Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Story About Keeping Memories Alive

My old classroom at the Beethoven Elementary School in Waban, MA, before it is torn down for good.

This past weekend I took a road trip to Boston where I spent some of my childhood.  I kept the whole schedule wide open. I had no idea who I would see or what I would be doing.  A childhood friend named Michele had invited me via Facebook to attend a small gathering of our 5th and 6th grade classmates to say good bye to Beethoven Elementary School since it is about to be torn down and replaced by office buildings. I figured I would stop by and visit my mother in her nursing home on my way over to the school party that evening.

My mother has become exceedingly senile.  She can still talk and seems to be very actively present until you realize that she will repeat the same information roughly every three to five minutes. It is usually information she has shared repeatedly with me over the course of every phone conversation for the last several years.  She has no idea she is repeating herself.  Talking to her is like being stuck in the movie "Groundhog Day" where the actor Bill Murray is stuck reliving the same day over and over and over again, and finally realizes he can say or do anything and there will not be any consequences.  When she tells me for the 500th time about her "new" apartment and how happy she is and how much she likes her seated physical gym exercises, I can react with surprise,  boredom, happiness, sadness, anger or whatever.  It doesn't matter because she won't remember how I reacted three minutes later.  This strangely liberating, but also sad. 

I arrived at her door without announcing my visit.  What would be the use?  She would forget it anyway.  She was completely unsurprised by my rare visit.  My mother thanked me several times, despite being gently corrected, for a birthday gift mailed to her by her sister.  She then advised me that my uncle had actually had only 3 children (not 4) and had been previously married (not true).  My head was spinning trying to sort out reality.  We discussed my upcoming visit to my old elementary school before it is torn down.  I reminded her of a story when she was called by the elementary school principal, Mr. Zervas, and asked to come in to meet with him.  As it turned out, I and one other child had been shown to test with the highest IQ scores in the school.  My mother, to my eternal disappointment, was too timid to ask him the score.  So I will never know.  I did contact the other classmate many years later (he was a former senior adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) and he graciously suggested that, while he did not recall the exact IQ scores, his recollection was that mine was the higher of the two!  

I left my mother's nursing home and drove aimlessly in the direction of the town of Waban where my old home was located not far from the Beethoven School.  I texted Michele to see if she knew any of the details of this "party."  She didn't.  I figured it would turn out to be nothing more than a small handful of grey-haired former classmates gathered outside behind the school in the darkness for a couple of hours, and maybe one of them would have the foresight to bring a bottle of whiskey and some plastic cups while we shivered in the night air.

I stopped by my old home on Ashmont Road and got out of my car to walk up and down the little street I remembered so well.  It was very dark outside now.  I was deeply entrenched in some old childhood memories like teaching the neighbor's pet dog how to sit only weeks before he was run over by a truck, and learning to ride my bicycle down the slope with the neighbor kids.  A car drove slowly by and someone yelled, "Nancy!  Is that you?"  I was shocked out of my reverie.  I haven't lived in Boston for decades. 
"Yeah,  Who's that?" 

I couldn't imagine who would have know what I was doing here.  It was Michele who was with her brother and sisters, and had vaguely remembered this was where I used to live.

"Come on, let's go over to the school!" she said.

The school was only about 7 or 8 blocks away.  As soon as I turned in front of the school, I saw the entire school was lit up from the interior, the parking lot was jammed full of cars, and people seemed to be walking to the main entrance from every direction.  I was shocked by all this activity.  It seemed this was a much, much bigger deal than I had imagined.  I had not walked into this school since I was 10 years old.  The little hallways were jammed with people of all ages - toddlers running, preschoolers yelling and playing in the classrooms, teenagers looking excited, young and old adults, and some real old-timers.  Former classmates brought their brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, parents.  It was truly a giant family reunion.

There was a feast of food spread out in the old gymnasium.  I recognized the same old climbing ropes hanging from the ceiling, and suddenly recalled the girl's room off the gym where I used to take my flute lessons because there were no music rooms available.  My teacher, Mr. Manuel, a flutist with a bad temper, used to kick my chair every time I played a wrong note which would then reverberate  mercilessly off the tiled walls of the bathroom!  I saw an absolute flood of my friends, some recognizable and some barely recognizable, from 6th grade.  As if in a dream, I found one of my best friends from 5th grade.  I always remembered her father playing Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass famous "A Taste of Honey" while we played in her basement.  Strange what things you remember.

