Tuesday, June 15, 2021

So Hard to Say Goodbye

Something I never thought would happen occurred this past weekend as I toured the hallways of my old high school one last time before the building is set for demolition in a few weeks. I forgot how much I hated high school...so for the time being, all is well.

I have shared on this blog a few times that I have all kinds of complicated feelings about my high school experiences. I liked some of my teachers better than others. I liked most of my classmates then, and still do now. I met my BFF there my sophomore year and we've remained tight for these almost 35 years. In spite of all of the things I thought that I hated about that time (and felt justified in my contempt), this past weekend as I walked the building one last time, I came once more to a place of reconciliation and absolution. After 30 years of lingering bitterness over stuff that seems almost too petty to complain about now...

Hail La Reine High,

I'm all gooey and emotional over what it will actually mean for this building to come down. Until I went back inside, I thought it was rather absurd to feel any attachment to the physical structure of the school. A few months ago when this plan was first shared, it came at a moment when I was already starting to share some of my negative associations, the repressed or long-forgotten memories of early adolescence. Therefore, this effort felt like a continuation of the same cognitive dissonance of celebrating the school's glorious past without much of an acknowledgement of what hastened its abrupt closure, or what is its current status. So when I participated on the first Zoom call and saw who was leading the charge for this effort and why, I wavered for weeks until the last minute. And then I determined that if I do make this final trip through the school, then at some point along the way I need to reconcile with my ambivalence.

Hail to thee!

The last time I went back to the building was in March 2015, and I was eight months pregnant. There was an all-class reunion, and since that was the same year as my 25th I thought it would be fun to go (inspired by my 20th Spelman reunion the previous year). I also thought it would be kind of a hoot that as the youngest member of our class, I would probably be the oldest first-time mother. Prior to that visit, I had been back to the school twice since it closed--once for my 11th Class Reunion and one other time for another all-class reunion. I missed my 20th in 2010, but I don't recall that they had access to the school so the gathering was off-site, and for the most part, my class hasn't been very consistent in planning reunions. 

However, I have not been adverse to reconnecting with my classmates and peers. Even though I don't have the same strong ties to those friends in real life, I do maintain contact with them via social media. So each time I attended a reunion, it was for the express purpose of seeing them. Touring the building was something of a bonus attraction. My parents still live ten minutes away, so I have driven by enough times to bore my younger cousins, my niece, and my daughter by pointing out that building as the place where I and a couple of older cousins went to school. Also, I have had the good fortune to run into various classmates in recent years through our sorority and as a recruitment volunteer for Spelman, so to some extent, I have never really lost touch.

When I went back six years ago, I don't believe we knew about any plans to demolish the building, but we were made aware of the plans to build a new science center at the successor school. Our old building has been in continuous use as a public middle school since 1995. It never occurred to me that there would come a time when we would no longer have access to that facility, or that we would go back and not expect to see everything as it had once been 30+ years earlier. So one part of my brain wondered how the County could justify tearing down such an iconic monument? I mean, the giant Crown of Mary spire...

Hear thy daughters exalt thy majesty!

Of course the other religious references are gone, such as the Blessed Virgin statue and the motto "Look to the stars, call upon Mary" which had been painted on a wall in the main lobby. The convent, which had been inaccessible to us, has been converted to extra classroom space. The chapel is gone, probably changed into something more useful to public middle schoolers. I'm guessing when the County acquired the building, it was quite a bargain to get such a functional and solidly built facility. No need for furnishings or that many upgrades, so as I took pictures in front of the same lockers in the hallway and in the gym; the same long tables that we used in the cafeteria; the same bleachers and scoreboard in the gym; the same blackboards, windows, and doors; and even the same un-replaced worn out floor grips on the stairs...thus every tile, every fixture, even the smells were pretty much the same as they had been in the late 1980s.

The other part of my brain wonders why the County waited this long to schedule the demolition. If nothing has changed in 30 years, then nothing is new or modern. I didn't see a computer lab or docking/charging stations or even modern appliances/equipment in the science lab. The payphones are gone and there is an elevator in the space where the bookstore used to be, but no other significant upgrades. As there are more dedicated boys' restrooms in other parts of the building, I wonder if the same rusty feminine hygiene disposals are still bolted to the floor (because they were in the bathroom I used by the old "Freshman entrance" where the parking lot still hasn't been repaved). 

Therefore, it is time to let it ALL go. Plenty of other schools have alumni who have had to face this same abrupt jolt of reality. Buildings age and people need modern amenities. My old elementary school is closed and is used as a temporary space while other schools undergo construction, and my mother's high school has been torn down and rebuilt twice since she graduated. Some old schools are re-purposed, some are renovated, and others make way for over-priced condos. Several schools are changing names to honor more recent American heroes or to shed associations with the uncomfortable past. When change happens, it can be for good.

Because typewriters, pay phones, analog clocks, and shuffle board are all obsolete in a digital world. While I'm sure one or two of the current middle school students would be polite enough to listen to tales of how we had specific memories attached to various favorite places in the building (the band room where I spent an inordinate amount of time, for example), the rest of them wouldn't even politely ignore us. And at least one smart aleck would point out, really when Ronald Reagan was President, before my Mom was born?

