*It was the kind of cold sweat that would prompt the James Brown estate to consider suing for copyright infringement. I woke up wringing wet, having dreamed that I wasn’t really an adult, but still a teenager attending grade school.
Talk about scary. Because from my first crying day of kindergarten to the euphoric final week of my senior year, I pretty much hated school. I know people who treasured the experience. God bless ’em. For me, shy, gangly and introverted, it was twelve largely horrific years of first-day-of-school blues.
There was that haunting, first-day new-paint smell; the ill-fitting new jeans that looked like new jeans; the heartbreaking peer pressure; me training my digestive system not to even THINK of doing the number two during school hours; no girlfriends (at least none who’d been informed), no dances and no proms, all while I sought to achieve some measure of dominance among the brand X kids. It was terrible.
So elated was I to be leaving school that when the lovingly cantankerous Mr. Harris, Douglass High’s counselor, summoned me into his office to inform me that I’d march with my class all right but with a D average, for his sake I feigned distraught.
In my mind, in front of that D, I put a Ph; as far as I was concerned, I’d just earned a degree in Bullshit, having officially conned my way out of the Oklahoma City public school system.
However, for all the classes I didn’t attend, I loved the schools. I literally mean the buildings themselves.
That’s because the schools of my childhood were not merely buildings, but temples of social and cultural change. During the transformative 1960s and 1970s, it was a formal education, not show business or professional sports, that was considered the premiere gateway to fairness and prosperity for blacks. Black leaders not only emphasized the power of an education, but had marched and fought for the privilege I was determined to squander.
In a white neighborhood, school was where kids went for an education; for the Black American, school was not simply a place to learn but to earn equality as a human being. I’d later come to understand these things, but in the beginning, if I absolutely had to go to school, I’d take emotional refuge in the structures themselves.
The three schools I attended, like most of the schools on the city’s predominantly black side, were named after iconic black figures. Douglass High was named in honor of legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass. F.D. Moon Jr. High, named after the local educator.
However, it was the first school I ever attended, Carter G. Woodson Elementary, that forever imprinted in my psyche the standard for what a school should physically be. Located at Sixth and High Streets, the massive, stately red brick building named in honor of the historian of Black America occupied a neighborhood block.
I first stepped into Woodson’s hallowed halls in 1959, at the tender age of four. I wailed when Mama left me in Miss Garner’s Kindergarten class. But that day would christen my sentimental alliance with a building that would endure a lifetime.
Woodson was vast. There was a huge auditorium, a large, well-equipped gymnasium; an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool and on the first floor, a cafeteria with an industrial kitchen where women in white uniforms and hair nets dutifully turned out delicious, dinner-worthy lunches and a variety of desserts, including the almighty butter cookie.
To my emotions, Woodson became a breathing, overseeing entity–a feeling personified by the fact that my family lived right across the street from it. Even so, once inside the school, I was a world away. Indeed, Woodson would hone many a child’s initial sense of independence, since it was the first place in the whole wide world we were allowed to go on our own.
During my years at Woodson–in the mornings before class, after lunch or at school day’s end–I explored the building, beckoned by nooks and crannies that no one seemed to know or care about: the darkened backstage area of the auditorium; the cozy furnace room in the basement, a seldom-used majestic outdoor doorway. More than once, class would begin and end with me in one of my hideaways, daydreaming, always waiting for a student, teacher or janitor to stumble upon me. They never did.
It was at Woodson that I experienced events that would shape America and the world. Televisions in every classroom carried the live coverage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic August 1963 March on Washington. I didn’t quite know what it meant, but I was grateful that it interfered with class work. I was in Miss Walker’s class later that year in November when we learned the terrible news of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. And of course, at school I shared my fervent love for the Beatles with anyone who’d listen.
More than the neighborhood school, Woodson was the community patriarch, its grounds serving as our playground during the weekends and, when tornadoes threatened, the facility the city said it would open up after hours if the locals needed shelter.
When I went to the seventh grade, I was nervous but excited about attending nearby F.D. Moon Jr. High. However, at Woodson I left a part of me behind–remnants of which I went in search of more than fifty years later when I visited Oklahoma City this past summer.
The neighborhood of my youth is all but gone, the heart of a community heartlessly obliterated in the mid-’60s by a city-appointed urban renewal that never happened.
Woodson still stands, but that is all it does. Empty, boarded up, vandalized, written and painted upon, it was neglected like a 20th century relic whose services haven’t been required in years.
Steering the rented silver Ford Focus through my tears, twice I slowly circled the school before noticing, in the building’s shadow, a realty sign. It was an odd vision–imagine a for sale sign in front of the Pyramids. Or at the foot of the bed of a loving but hopelessly ailing grandparent. I wanted to wrap my arms around the building and give it a hug, but it was too big. Unlike most places and things that aren’t as big as you remembered them as a child, Woodson is still a massive structure.
Maybe I didn’t hate school as much as I say I did.
Today I think of kids headed back to school–and the shameful budget cuts, the filthy restrooms, sad excuses for nutritious meals and the soaring drop out rates–and wish they knew a place like my childhood Woodson. There I learned how to talk, how to make friends and yes, how to hide. Emotions were formed, desires took root. That place, left to die, is where my life began.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].