I then discovered that my all-time favorite teacher, known affectionately to all of us as "Mr. G," was there.  I found him and he actually remembered me!  I cried quiet tears of joy. We all loved him.  And he loved us.  He had a kind thing to say to each and every one of us.  He still looked the same except his hair was white now.  It occurred to me that perhaps he was no more than a decade older than the rest of us, although he will eternally be a much older "adult" in my forever-childlike mind.  My other great teacher, Miss Shields, had died years ago. Her last words to me as I exited her 6th grade classroom were: "Come back and see me when you are great artist, Nancy."  Obviously, that future possibility had now been forever foreclosed..

I learned that the school hadn't been called the "Beethoven Elementary School" for many years.  It was now the Frank Zervas school.  Zervas, as I dimly recalled, was the name of my old principal.  The one who held the key to my IQ.  Why was my school named after him?  Could I find him now and get my IQ score finally?  As it turned out, according to a former classmate I bumped into, it was the same principal I had had all those decades ago.  But sadly the school was named after him because he had taken his family many years ago to a summer home and in a terrible twist of fate, he, his wife and kids had died in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning.  So the school was renamed in his honor. 

I bought a mug that said the Zervas Elementary School on it.  It was all that was left of Beethoven or my IQ score.

I walked out the back door of the school, hoping to get some better reception on my cell phone.  It was nearly pitch black.  I remembered this place behind the school with a small forest behind it.  I don't know why I remembered it.  I had no specific memories.  As I wondered aimlessly outside the building I became aware of the joyful sounds in the night air.  In the darkness, I began to make out the figures of tons of children.  Teenagers were playing basketball in the dark.  Younger children were running and laughing everywhere.  They ran by me as shadows.  I saw an enormous swing set and every single swing had a child on it kicking their feet higher up into the night sky.  I decided to take some pictures in the darkness.  This would be my last memory of my school.  I wanted proof it existed and therefore that I existed.  I snapped several photos.  I took a photo of a group of shadowy young boys who were climbing all over some enormous jungle gym.  As soon as I did, the tallest boy, no older than 10 or 11 years old, came walking over to me. 

He asked sternly, " Why did you take that picture?" 

I was so shocked I couldn't answer for a moment.

"For business?  Or for your memories?" he demanded to know. 

"Memories," I responded.

"Oh, well, then that's okay," he decided firmly for the group of boys who had all now swarmed behind him in a supportive line.

"When was your class here?" he asked.

"About 1967," I said.  I half expected that he might remember that year.

"Did you know Miss M?" he asked.  He didn't wait for my answer.  "She was here for 40 years.  But she died while we were here.  So we named the cafeteria after her."

"No, I didn't know her," I said, quickly calculating in my head that she must have joined the staff long after I had graduated.  "But that's too bad about the cafeteria because now it's going to be torn down."

"Yeah," said the boy.  He was clearly the self-appointed spokesman for the entire group of boys.  "We were all in the last class to ever graduate from here!"

"This year?" I asked. "You all just graduated?"

"Yeah.  Isn't that right guys?  This here is Jorge." (He pointed to a scrawny looking Hispanic boy with a sweet smile).  "He only moved up here from Puerto Rico for the last two months of our class.  He doesn't speak English too much."

Jorge said with a thick Spanish accent, "My name is Jorge!"  And another smaller boy poked him in the stomach and said, "Yeah, you're a beast!  You're a beast, man!" 

"Que?" asked Jorge looking truly confused and reverting to his native Spanish.

"Well," continued the larger boy, "See ya!"

And with that, the group of 10-year-old boys ran gleefully back to the jungle gym set and disappeared into the dark shadows of the night.

I cried tears to myself.  These kids were my age exactly the last time I was here.  They magically introduced themselves to me on this final night when the last bit of living evidence of my childhood was about to be torn down.  They had been in the last class.  Suddenly, I felt we were all one.  We were all the same age.  We were all the same tribe.  We were all going to lose this piece of our childhood together.  We held each other's memories in our memories.  The memory of this magical night will never leave me.