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This Old Town

The twins spent the week at a camp housed in my old elementary school.  I hadn’t been back to the school since my brother transitioned to middle school over 20 years ago.  It’s really been closer to 30 years since I had walked through the building.  The night before, I had dreams about the school, though I couldn’t really remember where anything was located in the building except the front office.

Until I got in the building.

And then we walked past the place where I was standing when the Challenger exploded.  And the library where Jonathan and I declared that when we grew up, we’d live together in Albania.  As we turned the corner to the old 4th grade pod where their camp was located, I looked up on the wall and there was my SIXTH GRADE PICTURE.  A little sixth grade Melissa in her Live Aid t-shirt staring out of the frame with the rest of my class.  After I dropped them off, I swung through the rest of the school; down to my fourth grade classrooms where my teacher said inexplicably inappropriate things to us until it was discovered late in the year that she had a brain tumour that affected her personality.  And the lunch room where I spent lunch trying to sit as far away from this one boy because his lunch bag was a mishmash of my worst food phobias all in one place and he accidentally spat food when he spoke.

It was too far to go back home, so I went through my old town trying to find some place to work.  I swung by my old old elementary school, the one I went to before my old elementary school, which closed when I was in third grade and was turned into a community center.  In the center of the main room, near where the shelves should have been that held the copy of the Phantom Tollbooth (that the librarian claimed I never returned), they had set up a welcome desk and the woman told me that the best she could do for me in terms of space was to set me up on a wooden bench near where my eighth grade boyfriend and I played pool in the summer.  He would kiss me reciting the vocabulary words his mother was making him learn that summer.

So I left there (after peeing in the bathroom where I learned the word “fuck” which was written on a piece of toilet paper in my stall back when I was in kindergarten, and I brought it out to an older kid to ask them what it meant before asking my mother just to make sure that the older kid had it right) and went outside to walk around for a moment and see where we played Chinese jump rope (and I got to kneesies one-foot highsies before knocking the rope) and the place of my first kiss.  He was a sixth grader and I was a third grader, and he had to bend down to kiss me very lightly on the lips after I blew those weeds at him that we used to call angel dust (angel dust in the PCP-sense, not in some beautiful ethereal sense).  I wanted him to kiss me because he was one of the boys who would jump from the top of the red tower, and that seemed like the scariest thing in the world when I was eight.

And then I drove through my old town, past my parents’ old house, and took the long way past my eighth grade boyfriend’s old house (his parents have since died, and last I heard, his brother took over the house and is raising his children there) and the path through the woods that connected our two houses where we’d meet and stand halfway between the two houses filled with adults.  And finally swung into the town center, down the one-lane road that always backs up with traffic, and noted that they had cut back the shrubbery near the cemetery revealing more headstones, and took the shortcut past the new library (remembering when the library used to be housed in what is now a bank building) to settle down in the Starbucks to work.

It was weird to be back there.  To know everything but not really belong.  It felt like speaking a foreign language after years of disuse, realizing that I now refer to it as a foreign language instead of my mothertongue.

Have you ever been back to your old elementary school and what would you remember there if you did?


1 HereWeGoAJen { 07.14.12 at 7:45 am }

I had four or five elementary schools and I’ve never been back to any if them. It comes from moving too often. I don’t think I’ve ever been back to any school, actually. I wonder if I would remember anything actually.

2 Mud Hut Mama { 07.14.12 at 8:54 am }

I corresponded with my old elementary school (and other elementary schools in the district) when I was in the Peace Corps and the kids raised money to fly one of the my Zambian students to the States for a visit. I brought her around to the schools to meet the students and it was very strange to be in my old school as an adult. Especially since I was giving a presentation – it brought back memories of having to read a report aloud to my class in the fourth grade. I was painfully shy back then and agonized over standing in front of the class for weeks. I still remember what I wore that day – dark purple corduroys with a light purple sweater. I remember feeling like my face was on fire as I walked to the front of the class and the huge relief when it was over and I could return to my seat. The building and the classrooms seemed so small and in my memories they are huge. I had a variety of memories that I thought were long forgotten come back to me in different areas of the school. Some of the teachers I remembered were also still there. So funny how a place can release certain memories – I’m glad you had the opportunity to go back.

