I recently heard that they are knocking down an old vacant building in the town where I grew up, which would not be unusual except for one thing: this building was the Catholic grammar school where I spent eight years learning the basic education that would serve me well for my entire life.
When I heard the news of the demolition, I wasn’t really sure how to react. I graduated from St. John’s in 1969 and never set foot in the building again until a twentieth-anniversary reunion that was held in the basement. As would be expected, everything inside seemed much smaller than I remembered and while it was fun to see everybody, the years had left me feeling detached from the building itself.
The school was dedicated in 1949 and must have been quite the sight back then on the two-lane road, bordered by what was mostly farmland and small Cape Cod style houses. It was an industrial rectangle of brick and mortar with three stories connected by concrete stairs, designed more as a bomb shelter than an architectural thing of beauty. It could just as easily have been a factory.
The strange thing at the time was that I never noticed this about it. I thought it was magnificent, with its huge double-hung windows covered with thick Venetian blinds (did they come from Venice, I used to wonder) and heavy oak doors. The square classrooms each had a cloakroom at the rear and a massive chalkboard that stretched from wall-to-concrete block wall in the front. Every classroom smelled the same—a combination of stale bagged lunches, chalk dust, and pencil shavings. Yankee Candle should be all over that scent because that is a classic.
Each room was also filled with precise rows of sturdy desks, all of them with firm, attached seats. There was nothing cushy about those seats and for those of us who hit six feet tall by the age of twelve, these desks were torturous. The bottom eighty percent of the wooden desk lid flipped open with a hinge and what remained had two routed slots for a pencil and a pen. Some desks still had vestigial inkwells. The belly of the desk was where our books and supplies stayed for the entire year because St. John’s didn’t have lockers.
I have no idea if those cranky old desks are still inside the building or if somebody scooped them up for the antiques that they were, but it’s probably safe to admit this now: One of them had my initials carved in the wooden top, up in the right-hand corner. As I recall, it took me days to carefully scratch away with an unfolded paperclip while trying not to get caught by a watchful nun.
R D G
Right up in the corner.
It never occurred to me at the time that it would have been pretty obvious who initialed the desk, but I guess the good sisters looked the other way on some infractions, as mine wasn’t the only desktop monogram in the school.
That, as they say, was a long time ago.
Over the years, I’ve driven by the empty shell once a week or so, and half the time I wouldn’t even notice it. Sometimes I’d look over and wonder what happened to the kids I knew but I never gave the building a second thought—until I heard they were knocking it down and putting up a car wash. There’s already a car wash not more than four hundred feet away on the same side of the road, and another one not much further. I rarely take my car to a car wash, so the notion of there being three of them within a mile of each other seems more frivolous than actually going to a car wash in the first place. Still, it’s better than an empty old building and I hear this will be quite fancy for a place that washes cars. They use triple-foam so, you know, that’s extra foamy.
St. John the Evangelist School has been vacant for a decade, locked up for good when the student population no longer matched the size of the building. It was suggested that something should be made out of the old building but repurposing a structure of that age and bringing it up to modern standards is often more expensive than demolition and rebuilding and nobody took the bait. In the end, there just wasn’t enough sentiment to keep it.
So as things would have it, I was leaving an appointment earlier in the week when I impulsively made a right instead of a left and headed for St. John’s. I felt compelled to see it one more time, so I drove around to the rear and parked my car smack in the middle of where we used to have afternoon recess.
The outside of the school looked remarkably the same, except for the dumpsters that have replaced the long rows of galvanized steel bikes racks. All three entrances to the school are now closed off with plywood surrounds, as crews go about removing whatever asbestos they can find inside. I walked around for a bit hoping to look inside the windows, but they’ve all been covered. This old building is on its way out and before too long, the once thriving school will be demolished and efficiently hauled away in pieces.
My plan now, however sketchy it is, is to keep an eye on things and when the wrecking ball finally moves in, I’m going to grab a brick or two—if I can get close enough. Knowing the building is coming down has brought on a sudden and almost irrational feeling of wistfulness. I spent eight years in that school with some of the best people I ever knew, and while I have many good memories, I don’t have anything tangible, nothing I can put my hands on. A couple of bricks? Yeah, I’m doing this. After all, I scratched my initials in a desk and got away with that for forty-five years. This caper should be a piece of cake.