Out With The Old
MY MIDDLE SCHOOL CLOSED ITS DOORS FOR GOOD four and a half years ago. I discovered this while I was on one of my nostalgia benders (what is middle age for?) and had stopped by to walk the grounds after school hours and savor bittersweet memories of gym class, a girl in eighth grade named Monica and long-ago pick-up basketball games that filled my after-school hours.
I stopped by the office and remarked on the steady stream of people carrying boxes of mementos out the door, and a woman told me in a voice tinged with a resigned grief that the building had been condemned. Like lots of schools built in the 1950s and ’60s, it had been built quickly in an effort to keep up with a demographic tidal wave of students during the Baby Boom years. But after 50 years, the back, downhill side of the school had settled so that it was becoming structurally separated from the front. It was too old to fix, according to the ruthless logic of accountants, and thus would be closed forever.
I realize middle school is not a period in anyone’s life that is remembered as a golden era. It usually coincides with puberty and all of its upheavals and awakenings, and if you offered me a billion dollars and Cindy Crawford’s hand in marriage to return to that time I would turn you down without a second thought.
Adams Middle School, and here I mean the building itself, was not a particularly distinguished piece of architecture. There apparently was some sort of Great Cement Surplus in the middle decades of the last century, thus concrete became the go-to material for practically every project. Adams was built in a style I call Mad Men Modernism — right angles, asphalt tile and pastel-colored window inserts defined the look of the place.
That said, the end of any public institution is usually an occasion of sadness, and schools especially so. The end of a school is like a death. Schools are much more than just buildings and blackboards, desks and chalk; a school is a place that has learned, perhaps even more than it has taught. As it ages, its staff and teachers learn and pass along to newcomers the places we kids go to hide from their eyes, what the best option for P.E. is on rainy days, where to hold the assemblies to maximize the attentiveness of hormone-addled students, and much else.
The principal of the school when I was there was a man named Mr. Crouch, and he was a man of almost superhuman tolerance and compassion.
There was a kid named James whom I knew and occasionally hung out with, and James decided one day to rob the school snack bar — at gunpoint. James’s father was a motorcycle gang member of some repute, and James brought his father’s .410 shotgun to school, pointed it at an understandably stunned lunch lady and demanded the register. Mr. Crouch came down immediately, calmly talked James into giving him the shotgun and then took him up to the office.
(Quick aside: If the above incident happened today, I imagine the campus would have been cordoned off and SWAT teams in Kevlar helmets and full battle-rattle would have cleared the school urban-assault style, maybe with helicopter support and barbed wire perimeters. It’s strange that even as national crime rates have dropped precipitously the last 20 years, our police have become more explicitly militarized. There’s probably a future column there.)
Then there was the only snow day in the history of Adams Middle School: Feb. 5, 1976.
I awoke that day to a sky the color of stainless steel. The temperature had been dropping all day, and at 2:30 it began to snow. It is safe to say that the first flake rendered further instruction impossible, and both teachers and students streamed outside and gazed around in wonder and simple delight, suddenly and fully children once again, as the winter grass was quickly whitened by the cascading flakes and the world became a frigid, glittering wonderland.
That snow day, James’s thwarted robbery and 50-some-odd other years of adventures, heartbreaks and achievements entered the lore of the school, and became part of its institutional memory. But in June 2009, the teachers and staff of Adams Middle School scattered to other institutions, ones with different stories and separate legends and different institutional wisdom, and the story of Adams came to an end with barely a whimper.
I’ve mentioned before that this country has always been an incredibly dynamic place, in love with the new, always searching for the Next Big Thing, ruthlessly casting aside the old; “been there, done that” is a very American expression. This restless inventiveness has always been both our most bewitching draw to striving peoples in other corners of the world, but also our most tragic flaw.
America has never been a place where you grow old with the people and places you were young with, and though we excel in reinvention and dynamism, we too often carelessly sacrifice collective wisdom in the name of progress.