3 Buttermilk { 07.14.12 at 9:26 am }

My Dad still lives in the house where I grew up, and it’s right around the corner from my old elementary school. Over the years while visiting my dad I’ve watched the outside of the building change – new windows, playground equipment, landscaping all have changed over the years. The basic structure remains the same. I don’t recall the last time I stepped inside. I still have a good idea of the basic layout of the place though I don’t know if that has changed. With a little effort I can recall the names of all the teachers I had there, K – 5th grade. I would be interested to see if the old murals are still on the walls outside the library. I always admired those murals but today I can’t remember the images at all.

4 Esperanza { 07.14.12 at 11:30 am }

I adore this post. What a wonderful window into you and your world. Thank you for sharing all this. I grew up in Hong Kong so I probably won’t get to go back and reminisce anytime soon, but I wish I could.

5 Manapan { 07.14.12 at 11:59 am }

I live in the town where I went to elementary school. It’s so weird to pass the playground and see what’s still there and what has changed. I wrote my name on a jungle gym using a wet colored pencil in sixth grade back in 1998, and it’s still there. I’ll definitely cry when it’s gone.

The last time I was inside of the elementary school was when I was in high school. I was amazed at how small everything was! I could touch the ceiling easily. And the teachers I had way back when, the ones I remembered as larger-than-life capital-A Adults, were almost all shorter than I am. I remember looking down on my first grade teacher from a foot above her head and only being able to say, “Wow. I remembered you as taller.” 🙂

6 April { 07.14.12 at 12:07 pm }

As I was scrolling down to comment I was thinking ‘I adore this post,’ but Esperanza took the words first, so…this post is magical. I went to seven elementary schools, and have never been back to any of them. I don’t even know how many besides the last one are still standing, because they’re all so far away. I do have at least one special memory from each of them, though, and the school where I was for Challenger was the same one I was queen of Chinese jump rope one recess, after beating waisties. That was fourth grade, and we were so excited because they filmed part of an episode of In the Heat of the Night at our teacher’s house. I think I’ll have to rehash old school memories in a post of my own.

7 deathstar { 07.14.12 at 12:19 pm }

I haven’t been back in over 20 years, but I really did enjoy your trip down elementary lane. It’s amazing you remember that much. I do remember some really nice teachers and the really bad ones.

8 loribeth { 07.14.12 at 12:59 pm }

I have tons of memories I could share. We moved around a lot growing up — I went to four different schools in three different towns. Five, if you count kindergarten — it was not required back then, so my parents paid to send me — it was in the basement of the Catholic church, and whenever there was a funeral on upstairs, we were told we had to be VERY QUIET.

The last time I was in one of them would have been at my 10-year high school reunion, which was (gulp) 23 years ago now. Even then, there had been changes. The K-9 school where I went to Grade 8 & 9 was across the street. In recent years, the other high school in town closed, and the school where I went to jr high is now part of the high school (two “campuses”).

For a number of years, my grandfather was the custodian at the small-town high school that he, my grandmother, my mom, uncle & many other relatives attended. When we went there to visit in the summer, he would take us up there & my sister & I would read books in the library & practice piano in the music room. The walls were lined with photos of all the graduating classes, going back to the 1920s, and I loved walking around & picking out my relatives and other people I knew. Because of shrinking populations, the school now takes in kids from the entire county — they get bused in from all the little towns that were once the arch-rivals of my mom’s school. In an effort to be more inclusive, the officials changed the name of the school and the teams, and took down all the class pictures that lined the walls. Many of the locals were NOT HAPPY.

9 Becky { 07.14.12 at 1:04 pm }

My son started Kindergarten in my elementary school last year. It’s so strange to walk through the building. It’s had slight remodel since then, and will undergo a major one this coming year. Ther are 2 teachers still there from when I was a student. And they look exactly the same. It’s beyond strange. My boys will both go to all the same schools I went to (unless we move, which I don’t think will happen). It’s comforting, and unsettling all at the same time.

