Schooled

You had to plant your feet wide when you looked up, smooth yellowed floorboards beneath you and the grand iron-banistered staircase in front. You had to get your balance. I used to stick out my arms a bit and hope that didn't look too babyish. The principal's office was tucked behind the stairs; there were rumours that The Strap lay in a drawer there but no one seemed to have seen, much less endured it. Behind you, a stained-glass frieze: small children in bonnets and the words Kinder Garten.

So, up, through the second and third-floor wells, lined with railings we were never to lean over. There was a story about horseplay and a tumbled, badly hurt pupil. We stood around the wells to sing carols at Christmas, the big kids (Grade Six!) up on the third floor.

Deeply-coloured light quilted that third-floor ceiling. I don't remember that stained-glass pattern, only the sense of privilege that it inspired. This was special though it lived in the land of the everyday. There was meaning here. The beauty and mild strangeness of that three-floors-away view of coloured sunlight has never left me.

As soon as I had got the hang of the place, its destruction was being planned. There was great contempt for older buildings in the Toronto of the 1960s and early 70s. One of our teachers declared at a meeting about the building's future that the school was so decrepit he had no recourse but to carry around a hammer in order to fix sprung floorboards. He had taught me for two grades and I know that I had never seen him wield a hammer.

The wrecking balls came (they were so common then that I can see the demolition firm's name stencilled on its hoardings even now) and went, and with them went the mellow Edwardian brick and limestone, the high-ceilinged pastel-painted classrooms (ink and mint and ripened cream), their deep windows and dark cloakrooms. The Home and School had the bathrooms' marble cut into squares and sold them as fundraising souvenirs. A featureless red brick building rose, a lozenge-shaped blank at the crest of a hill on a busy avenue. 

I heard someone say the other day that old buildings have charisma. I think they have honour as well. Their history honours what happens inside them (learning, say) and what is made inside them (music? art?). Often in dreams I am back at school, though my dreams are not (at least not always) of the O-no-I-haven't-studied! variety. Instead I am at home.