When It Was Still Alive

My initial impression of the large brick structure on Draper Avenue was one of curiosity and sadness. The vacant building was a school no longer. Now it was just empty and neglected. The first floor was boarded up, and we could see that many of the windows of the second story were broken. A general appearance of ruin was everywhere. It was obvious that many years had passed since smiling children had crossed the threshold of the old Draper school.

We had made the one and a half hour drive to Rotterdam, NY to follow up on a Craig’s List post advertising the contents of a school—tables, chairs, cubby units, shelving, wooden play kitchens, easels, chalkboards, whiteboards, and much more. My friend, Robin, had called me earlier that morning with the proposition of a spur-of-the-moment homeschooling excursion.

“You up for a field trip?” she asked. Naturally, I was!

I followed her in my own car and our caravan of two vehicles, two moms, and five children hit the road ready to claim what we were hoping would be homeschooling treasures. She had her eye on some real slate chalkboards and cubbies for storage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but was interested in a wooden kitchen set for my two-year-old daughter, and was optimistic I might find something useful for my six-year-old son’s learning experiences at home.

Our exact destination was unknown to me. Robin had arranged to meet the Craig’s List poster at noon at a specific address. She followed her GPS, and I followed her. During the drive I wondered where we would find our treasures. Would it be a recently closed school? Perhaps it was a warehouse or some sort of storage unit, or possibly even someone’s garage. We headed up route 88, and eventually arrived in Rotterdam. Not long after that, we finally turned onto Draper Avenue on that rainy, cold day, and for the first time we beheld the sight of the desolate and lifeless building.

“So sad,” I thought though I wasn’t surprised. Many schools across the state have lost their purpose for different reasons. My own alma mater closed its door after merging with a neighboring district. The buildings of both districts were repurposed after a new and larger school was built for the newly consolidated district. Mergers, budget insolvency, declines in enrollment, and competition from Charter schools are some reasons why many neighborhood schools are now empty. They have closed their doors to learning, and the families of the communities in which these buildings stand must go elsewhere for their children’s education, while these grand structures of brick and mortar cease to serve their intended purpose. In some cases, like my school, these buildings are sold, renovated, and reused. But in many cases the structures stand vacant for years, slowly deteriorating from lack of use and lack of love. They become large crumbling reminders to those around it of tender years of learning and laughing, of Miss Smith’s caring demeanor or Mr. Wagner’s sense of humor. They contain memories of growing up and growing wise, while making a few of life’s mistakes along the way. They contain memories of chalk dust and scraped knees; of the big game and of passing notes in class; of first crushes and of broken hearts; of colors, teachers, locker combinations, and good friends. The memories are infinite.

After several moments of surveying the unwelcome facade of the school, we drove around the block to the rear of the building and the Vischer Avenue entrance to the school’s now vacant and cracked parking lot, where we were to meet the man from the ad and his teenage daughter. Viewing the unused structure from the rear galvanized the feelings of emptiness and despair. From the vantage point of the long-unused lot, the revelation of years of disuse and the immensity of disrepair was finalized. The severity of long-forgotten days of glory and purpose was complete.

The building and its grounds occupy an entire block in its community. This block is surrounded by streets lined with houses. People live here. This is a neighborhood with its heart far removed. My thoughts immediately produced visions of this school as the thriving and welcoming center of a community, bustling with the activity of teachers and children and parents. I pictured its residents, possibly many generations of families, who entrusted their children to this institution. I wondered if those who purchased houses in this neighborhood did so with the intention of living nearby their neighborhood school. I wondered if they moved in with the excitement and warm knowing that their children were nearby, safe and cared-for. I also wondered how many children were displaced by the Draper school’s closing. Where were they now? Where were they at this very moment, at noon on a Friday? Where were they having lunch today? And how does this community feel about the empty days that now occupy an entire block of space between Draper and Vischer Avenues?

Despite the grim picture painted by the outside of the school, I was not prepared for what we were about to see on the inside. We were led into the dark and cold interior through an auditorium door, broken glass, dust, and debris littering our path. Following the flashlight ahead of us, I urged my children into the gloom, up the incline of the auditorium floor with row upon row of empty chairs to our left, while the shadows of children who used to occupy this space for programs and events flickered in my imagination. We left the auditorium through the rear and found ourselves turning right into what was once the main hallway of the first floor of the school, and what had since become nothing more than a tunnel of destruction and broken dreams.

We paused momentarily while our hosts left us to turn on enough electricity to illuminate the chaos hidden behind the artificial night created by boarded-up windows and layers of dust. It was clear that vandals had on numerous occasions entered the building and left their mark. Nothing proved sacred. The lockers that lined the hallways in groups were damaged, dented in and covered with graffiti and splashed paint. That was just the beginning of the damage and decay we would find in the old school building. Due to vandalism or other reasons, the walls were riddled with holes of various shapes and sizes, some large enough to lose a child! The ceiling was missing in numerous spots revealing the internal structure of the building, with wiring and tubing that once supported the day to day activities of this school now tangled and hanging. The floor was in no better shape. Buckled and warped, any wooden floors were destroyed, while tiles throughout the hallway were broken and missing.