10 k { 07.14.12 at 1:50 pm }

My mom worked in my old elementary school until I was out of college. I went back there often. My strongest memory, like yours, is of the challenger explosion. I was in line to come back in from recess in the 6th grade, and my teacher (Mrs. Goeke) came to get us crying.
My parents still live in my old hometown and my dad still teaches at my high school (he’s been there over 40 years, and my brother teaches there now, too). My whole life is tied up in that school, the high school, much moreso than my elementary. I spent my childhood growing up in the band room my dad still teaches in. I walk in and instantly I can be 5 years old or 15. It’s an overwhelming onslaught of smells and sights and memories that make it almost painful to go to. Not that my time there wasn’t happy, but it sometimes feels so far away and so different from who I am now, even though I know it very much created who I am. Hm. Maybe a post is in my future.

11 Stupid Stork { 07.14.12 at 2:08 pm }

Oh lawdy reading that makes me homesick.

12 Tiara { 07.14.12 at 2:19 pm }

School was not a happy time for me both elementary & high school…tho it wasn’t all bad those places seem to bring up memories I’d rather forget. I did enjoy when an old friend from college came to visit a few years ago & we toured around our old campus…now that was fun!

13 Ellen K. { 07.14.12 at 4:33 pm }

I have never been past the playground of my elementary school, but I would love nothing better than to spend an afternoon there, with at least an hour and a half in the tiny library. On FB, the only hometown dwellers I envy are those whose kids go to that school!

14 Pam/Wordgirl { 07.14.12 at 5:24 pm }

I always love the rich images you convey about your childhood and that of your own kids… I could go to my school, I suppose — but I had a strange experience when we were deciding on schools for W — nearly 8 years ago now… it wasn’t MY school — but the very ‘school-ness’ of it — the smell, the small coatracks…brought me vividly back to a very difficult period of my life (my father died when I was in kindergarten)… so much so that I had a tremendous emotional upheaval later that night with G — probably the most involuntary experience I’ve ever had with memory…

Anyway. I hope to relive it in a more positive way with Z — it may be why I’m so drawn to her school which is so very non-school like, at least in the way I remember it…



15 a { 07.14.12 at 8:48 pm }

I returned to my grade school when I was in college, I think – some of my favorite teachers were still there. But, I haven’t been back since. I am, however, friends with my 2nd grade teacher on Facebook. I remember many things about that school – misbehaving in the gym when our regular teacher was out on maternity leave, pretending to be a gymnast on the bike rack outside, practicing for graduation in the auditorium.

I’ve also been back to both of my high schools – the first one for a career fair, where my least favorite nun, Sister Maggot, remembered me, but conveniently didn’t remember how horrible she was to me. And my second one, where I saw that they really didn’t need my contributions, because they had enough money to put a multimillion dollar addition onto what used to be the cafeteria and gym.

I do enjoy occasionally driving by the places I (and other family members) have lived. I like to see how the neighborhoods have changed. I still wish I could have bought the family homestead when my aunt went to assisted living, but I had already moved away. Sigh – I love that house.

I do enjoy trips down Nostalgia Lane…and I do it quite frequently.

16 serenity { 07.15.12 at 6:46 am }

In November 2010 when my aunt died, I took Charlie and Lucky on a tour of my hometown. I was surprised at how SMALL everything looked. And I too felt foreign, like I didn’t belong here, though I knew every space and what had changed since I lived there last.

I dream about my old school. I know every nook and cranny of that space, and I’d love to go back there and wander around, inside. I’ve been on the playground and it’s MUCH different – the big elm in the center is gone, and they’ve fenced everything in, and there’s new fancy plastic equipment instead of the old metal slide. I suspect I’d feel the same way I did about my hometown if I was able to walk through the school.

I did hear that one of my favorite teachers just retired this year. He was the last holdout, the last teacher I would have known. He was the science teacher – I remember him telling us that he loved Archimedes.

17 magpie { 07.15.12 at 5:28 pm }

oh yes. but it’s no longer an elementary school. it’s now a multi-purpose place – senior citizen housing, daycare, a theater. i still wonder about things – like the weird hallways in the basement where we went “bowling”.

