Hours after I walked around the deserted grounds of Cedar Grove Elementary, I drove into Atlanta to find West Manor Elementary, the first school I ever attended. Although I attended the school almost 50 years ago, it is still shiny, still pretty, still just as welcoming as it was so many years ago when I walked into Mrs. Newby’s kindergarten class and cried when my mother told me I had to be a big girl and stay there by myself.
I walked around behind the building and discovered that several wings had been added to the building, and, unlike so many new projects, they blended in with the original building and looked as though they had always been there. If one of the wings had not been placed right on top of a large sandbox where I remember playing, I may not have even noticed the “new” additions. (For all I know, the wings could have been added 30 years ago! In fact, since I spent second grade in Mrs. Likens’ classroom in the adjacent church, I suspect the additions must have been added many years ago.)
When I walked around to the back of the school, the area I most wanted to see was the huge playground at the bottom of a hill. To my relief, it was still there in all its splendor. The paved area for basketball remained as well as a large swingset and play area. The ramp leading down to the playground was just as I remember except in my memory, it had been much steeper. Six and seven year olds view the world quite differently from adults. Interestingly, a fence now confines children to the walkway and prevents them from falling down the hill, something that probably should have been installed when I was in school there.
In response to my post about the abandoned school I visited, John Spencer stated,
I think there is a powerful pull to geography and memory. Schools are not simply “places” but entities in and of themselves.
John is absolutely right.
As I walked around West Manor, I didn’t just see an old school; I saw my childhood.
I saw the area where we used to have May Dances every year.
I stood on the spot where I joined my first private club, complete with a secret handshake, and then learned how wrong it was to exclude people from clubs.
I stood in the parking lot and remembered those terrible days in the early 1960s when we were told to leave school early and walk home so we would know how to get home on our own in the event of a nuclear attack. (Oh, we were all, even adults, so naive in those days!)
I remember crying when the head fell off of my elephant costume during my performance in a play, and I remember Mrs. Guy, the principal, who put her arm around me, led me into her office, and convinced me that I had been a spectacular elephant in the play.
I remember getting into trouble for sneaking down the hall to another teacher’s classroom because she had a visitor who had fought in World War II, and HE WAS STILL ALIVE! (My mother had to explain to me later that my own grandfather had also fought in WWII and was still very much alive.)
I remember standing in line with my classmates and picking up sugar cubes that inoculated us against polio.
I remember loving Wednesday mornings, long before the cumbersome dictates of No Child Left Behind, because Mrs. Farner’s husband came to school and taught ballroom dancing to her third graders and then gave us candy.
I remember sitting in the classroom floor listening to my teacher read a book to us after she told us, “President Kennedy has been shot, but I know he would want us to keep working hard and learning.”
I remember gathering with other classes around the few black and white televisions available and counting down 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 as rockets launched at Cape Canaveral, long before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
I remember singing “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” just like the Beatles with my friends while standing in the cafeteria line and waiting as the “lunchroom lady” pulled the handle on the big machine that said “Atlanta Dairies” and filled our glasses with cold, cold milk, long before plastic containers and milk cartons entered school cafeterias. And, I remember sitting at the cafeteria table and not being allowed to leave until all of our glasses were empty.
Most of all, I remember being happy.
When I attended West Manor Elementary School from 1961 to 1966, all of the students were white. When Atlanta’s schools were integrated in the late 1960s, my family, along with hundreds of other families who were afraid of declining property values, afraid of other races who did not look like them, afraid of change, flocked to the suburbs. Today, this beautiful school in a gorgeous tree-lined neighborhood is composed almost exclusively of African-American children. I would like to believe we have learned something about getting along with each other since the tumultuous 1960s, but I’m not too sure.
As I returned to my car after walking around the school grounds, a female security guard approached me. I explained that I had gone to school at West Manor many years before and that I was just taking photos for myself. I don’t think she quite understood how exhilarating it was for me to find “MY” school preserved so well. We talked for a few minutes as I told her that I attended the school almost five decades before. She very sweetly and innocently responded, “I guess you didn’t expect it to be standing after so many years!” I had to laugh, but it brought me back to reality.
After enduring the disappointment of seeing an abandoned Cedar Grove Elementary School (See Sunday’s post.), it was refreshing to drive up and see West Manor just as I had first seen it the day my mother drove me to school on the opening day of school. My dad had given me a dollar bill because I promised that if he gave me the dollar bill that I would go to school every day and graduate from elementary school, high school, and college.
I upheld my end of the bargain and even picked up a PhD along the way.
I think my father got his money’s worth.