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Tearing Down A School

Memories Rise From The Rubble

By Tom Poland
web posted November 20, 2015
LIFE DOWN SOUTH- We all have time machines. We call the ones that take us back in time memories. When I drove by my elementary school in Lincolnton recently, the sight of it being razed took me way back. In a flash, I found myself traveling back to the 1950s. Those buildings wielded a huge influence on me, one that continues to this day.
I may forget something trivial that took place a week ago, but I retain clear mental pictures of events that took place when I was six on up to thirteen, the years I spent in those wings now turned to rubble as you can see. Rising from the rubble, I see the faces of teachers and classmates. I see blackboards, desks, and more.

Letís begin with my first day in school. I did not want to go. Iím not sure why, other than the fact that a portion of my childhood was spent in the hospital due to an accident. I can best guess that early in life I came to mistrust strangers. When I entered first grade, thatís what I saw: strangers. I remember being upset, crying as little boys will do, and I ran from class and wrapped my arms and legs around a red metal pole that supported the first grade wingís overhang. My mom had to pry me loose from that pole and take me back into the room where a teacher by the name of Ruth Armstrong was in charge. I got past opening day and settled into a routine that would dictate the rhythm of life: rides on yellow Bluebird buses, school, and summer vacations.

I took in my new surroundings. The ceiling of our room appeared to be a glued mix of black, gray, and white wood fibers. Years later, I would hear that it was full of asbestos but I have no idea if that was a rumor or truth. Beneath that ceiling we sat in our tiny desks using thick, stubby black pencils making letters on blue-lined ruled paper that was coarse and pulpy. We did our lessons in Blue Horse notebooks. Remember those?

I recall one classmate, Nancy McWhorter, from that class. Mrs. Armstrong praised her for her neat, within-the-lines colorings of oranges and apples. ďNever,Ē I thought, ďcould I create something as beautiful.Ē Besides colors, fragrances come to me too. Seems the leathery and plastic smell of leather-vinyl Roy Rogers book satchels blended with bananas that students brought as snacks. The smell of ink and paper, too, pleased me. That fragrance would continue to please me through the ages whenever I entered a bookstore, that vanishing species of store like no other. First grade came and went, a blur of smells, lunches, books, pencils, recesses, and lessons. We were on the road to civilization. Other stops lay ahead.

I like to think that I had fabulous teachers in those wings now being reduced to dust and debris. Their names are familiar still: Willie Ruth Freeman, Helen Turner, Mary Faith Partridge, Azalean Wansley. Mrs. Turner led us through reading and writing laboratories. Mrs. Freeman revealed the wonders of science to me, due in large part to the Soviet Union. When it put sputnik into orbit in October 1957, our curriculum changed overnight and a heavy emphasis on science and math arrived.
Other memories surface as I ride this time machine spurred to life by the sight of backhoes clobbering bricks. After lunch, we would take naps on brown dry-cleaner bags. On a lucky day, weíd line up and march to the film room to watch a 16-millimeter film. Generally, it had wavering lines where the celluloid had been scratched and often the film stuck in an old Bell and Howell projector and a hole melted in the frame. We didnít mind. Going to that film room was like a day at a film festival. Most days unfolded in an ordinary manner in a most extraordinary place.
The decades they do extract a toll. Whatís new becomes old, and whatís old becomes unnecessary.

When folks say you canít miss something until itís gone, they are right as rain, as Dad used to say. Iíll never drive by the site of those old buildings that I donít see myself in those rooms learning things that would serve me the rest of my life.
A former student, now friend, is working on a memoir about her ancestors who came here from Italy. For her everything goes back to Ellis Island where her great, great grandfather first set foot in this country. Others and I will keep going back to those simple, brick school buildings where we studied history, science, English, math, and more. It was there that we first made friends, first had crushes, and there that we first had brushes with bullies and whatever discipline a teacher might mete out. It was there that we took tests and found out that all people are not created equal no matter what folks tell you. Whatever it is that we became, those long-gone schoolrooms and the teachers who filled them all had a hand in our making.

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