We were all filled with a sense of bewilderment, and with a sense of adventure. Continuing down the hall, we quickly turned right again into the gymnasium, now gray and filthy. Here, most of the school’s salvageable contents were assembled. Tables of all shapes, with adjustable legs, were stacked on one side—circles, semi-circles, rectangles, and trapezoids. Chairs of various sizes occupied another section of the gym, and I could already picture classrooms furnished for children of all ages. Many of the padded panels that used to line the walls of the gym were removed and stacked in several piles. There were shelves, cubbies, and storage units of all varieties. Desks, file cabinets, and other random items one would normally find in a school were arranged in long aisles down the length of the room. The entire gymnasium had become a warehouse of items for sale.

Upon entering the gymnasium, we came directly on a large charred depression in the floor. Vandals had set a fire there and it had burned several inches into the wooden gym floor. Although the fire did not penetrate the subfloor, in the dim light the charred black circle appeared to us as a deep hole. My son’s eyes widened as he asked our host if there were any deep pits in this school. Misinterpreting my son’s fear as excitement, the man answered, “Yes! The basement is a giant pit!” I quickly reassured my son that we would not be going there, then I stepped into the charred space on the gym floor as proof that he would not fall through.

It didn’t take our children long to discover the floor scooters, covered in dust and filth, which had once entertained countless children during gym and recess periods. They immediately began racing down the aisles created by the layout of tables, desks, and chairs while Robin and I examined the contents of the gym. The far end of the gym was the dumping ground for everything that was broken or burned. A large 50 gallon plastic garbage can caught my eye, filled with irregular chunks of thick glass. Above it, the shattered remnants of the basketball hoop and backboard hung solemnly.

We were told that pretty much everything we see or find was for sale. Most everything was contained in the gym, but we were verbally given a layout of the school, both downstairs and up, and were instructed to “watch the kids and have a look around.” The light switches in the classroom should work, we were told. And he added, “Be careful of the ice on the floor down the hallway.”

With our sense of adventure far outweighing any fear and reservations we might have had, we began our room to room investigation. Knowing that the school layout was essentially a horseshoe, our plan was to walk the entire downstairs to the end of the horseshoe, inspecting the classrooms one by one. We would then go upstairs and walk the horseshoe back in the opposite direction, where we would return to the first floor right where we started.

We approached the first classroom downstairs across from the gym. Groping the wall just inside of the classroom door, we flicked a switch to reveal the sad remains of a space once occupied by a teacher and many children. The classroom was largely empty of anything useful. It was dirty, with debris everywhere. Boarded-up windows lined the wall opposite the door, and a large empty depression on the floor beneath the windows was filled with rubble. Something used to be there and had been removed. I can only guess that this was where the radiator or some other heat source was installed. Chalkboards from days past still lined the perimeter of two adjacent walls. On top of one chalkboard, a white board had been permanently installed, perhaps a welcome upgrade to the teacher of this classroom. There were numerous desks that still remained and they were pushed together in one end of the room. There was a broken shelf against one wall, and a freestanding presentation board with its felt torn away. Like the main hallway, peeling paint and a buckled floor were the predominating features of this room.

Our survey continued, room by room down the first floor hallway. The rooms were similar in their state of chaos and disrepair, and they were similarly dismal. For the most part they were empty, the remaining contents varying slightly, with sometimes a desk and a shelf, or a table and a chair still present. Our children set to work immediately scavenging their own treasures. Where adults tend to perceive emptiness and lack of value, children often find importance. Small mementos of students past were revealed and gathered. Our kids collected pencils and sheets of stickers, among other things. My son found several hall passes, laminated cards that were attached to a rope that could be worn around the neck of the student going to the library, the bathroom, or the nurse. In one room, he found two photographs of the children who we could only assume were once students of that classroom. Pennies, long-lost handwritten notes, empty file folders, erasers, metal washers and other random hardware were among the collected treasures.

As we passed through the ice-covered section of hallway, I noticed that every fire hose had been removed from their wall boxes where they must have hung neatly coiled and unneeded for many years. Whether these hoses were used to put out the fires of vandals, or whether the vandals themselves pulled them out in sport, we did not know. The ice on the floor of the unheated school could have come from these hoses. It could have come from a burst pipe before the water was turned off, or it could have come from the weather leaching in through holes and broken windows. We passed carefully and turned left on the first corner of the angular horseshoe.

Here, we were obviously in the lower elementary grades. The tables and chairs that still remained were smaller. The cubbies were little and the bits of evidence hanging on the walls told a story of teachers in charge of the school’s youngest learners. Some rooms still had the names of the teacher written in large print tacked to the wall by the door. This is where most of the stickers were discovered. Despite the youthfulness of children who used to occupy these spaces, the story ended the same as in the other classrooms. These spaces too had lost their purpose and were deserted, leaving only trace evidence to the many wonderful encounters between teacher and student to which these classrooms had been privy.

