Schooled

You had to plant your feet wide in order to look, dizzyingly, upward, the yellowed floorboards beneath you and the grandly banistered staircase before you.

For balance, I used to stick my arms out a bit and hope that didn't look too babyish. The principal's office was tucked behind those 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: youngsters in bonnets frolicking above in Gothic script, the words Kinder Garten -- the land of naptime mats and little rhymes, Dixie cups of milk, and Arrowroot biscuits.

So, up, up, through the second and third-floor wells, which were lined with iron railings we were never to lean over. There was a story about horseplay and a tumbled, badly hurt pupil. We stood around those wells to sing carols at Christmas, the biggest kids (current events, geometry sets, Bristol-board projects!) on the third floor.

Deeply-coloured light quilted that third-floor ceiling. I don't remember the 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 the mild strangeness of that patch of coloured sky has never left me.

As soon as I had got the hang of the place, its destruction was 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 to carry around a hammer and repair, regularly, its sprung floorboards. He had taught me then for two grades and I had never seen him wield a hammer.

The wrecking balls came (they were so common around mid- and downtown that I can see the demolition firm's name, stencilled on its hoardings, and the dust that hung above demolition sites, even now) and then they they went, and with them went the mellow Edwardian brick and limestone, the high-ceilinged pastel-painted classrooms (pink and mint and ripened cream), their tall, deep windows and dark cloakrooms. The Home and School had the bathrooms' grey marble cut into squares and sold them as fundraising souvenirs. A featureless red brick building rose, a lozengey blank at the crest of a hill on busy Avenue Rd., where far more than once I bumped, painfully, into sidewalk lampposts after leaving for home with a new book from the second-floor library and trying, unwisely, to read it while walking.

Last summer, in the perfect and beautiful St. Patrick's church in Woody Point, NL, recently repurposed as a performance space, someone told me that old buildings have charisma. I think they have honour as well. Their history, the effort of building, maintaining, renovating them, honours the effort expended within them (learning, say, or making art.) Often in dreams I am back at school, and sometimes my dreams are not panic dreams of the O-no-I-haven't-studied-for-the-final! stripe. Instead I am home.