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Building for the Past

By Daniel Hubbard | June 26, 2011

Last week I wrote about looking at preserved landscape to get a glimpse of what our ancestors saw but last weekend I had some personal experiences with preserved buildings, so I will turn from the natural to the architectural landscape.

My  family and I went to the village parade, which is always an “Americana Moment,” especially since the rest of the family was born in Sweden, but this year it was a bit more than that. We noticed that there would be an open house on School Street. That won’t mean much to most people but the street is being completely redeveloped and one thing that is both staying the same and changing is Central School, the school that gives the street its name. The playground is long gone and houses are going up where the swings once swung but the school will, in a sense, remain. It is a classic red brick school built in 1939 to replace the original school built in 1886. My father went to both those schools. My kindergarten and first grade years were spent in the building that still stands. That school closed in the 1980’s and has stood empty for many years.

Central School's Kindergarten Room

As we walked in, my kids asked me where my first grade classroom was and I told them I wouldn’t remember but I walked straight to it anyway. Once in the room, they asked where my desk had been. I took a few steps, turned toward the blackboard and said, “Here,” with full confidence. We visited the kindergarten room too, with its real fireplace and built-in benches under the windows. While there I learned that in just a few minutes there would be an all class reunion held nearby. At the reunion I ran into a few old classmates. Chatted with people and looked at all the old pictures. Much of what was there had been rescued from a dumpster by a former principal. I found my father’s eighth grade class picture and it reminded me of how his family had briefly moved out of town only discover that he was the only eighth grader at his new school and that he would have to sit through seventh grade all over again. The principal of Central School told my grandmother that if they could get my dad to his old school for classes every day, he was welcome to come back even though they lived outside the school district. Can you imagine?

During the reunion we walked over to the school for a tour and one former schoolmate pointed to a glass door and asked me, “Do you want to know a secret?” She pointed out the the pane in the lower left hand corner of the door was different from all the others. “That was me,” she said. “I had an argument with a friend and when she slammed the door in my face, I kicked the door and when the glass broke, I ran out onto the playground and hid. I was so scared.”

My kids added their handiwork to a chalkboard. The Statue of Liberty headgear was a parade handout.

As someone who likes to ponder such things, I noticed that this was not a reunion in the normal sense, a reunion of classmates who spent many years together. For some of us it was that and what fun it was to see people again after so many years.  Nevertheless, many of us were separated by many decades and were not being reunited in the normal sense. We had never known each other, at least not as grade school children. It was, though, a reunion of former students, teachers and principals with the building and its community that we did have in common, even if our memories might be from fifty years apart.

Among the memorabilia on display were things that have the ability to explain. It isn’t every day that a family historian gets a chance to study themselves but flipping through an old mimeographed packet of songs from the early seventies I learned something about myself. I discovered why songs that weren’t spinning out of the record player at home when I was a child are songs that I can’t remember ever not knowing. There in that purple print were Turn!Turn!Turn! and Scarborough Fair and many other songs that were only a few short years old when I must have been singing them at school. School papers are not the most commonly used of resources for family history but perhaps they should be. They can fill in details like why my children, years from now will vaguely remember being sung to sleep with a song about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Grade school ephemera might fill in details about early talents, interests and just daily life. Most school information will fill in details and put flesh on the bones but a parent’s signature on a yellowed report card might give you the identity of a mother or father.

Anywhere there are names and dates there is genealogy. H.E. Underbrink was the father of one of my teachers and the son of a woman who was for a time the oldest living person.

The following day part of my old high school was open. When I attended, it was only the freshman building but in my father’s day it was all there was and so he spent four years there. Only the “new” (1929) part of the school building was open. There was a photography exhibition in the gym and the door to a biology classroom was open so that we could wander in. It too, has not been used in years and though the gym looked pretty much like I remembered it, the building clearly needs help.

Places have a way of bringing back memories. In a way, parts of our memories are infused in things like buildings. Not literally of course, but a building or a door or any object with the right importance can be the key that unlocks what we might not have been able to recall otherwise. Central School will be converted into lofts—a fine way to give a fine building new life—and the exterior will remain. So will the keys to many memories. The old high school will be converted into a community center if the money can be found. I hope it too will find new life.

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Topics: Genealogy, Memory | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Building for the Past”

  1. Laura Says:
    July 2nd, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Beautiful post. Much food for thought. Thank you.

  2. Ed Says:
    July 8th, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Touching and thought-provoking Dan!

  3. MollyJ Says:
    August 6th, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Beautiful post, Dan. And so nice to see you again. Oh, and thanks for spilling the beans about me and that broken pane of glass! Hahaha

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    August 8th, 2011 at 8:30 am

    It was nice to see you again too! Sorry about spilling the beans. I hope they don’t make you pay for it!