Yet another Facebook post precipitated yet another avalanche of nostalgia for me last week. My cousin, Cheryl Siegenthaler, wrote about “the schools of my youth being demolished,” a comment pertaining to photos I had recently seen in the UDC. Although Cheryl and I received our early educations at rival schools – she is a Climber, while I am a Falcon – and we even taught at our respective alma maters, it is nonetheless difficult to see the buildings where we learned to read, write, and do arithmetic reduced to rubble strewn across the grounds where we once played tag and red rover.
The demolition of parts of Urbana High School, of East Elementary, and of Urbana Local reminded me of similar empty spaces looming in the Graham district where Graham North in Rosewood and Graham South near Christiansburg once stood. Regardless of historical significance and long-ago school loyalty, those old buildings – mostly constructed early in the 20th century – that housed students from entirely different school districts when I started school in 1954, were/are quite costly to maintain. Fortunately, my elementary school building still stands, serving as the Concord Community Center.
Cheryl also wrote lovingly and wistfully about the closing of her childhood church in Bowlusville. Every detail of the life of this church is etched with particular clarity in the mind of my cousin, who is now pastor of the Philadelphia Lutheran Church near Bellefontaine. Cheryl enumerated names of Sunday School teachers, youth advisors, and families that were longtime members at Bowlusville. My favorite part of her post described sweet recollections: “The men had class in the kitchen, the women held sway over a corner in the sanctuary. It was a time when both men and women wore hats to church. What fond memories.”
I remember Concord School in similar detail: where I was sitting in Mrs. Pratt’s room when I learned to read, the moment Mrs. DeRemer wrote c-a-t in cursive on the second-grade blackboard, Mrs. Rushaw reading to us after the noon recess about the Bobbsey Twins, learning long division from Mrs. Calland, the lengthy report about Saturn I wrote for Mrs. Panaanen, being the spelling bee champion from the sixth-grade classroom of Mrs. Reeves. Indeed, these places of our past elicit an entire range of memories, from faint and wispy to I-remember-it-like-it-was-yesterday.
I feel the same about the high school in the Graham district, where I spent three years of my adolescence and forty years of my adult life. Interestingly enough, the actual physical facilities of GHS offer an example of slow-motion demolition-by-renovation. The shiny new building I first visited as a junior high student entering the gym to drink my dose of the Sabin polio vaccine from a small paper cup was not the same building I left as a retiree almost fifty years later. Rooms had been added to the ends and front of the structure, the tiny library replaced by a roomy repository for educational materials, a second gymnasium added, the office of the superintendent and district support personnel returned after a long absence, classrooms and technology updated for the new century. In some ways, it is hardly recognizable when compared to the original building that sprouted up from a cornfield in the mid 50’s.
It was within the walls of my classroom, however, that most of my Falcon-era memories originated. It was there I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. It was there I lived out my childhood dream of becoming a teacher. It was there I helped students learn about nouns and verbs in two different languages. It was there young people from two countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic met to learn about each other. It was there I was informed of the terrorist attacks on our country. It was there I learned to be firm and also to have fun with my students – and eventually their children. It was there I learned at least as much from my students as they did from me. It was there I evolved from brand-new rookie into something of a grande dame.
My last year of teaching, 2010, was also the year of a huge building-wide renovation. I knew that at some point during the year I would have to move to a different room to finish the year and my career. I dreaded the change, even shed tears of sadness. The day came, and suddenly my students and I were ensconced in new surroundings.
After 39 years and 7 months in the classroom where I had literally grown up, however, I experienced the strangest of phenomena: I never looked back. The renovation of my beloved room was not finished before the end of the school year, and I have not been back to visit. Oh, I can conjure up reminisces of my room and even the school with ease. But, then, it was never really about the brick-and-mortar of it all.
Cheryl and I now understand that it was the people we met in those locations and what we did there that have remained in our hearts and brought us to our current circumstances of life. Walls and roofs have been and will continue to be leveled by bulldozers. But we and our students and fellow parishioners will forever stand strong in the relationships we formed and the lessons we learned together in those places we loved.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.