club house in which we'd huddle with a cup of hot cocoa to warm ourselves up between rounds of skating and hockey. It's completely boarded up now too.
I walked past that park every day on the way to and from elementary school. It's so much smaller than it is in my dreams now. Driving past it this time, and then turning left toward my school, I was greeted by an empty field. My school too had been torn down. Apparently some time ago, as the grass was growing nicely where the classrooms and playground and auditorium/cafeteria/gym and the placard listing the Students of the Year used to be. 
I was thunderstruck. I had dreamed of that school at least twice in the past year. It was still a big part of my childhood, my memories, and how I got to be who I am. How was it gone?
And then I was pissed. I dismissed the irritating voice pointing out the irony of how I had condescended to my niece about her school and her memories, and wallowed for a moment in my own, truly shocking sense of loss. "Mutha-f*ckers!" I cried out loud. For a moment I had seriously thought, "How had they not consulted me on this?"
That was it! I decided there and then. Screw this town! What the f*ck is wrong with Ohio, with its pretty countryside, rich resources, and unbelievably kind people, that it can't sustain itself in this economy? Yes, yes, I know, history has shown us how industry migrates and fortune follows with it, and the loss Ohio's downturn represents is countered by the booming economies in other parts of the country. Blah, Blah, Blah.
But did they have to tear down my elementary school?
I dread my next dream about arriving late to my 5th grade classroom. There had always been a sense of security to balance out whatever embarrassing scenario awaited me past the door. A sense of timelessness and solid foundation. 
For those of  you old enough, remember the tornado (aka, Soviet nuclear attack) drills? When all the students would quickly file out into the hallways, and crouch down along the walls, and cover our heads. We were so well-rehearsed to do what we could to withstand whatever force might obliterate the building.
There was no drill for this scenario.


Anonymous MMuldrow said...

I moved to Ohio 6 years ago and immediately had to paint this weird climate of abandonment and relic.I was in shock, especially coming from San Francisco where the smallest lot is worth a million dollars.The history, the sad decline and the subsequent loss of economy,I reacted out of trying to figure it out..Now I am just sad about it and hope one day something new can come from here.Farms are selling out to fracking, big box stores keep replacing forests,beautiful old buildings fall into disrepair until they have to be demolished..Morrissey captures some of that melancholy-

8/08/2012 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...seems we all walk away to create new memories, always way too busy to only find further on, that we hadn't nurtured our roots of our former memories, and now these memories can only cling to us like spanish moss instead of sheltering us as the tall oak trees of our childhoods.

In truth, we walked away long before the memories has to in their turn abandon these places of disuse.

thats why I like that the monks somewhere in Japan have to rebuild their temples every generation,

the dreams still are there, just being chased over the next hill now

bummer - sorry to hear this story we all seem to know

8/09/2012 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger LG said...

The idea of memory being perpetuated and enhanced by a physical place is part of the concept of my work. How we develop these memories and what we choose to recall as memory is a great interest of mine.

I recall my elementary school. It was large (because I was small)? It had hidden secret places like the tree outside that opened up like a woody cave and the "eagle's nest" playground equipment, where the cool kids hung out. The heavy pastel colored cafeteria trays. The aquarium with the "sucker fish" in the front hall. The crazy metal lunchboxes (Muppets, original Mickey Mouse club, Wonder Woman, Gilligan’s island). These kinds of memories loom large in our minds and when the physical place is destroyed, we believe that part of the memory goes with it. This is why so many of us cling to pieces of furniture that once belonged to a cherished family member even though we never get them fixed or reupholstered like we say we will. May be the knowledge that a place/building continues to exist, in the state that we knew it then, helps up feel connected to our past now. Even though we carry memories around with us and although we'll always have photographs (catalyst for recall), we still feel a loss when the place disappears. That loss is a reminder that things are always changing (challenging, disconcerting?). Turn and face the strain.

8/09/2012 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I read it in the middle of the night last night, it seems like the right time to have read it.

I was listening to this song today and it seemed to pair well with the sentiment here.


Arcade Fire's "Modern Man"

8/09/2012 08:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a friend who's father is in the demolition business. You know, imploding buildings, like in those dramatic videos. My friend grew up in the Bronx, as did her father.

One day in 1990 his company gets a call for a project, demolishing a building in the Bronx. He agrees that it's something they can do, and drives over to the site to take a look. It turns out to be his old elementary school.

He took the job. But he told me it left him with the strangest feeling, which lasts to this day.

8/10/2012 06:58:00 PM  

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