Thou has given knowledge and truth
Great success to our nation's youth 

There are two versions of the school hymn and as such, there are two sets of memories that I associate with my high school experience. There is the version that I have been pondering in my head for the past few months: the one where the changing demographics of Prince George's County brought unique challenges to the administrators who understood the world as it had been in the 1960s and 70s. That is the golden era of the school for many returning alumnae, when the nuns and priests had more prominent roles in shaping the minds and futures of their students. By the 80s, things were changing and in 1989, a new music teacher composed a soaring new arrangement to the school song. In that recollection, there were more lay (non-vocational) teachers, more career-minded students, and fewer Catholics who did what they were told without challenging the edicts of the Church. We made demands, we had opinions, we sang a different tune...

We pledge to thee everlasting loyalty
Give to thy name glory, honor, and fame

So in releasing my bitterness, I begin with letting go of my resentment of the Administration, particularly the principal. I saw her this weekend, and while I wouldn't fake like I was happy to see her, I am glad to know that she is still alive and well. Several of the nuns were able to join us, so it is good to know that they have been well cared for these last 30 years. A few of my old teachers have passed away in recent years, and whatever animosity I held against any of them, I have let that go as well. I was not the best student, but not for the reasons that they assumed, because they never probed. In spite of what they thought about my abilities then, it was in high school where I first began to write.

It was in high school that I first was introduced to the concept of sisterhood. At the time, I didn't perceive it the way I do now, but it began among the sisters with whom I caught the Metrobus to and from school. It strengthened with the sisters that mourned together the tragic death of a classmate (so we chose our class song in her memory). There were the honors class sisters who tricked me into thinking that I had received a letter from Andre Agassi. There was the group of sisters who loved New Kids on the Block and some of us thought they were insane because of New Edition. The Humanities class sisters who went to New York City for an unforgettable weekend that changed all of our lives. The sisters who sat in the cafeteria or the student lounge for study hall or after school and talked about everything under the sun. The sisters who remembered that there were snickerdoodles sold at both of our local mall hangouts. And of course, there was the alumna sister science teacher who wrote my recommendation letter for Spelman.

Proudly thy banner will fly
Most cherished and loved La Reine High...

No, it doesn't produce the same as the flutter I get when I see a trio of blue hearts posted on social media, or when I see a certain three Greek letters in red. But it does move me to take notice that if not for this school, I might not have been so driven to prove so many folks wrong. Who can't do what, you say? Because I'm too young, too flaky, not focused, in over my head, susceptible to peer pressure, not well-suited...really?

That the scheduled demolition of the building comes at this full circle moment of racial reckoning in the broader society is not lost on me. Because while some of us are willing to accept the explanation that the times changed too much and too fast for the nuns, others of us know that it was hastened by the rapid demographic changes in the county. Someone commented on the fact that the school became a lot more diverse in the 80s; the same cannot be said for the successor institution. So when the suggestion was made to direct some of the proceeds to the new science center that is supposed to carry on our legacy and there was resistance, I had a visceral negative reaction. Either we support our alma mater or we just have fond memories of our time in that old building that y'all abandoned 30 years ago...

It can be both. I wanted to take pictures of everything because I have memories imbedded in the walls, the floors, the cracks and crevices, and even the windows. I have memories of secret spaces, such as the back stairway from the convent side that led to the front of the building. I remembered that there was a hallway between the cafeteria and the lower level of the gym where the locker rooms were located. I forgot that we had dogs, but somehow remembered that their names were Ginger and Pepper. I never ate outside where the smokers hung out, but I spent many hours in the student lounge that looked out onto that courtyard. I remember that access point between the public magnet school next door and the side lot to our school where we sometimes met boys. I could not precisely remember where the home-economics classrooms were, but it didn't matter since my Mom said I could learn to cook and sew on my own (she was half right).

With thee our hearts ever will remain...

The plans for the new science center will include duplications of our Blessed Virgin statue, the crown and compass floor mosaics, and hopefully the motto will be re-inscribed as well. Not much could be salvaged from the old building because of asbestos, so there is another very good reason to proceed with the demolition. We were given tiles from the building that were blessed as mementoes, and those along with my yearbooks, and whatever pictures I find will suffice to remind me of that time in my life. I also plan to become a regular donor to our successor school because there is no point in cherishing the legacy of an old building when I can actually bless the next generation of young people who will embody that spirit. 

Ironically, it never occurred to me until now to inquire about the middle school students who went to school there--do they have the same attachment to the building, or was it just where they went to school for a couple of years? Caught up in my own nostalgia, I never even knew how the current school got its name or paid much attention to how they used the building. I wonder if the sentimental siren that called to our alumnae from various parts of the country has the same draw for anyone else who passed through those corridors. Does anyone else who walked those marble floors or encountered that distinctive, yet very 60s blue tile feel some kind of way? Has some very persuasive graduate from the 90s planned a similar last tour of the building as it is just as much their space now as it was ours. Is anyone as attached to their middle school as we all are to high school and college?

(Because I'm nosy, I took a look at the new plans. I'm pretty sure that the new state-of-the-art facility that will replace our old structure will be a fabulous sight to behold. So as bittersweet as it will be to see the crown come down, the replacement will be better suited to serve the needs of the students, who deserve a modern learning environment. Oh, I did not know until now that the current occupant of the building is itself a successor institution of a renamed junior high school...and hmmm, history indeed repeats. I will write about that another time.)

Hail fount of truth, LA REINE!

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