After finishing our survey of every room on the first floor, we were ready to climb the stairs to the second. Fearing the potential of being locked in a stairwell, I went through first to test the door from the inside. It opened, and so we all piled through and walked step by step to the top floor of the school. Much of the glass in the windows of the stairwell doors was shattered. This was to be the case throughout much of the upstairs. There was more light upstairs as the exterior windows were not covered by plywood. Many were broken, and in back corners of classrooms and in holes in the walls, the carcasses of dead pigeons and piles of feathers and excrement were everywhere. Whether the damage was actually worse upstairs or whether we perceived it that way due to the increased visibility provided by the windows, the feeling on the second floor was one of eery desolation. Our children still searched for treasures, but my son became fearful, and his fear soon passed to my daughter who I ended up carrying through much of the upstairs tour.

At this point, my memory becomes blurry. Room after room of broken furnishings, filth, and destruction, had both anesthetized me to the experience and homogenized my response to the individual classrooms. Robin found a few large tack boards in good shape that weren’t permanently screwed to the walls and we took those with us. I found a bifold freestanding easel with a chalkboard on one side and a felt presentation board on the other, so we took that with us as well.

At one point, I remember passing by an elevator on the wall to our left. A large gap was clearly present between the doors that no longer closed completely, and a large hole had been broken through the wall to the right of the elevator doors. We could easily see into the deep shaft and I remember holding my daughter tighter and grabbing my son’s hand. We came to the end of the second floor, and I was relieved to walk back downstairs and find the entrance to the gym right there.

I had one more request however. I wanted to see the art room. I asked our host where it was and if I could go there. He said yes, and explained that it was located on the ground floor, below the first floor. He warned me that we would have to go by flashlight, and that I would find the room in shambles. Apparently vandals had centered one of their parties down there, turning tables and breaking everything in sight. I was looking for a flat file, but it quickly became obvious that there was nothing of value left in that art room. I came across many empty gallons of tempera paint that had been scattered and crushed. Their contents, which were spewed across floors, doors, cabinets, and broken tables, became visible in the ever-shifting beam of the flashlight. The only color I was to see that day in the entire school was in these splashes of paint. A space that used to breathe creativity and exaltation now exuded only malevolence and indignity.

Hearing the panicked voices of my son and daughter, who were in Robin’s care down the hall and who thought I would be lost in the dark forever, I quickly left and together we all returned to the gymnasium to pay for the few items we wanted.

While we were waiting for our host, we spoke with his teenage daughter. She was a confident and articulate young woman. She asked us if we homeschooled our children. When we said yes, she excitedly informed us that she had been homeschooled her entire life, excepting a one year trial of public school. I was blown away at how confidently she was able to converse with us, the way she carried herself, how capable she seemed in helping her father in this old building, and at the level of mutual trust that obviously existed between them. I thought to myself, “These are qualities I want to imbue in my own children. These are things that are just as important as formal academic achievement.” This young woman was fourteen and she explained how much she loved homeschooling. For some reason, I was relieved to hear this from a young woman who was obviously thriving at life on this educational path. I sometimes have moments of doubt about my choice to remove my son from the well-worn path of public school.

We left the old Draper school cold, disappointed, and maybe even a little bit depressed, and needed a hot cup of coffee to warm our bodies and our spirits. While we drove to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, my son bombarded me with many questions about the old school. We talked a little about it in the car and I left knowing that a homeschooling field trip, which at first seemed to me of questionable educational value, ultimately created a multitude of lessons in history and society.

I can’t help but continue to think about the old school, it’s history (which we are currently researching), and its ultimate fate. I replay the images of that Friday in my head and am still confounded by how one of society’s most recognizable structures (everyone know a school when they see one!) can simply be abandoned and left to rot. Is it in the name of progress that small schools are unable to serve a purpose in their communities no longer? Is bigger necessarily better? I’m sure there are correct answer from both sides of this debate.

As for me, I am a product of a small K-12 public school. I graduated with a class of 22. I never felt like we were lacking anything, though perhaps there is some truth to the idea that shared resources and consolidation can provide more opportunities for their students. While touring the old Draper school building, I was reminded of the experiences I had in a small community-based school, which as I mentioned does not exist anymore. I can’t help but wonder if what it has become is indeed an improvement. I sometimes drive by the large oppressive institution that was built to take its place and I shudder. I know that this new district has become one of the poster children of education reform, the Common Core, assembly line learning, teacher oppression, and scripted module curriculum. Although we do not live in this district, for me this is the ultimate horror and what I fear most for my own children’s education. To me, this is the reason I have chosen to homeschool my son and daughter.

The physical description of the Draper school building is difficult to put into words. But the societal implications are even harder. I think my son described it perfectly while we were beginning our tour of the first floor. He asked me a question. And although the exact question he asked escapes my memory, the way that he framed his question remains vivid in my mind. His words were, “…when this school was still alive?”. I can’t describe it better. The Draper school was once alive, vibrant and active, the heart of a community. And now… it’s dead.