18 Justine { 07.15.12 at 9:01 pm }

My mother taught at my old elementary school, so I spent many, many hours and many years there … even when I no longer attended it. I think most of all I remember the smell. That cleaning-fluid-mixed-with-vomit smell. But certain walls, where the boys played “hot ass,” rooms where we had G&T, the place where my best friend and I got to run the ditto machine at lunch, and wrote stories together as the machine would fill the air with that thick, purple, inky smell … wow, there’s a lot I guess I remember. 🙂

19 Mali { 07.16.12 at 1:48 am }

Well, primary school (equivalent to elementary school I think) is in the dim and distant recesses of my aging mind for me! (I was at university finishing my masters degree when the Challenger exploded).

My school was a tiny rural school, with only two rooms, catering for children aged 5-13 (before going to High School in the nearby town). I remember the polished wood floors, and the pot-belly stove in the winter which took a while to warm up the room, but by the afternoon would be starting to glow red from the heat. I loved school – life on a farm can be a bit lonely – and my classmates (in my year but also older and younger) became like family. But such a small school was very limiting too. The school was closed about ten years or so after I left, due to its falling roll. There was a school reunion when I had just learned I’d never have children, and I couldn’t face going back. I wish I had, now.

20 Kathy { 07.16.12 at 3:08 pm }

What a fun and nostalgic post to read about your childhood memories of your elementary school days. I love this:

“It was weird to be back there. To know everything but not really belong. ”

I sometimes feel that way when I visit my parents who still live in my hometown, which I do a lot, since it is not that far from where we live.

They still just live a few blocks away from my elementary school, so I pass it frequently, but can’t recall when was the last time I was inside.

As for memories, I recall getting to know the various key teachers and staff members in the school, as well as the rules, when I was in Kindergarten by following the trail of “The Gingerbread Man.” He was finally caught running in the hallway by our principal, which was meant to be a cautionary tale for us! I remember learning the Alphabet via the “Letter People.” Mr. S had “Super Sonic Socks” and Mr. L loved lemon lollypops, which we made some of.

I recall having to practice and read an entire book in front of my 1st or 2nd grade class, I think it may have been an Amelia Bedila one. Those were so funny!

I too remember where I was when I heard about the Challenger explosion, sitting at my desk in my 5th grade classroom. I remember there being a lot of Chicago Bears dress up days that year in school, because they won the Super Bowl and we all learned to sing “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

I remember how hard it was when 4th grade began, after my best friend moved to FL. How I felt like I didn’t have any friends. Then I took to befriending new students who were at our school from foreign countries, including Sweden and Japan. I enjoyed getting to know them, their families and learning about their cultures. I am still in contact with my friend from Sweden. She has visited here a few times over the years and we have gotten together with our families. I hope to go visit her over there someday.

I remember the last day of school how we would run home fast, as to try not to get attacked by the older kids with shaving cream. Until we were old enough to be the attackers, in good fun of course, at least for the most part. I have no idea how such a tradition began.

I also recall “Mr. Hank” who helped out/watched us on the playground during lunchtime recess to give our teachers a break. He was an older man and so very kind to me, especially in my dorky years, when I craved acceptance and my self-esteem was low. I remember praying for him along with my extended family members every night, because he made such an impact on me, at a young age.

I remember coming to school the day after the North and South aired on TV and a friend who was of mixed race being very upset with how black people in the movie/story and in history were treated.

This is the same friend that I took, along with my friend from Sweeden to the Bozo Show when after a 10 year wait, my family finally got to go! The tickets were ordered before I was born, for my older sister who was no longer interested, by the time they arrived. So that’s why I got to go and bring friends!

I remember how excited we all got when we got to ride on those sit and scoot, scooters in gym class and how much I feared playing dodge ball and would hug the back wall to try not to get hit.

Well, that is what comes to the top of my head now. That was total stream of consciousness, but every time I thought I was done, another memory surfaced. 🙂 I could probably (and may possibly) make this into a post of its own. But thanks for sharing and the memories!

21 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.17.12 at 12:21 am }

My kids took Tae Kwan Do in the gym at my old elementary school (not my old old one, which is in NJ). I remembered being petrified of having to climb the rope. For us it was Four Square (not the app) rather than Chinese jump rope.

I love the way you put it, realizing it is now a foreign language instead of your mothertongue. Yes.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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