Whenever I visit my hometown, I like to stop by the school, just to see the grounds. Which school? The school. There was only one in my little town, a complex of buildings that housed all of grades kindergarten through 12th. My kids have a hard time conceptualizing that I only had 60-some kids in my graduating class, but they find it outright hilarious when I tell them we all spent 13 years attending school on the same block.
Here’s the beauty of it, though, and it took me many years to discover it. There is one spot, right on the edge of the playground beside the football & track field, where I can pivot around and find 13 years worth of memories jumping out at me.
It starts with the run-up from the gym to the football field, where I marched Freshman year with the band, trying not to be embarrassed by my uniform and its 2-foot tall hat, replete with fur, golden tassels, and a feather! As a cheerleader my Senior year, I’d jump around in that same aisle, pom-poms a-fluttering, hollering as out team took the field. Funny enough, I couldn’t tell you whether we had winning or losing seasons, but I distinctly remember that every time we lost I was convinced our boys had been gypped.
In the bleachers, I find the spot where I sat with my dad, every Friday of every Autumn of my childhood. It was conveniently near the convenience stand, which beckoned me every ten minutes for more cheap candy and cups of scaldingly hot chocolate. When I was a little kid, whenever my brother wasn’t on the field, I’d head beneath the bleachers to play climbing tag with this one little kid who is now the town’s favorite doctor.
Just beyond the bleachers was the Red Rover square. It was perfect for games like that and Freeze Tag because it was only put into use twice each year: in the fall for the Homecoming bonfire, and again in the spring for parachuting (the elementary school gym class where you’d all circle around a parachute, swoop it in the air and run under it).
On the playground, there were the monkey bars placed with shockingly little foresight over cement, where both I and one of my best friends – on separate occasions- fell and were immediately sent home so our parents could figure out where all the blood was coming from.
The best swings were down by the kindergarten room. We were convinced that if we swung at full speed and jumped out with the perfect trajectory that we could land on its low roof. They had to create a rule against jumping from the swings, which only made us more convinced that the roof was a magical landing pad.
Traveling the long stretch, you see the windows that my buddies and I soaped one Halloween. It was my first act of open rebellion and I expected the whole school to be talking about it the next day. Unlucky for me, the janitor had already been taught that soap washes off.
Over by the middle grades, the L-shaped building jutted out, and in the fall so many leaves accumulated along that wind tunnel that on the best recesses you’d hear gleeful cries of, “Tornado!” and flocks of kids would come running to play in the swirling leaves.
Just beside that nook are the bathrooms where we primped as teenagers during every dance, set in the little gym. You had to look your best to score a slow dance on the free-throw line, of course. And the slow dances were the true test of whether you’d had a fun time; this being the 80s, the rest of the night was spent trying to dance to “Money for Nothin'” and “Panama,” which I’m telling you simply cannot be done. Thinking back, we’d have probably had a better time if they’d just opened the rubber ball closet.
Circling a bit more, you see the cafeteria and the permanent trail in the grass tramped down by junior high kids racing to get in line. By our sophomore year, we’d saunter along, laughing at the naïve kids who still believed there was anything in that cafeteria worth hurrying for.
They’ve torn out the swimming pool now, but since they’ve never done anything else with that space you can still visualize it there – the kids’ wading pool, the single diving board by the deep end, and the hard-pebbled outside court where older girls went to tan. I can still hear the squeals ricocheting down the long hall (because it is physically impossible for a grade-school kid to enter any temperature of water without making that “Eeeeee!” squeal). And right in the center of it all sat the grumpy lifeguard on his high chair, trying fruitlessly to convince a hundred kids to, “Quit horsing around!”
There are more stories to be told inside the buildings, of course, but to me, the best spot on campus is the one I just described: on the edge of the football grounds and the playground, exactly one toe out-of-bounds for the grade-school kids, but traveled every single day by the teens.
And if I stand there and squint, waaaay off into the distance, along the back border where it seemed even the guy who mowed the lawn would forget it was still a part of school grounds, I can still make out a tiny hole beneath the fence, like a rabbit warren. Back in the 70s, a couple of industrious – and apparently very skinny – young girls widened that just enough to shimmy through. The entire school compound is only .05 square miles, but I scrambled through that shortcut every chance I could, so eager to get to the excitement ahead.