In my first year of teaching, we received word that our school building was “underutilized” and a new high school would be moving in. Rumors started to fly that we were going to be phased out. We began showing up at Community Education Council meetings and signing up for two-minute slots, to make it known that we wanted the building to ourselves. Suppose a school did move in; what would happen when it added a new grade every year? Where would we find room?
I spoke at several of these meetings. At the second one, I pleaded for my students. If our school were phased out, these children would have no place to return to after graduating, no way of greeting their former teachers and revisiting the building that held many memories for them. How could we take this away from them? I asked, looking the superintendent in the eye.
Later I realized how naive that must have sounded. The school leadership was concerned with square footage per capita—what were memories and visits to them? Sure, it would be nice for students to be able to visit to their former schools, but that was a luxury beyond the concerns of the moment. We had to protect jobs; we had to accommodate existing students; we had to maximize utilization of precious space.
I do not regret what I said. We easily forget what a school building can mean. To revisit a school is to say: I took something with me from here. To greet one’s former teachers is to say: You helped me learn and understand.
Between kindergarten and twelfth grade I went to many schools, public and private, in the U.S. and abroad. As a teacher I think back on them all, especially the school in Boston, which I attended for four years and loved. In English class, the literature was at the center of my teachers’ lessons. We needed no bulletin boards with tasks and rubrics, no fancy activities, nothing but an excellent book and a teacher who could help us see it in new ways. Our teachers taught us how to write clearly, how to read closely, how to hear what we read. I still remember how Farmer Oak smiled in Far from the Madding Crowd, and how Jewel strode in As I Lay Dying.
It was really that simple: all you need is the subject, a teacher who knows and loves it, and an inquisitive and attentive class. Why have we made things so elaborate, with all our frilly pedagogies? I have rested on the simplicity I knew in high school. I think of my teachers when I teach. And I have longed to go back and see my school again.
This spring I learned that two of my former high school English teachers were hosting a book discussion (of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy) at my old school. It happened to fall during my spring break, so I went. I got lost on the way, so I arrived late; then I blundered, with a custodian’s help, through the remodeled building until I found the room.
I sat down and was instantly at home. I remembered my teachers’ voices, their way of reading passages aloud, asking questions about them, drawing attention to details and rhythms. I remembered the way those discussions lingered in the mind.
I would wish this for all my students. Many will not be able to return to their schools; the consequences are not trivial. In our zeal for novelty, we have been ridding our schools of their history. When we open and close schools with a flick of the wrist, when we whisk teachers in and out the door, the students glean that their old school had no long-term meaning; it was just a makeshift shack, and no one knows where it went.