04 March 2017

my old school

I was sitting on the southern side of the plane as it descended toward the airport in Columbus. The view that way is as uninteresting as you can imagine.  I wished I had been sitting on the other side of the plane, where I might have looked for the green, faux-copper roofs of Columbus Academy.

With that thought in mind, and wanting stretch the in-between of travel a little longer before arriving at home, I pointed the car through Gahanna toward Cherry Bottom Road. (Yes, yes, it's a ridiculous name; it was even more ridiculous in the context of what was then the Boys' Academy with its insistence on antique and homoerotically tinged terms like Master and Head Boy.) Gahanna was what I remembered and then nothing like what I remembered; shabby strip malls where the McDonald's and Burger King were in the same places they were thirty-five years ago, and suddenly, on Mill Street, one of those pseudo-urban "neighborhoods" that are the current fashion. Cherry Bottom itself  was more crowded with subdivisions than it used to be, but the turns were familiar, leading up to a broad right-hand curve and the low, decorative gate of my old school.

The drive up the hill was the same, minus the anxiety that accompanied me every morning for eight years. The scene at the top was not: a brand new building, carefully recreating the old Academy building when the school was on Nelson Road.  It was handsome enough and the phoniness was reasonably well disguised.

Behind the new old building were the authentically dated architecture I remembered. It's hard to believe anyone ever thought that cupola was a good idea. The upper school building had been carved open, revealing the spot where a mural Matt and I painted had once been. The quad in front of what had been the library was much smaller than it used to be, of course. Walking across that quad was extremely forbidden.
We broke nearly every rule they had, including the time Bobby mooned our French teacher when he was arriving late to work - although, actually, I'm not sure there was a rule specifically prohibiting that. But almost nobody ever crossed the quad. It reminded me of when I was visiting my Exeter classmate Michael Lindsay - the real Exeter, not the New Hampshire one - and he took me to tour his old school. There was a similar patch of grass, and even as a graduate, on a summer evening with the place deserted, he couldn't bring himself to cross it. 

(I remember on that visit I mentioned that my school had just celebrated its 75th year. He laughed. The Merchant Taylors' School was founded in 1561.)

Behind the old administration building and its cupola was another lawn. This one really was smaller than I remembered. They'd closed in the far side with a dining hall a while ago, and extended the backs of the original campus buildings ten feet or so. I looked across to where the art department used to be, above our old dining hall, and the gym. There was a new sculpture. I was walking near the spot of that sculpture when I was told I was gay for the first time. I was not yet eleven and had been at the place for maybe a month, and I had earned the description by putting my arm around the shoulder of a classmate.

I couldn't get in to see the auditorium where I'd played Claggart and Algernon and Petruchio. Near its doors, outside the lower school building that went up when I was a student, I looked to see if the
mushroom was still there. It was a piece of playground equipment that we had designed as an art project. It was made out of reinforced concrete, and had a stem you could climb up and a lobe you could hide under and another lobe you could slide down. The slide didn't work very well, because, well, concrete isn't all that slippery, but you could scale up it anyway. The real thing didn't live up to my imagination when it was finished. Some time later I saw the remarks of a graduating senior, and she referred to it as a touchstone of her early years at the school. It was nice to have that connection. In any case, it's not there anymore; in its place is an ordinary bit of playground equipment.

I hadn't known what to expect. What I found was, mostly - nothing. Memories, obviously, but not much in the way of feelings. There were people I'd like to see again. Teachers, mostly;
not many classmates. It was a place I spent a lot of time, once. It's hard to remember how much it was my entire life.  I took away a good education, in its way, Latin and Greek and Calculus and that. I took away the belief that everybody ought to have the opportunity for that kind of an education, not that I've contributed to any progress on that front. On the other hand, they let me leave without knowing who James Baldwin was, so I didn't go to hear him speak my freshman year at Kenyon. They sent me off, maybe contrary to plan or maybe not, with a strong distaste for phoniness.

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