Old School

March 3, 2008

She stood on the curb beside the cat. Behind her was the schoolyard. The windows of her classroom were open and she could hear her classmates starting the afternoon prayers. She prayed along with them, Our Father . . . Hail Mary . . . Direct Oh Lord we beseech thee all our actions by thy holy inspiration . . . The cat took a deep breath, seemed to shudder, and then was still. Gina turned, ran the few feet to the end of the schoolyard fence, squeezed through the hole, skittered down the embankment, and then crossed the schoolyard to the wide front steps into the building, trying to move in a ladylike fashion in case one of the sisters was watching.
                       — Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947, American apprentice fiction writer
                           from a work in progress

 OLBS Old School Embankment

Pictured at left is the “embankment” that the character in the manuscript excerpted above uses to enter her schoolyard, rather than walk the half block to the corner, take a right, and go through the front gate.

When I made my list of “places I can’t go because they’re not there anymore,” I knew, of course, that the physical place was still there. What was gone was the building that I inhabited. I can’t walk into it, as I can Bishop McDevitt High School or, if I dared ask the current tenant, my first solo apartment on Walnut Street, where the way my foot strikes a step or the sound a door makes as it clicks shut behind me would trigger memories that are thirty or more years gone.

The building seen behind the trees in this photo is the building I went to every day from third through eighth grade at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School. Construction began in the spring of 1955, when I was in second grade in the two story red brick “old school,” built in the early part of the twentieth century. It had wooden floors, desks with inkwells, tall windows and high ceilings. There was a “cloak room” in the entrance hall that served all the students, and the bathrooms were in the basement. My classroom windows looked out on the scene pictured.

The incident with the injured cat is drawn from my own experience. Although my character is thirteen, I was seven when it happened, and in my mind’s eye I can still see myself squeezing through the hole in the fence and, indeed, skittering or scrambling with some difficulty down the embankment, which appears now to be merely a slope, and not a steep one at that.

The fence is long gone, and the steps that you can see have been added in recent years. After the new school opened the old school was razed and the lot stood vacant for more than thirty years. In 1989 the parish closed the school and sold the building to the Zion Assembly, an independent congregation that uses the old school site as a parking lot. The church rents part of the facility to a job training center, and I have had generous hospitality from both entities when I have desired to visit the building. I don’t enter the building often, but when I walk in the area I always step onto the macadam where the old school once stood. I had only a short sojourn there, and it was a very long time ago. But I can still see the cat, brown patches on its white fur like continents moving slowly up and down until they stopped, and see myself arriving breathless in my classroom after Sister has started the lesson, trying to tell her about the cat, and being told to take my seat.

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