*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 from a dream, no doubt brought on by all the back-to-school TV commercials of late and chatter from friends with kids.
I dreamed I was a teenager on my way back to grade school.
Which was a nightmare, because 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–few dances and no proms, all while I sought to achieve some measure of dominance among the brand X kids. It was terrible.
By twelfth grade, when informed by my senior class counselor that I’d graduate with a D average, I feigned distraught. In my mind, in front of that D, I added 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 buildings themselves.
The first school I ever went to, Carter G. Woodson Elementary–named after the black historian and author—forever imprinted in my psyche the standard for what a public school should physically be.
The massive, stately red brick building on Oklahoma City’s then predominantly black east side–its main entrance at Sixth and High Street–occupied a neighborhood block.
I first stepped into Woodson’s hallowed halls in 1959, at the tender, impressionable age of four. I wailed until I hiccupped when Mama left me in Miss Garner’s Kindergarten class. But that day christened 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 of four floors, 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 young 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. Woodson honed 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 sometimes when I was supposed to be in class–I’d explore 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, or the seldom-used, majestic doorway of an uncommon building exit.
Too often, class would begin and end with me in one of my hideaways, daydreaming about toys I wanted or the Beatles or super heroes or simply how things work in life, always alert for a teacher, janitor or student to stumble upon me. They never did.
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 that the city said it would open up after hours if the locals needed shelter.
It was at Woodson that I experienced iconic, cerebral 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 and the terrible news later that year of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
Over all else, despite my disdain of most of my studies and the process, it was at Woodson that it was first instilled in me–as it was in every black American during the transformative 1960s and ’70s–what school truly meant to the black American.
Indeed, it was a formal education, not show business or professional sports, that was considered the premiere gateway to fairness and prosperity for blacks. In a white neighborhood, school was where kids went for an education; for the Black American, upon the back of a formal education rested the whole of his or her equality as a human being.
Which was ironic, since black students were taught that to be “equal” with whites, we couldn’t simply be as good; we had to be better. This, we were told, is how we’d be judged out in the world. My teachers were right.
The Oklahoma City neighborhood of my youth is all but gone, heartlessly obliterated in the mid-’60s by a city-appointed urban renewal that never happened.
More than 50 years since I first entered it, Woodson Elementary still stands. But that is all it does. Empty, boarded up, vandalized, written and painted upon, it has been neglected like a 20th century relic whose services haven’t been required in years.
Anytime I go home, I drive by the building. Last time, this past summer, I noticed a realty placard. 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 you remembered them as a child, Woodson is giant. That place, left to die, is where my life began.
Today, I think of kids headed back to school–to the shameful budget cuts, the filthy restrooms, sad excuses for nutritious meals, the soaring drop out rates and those teachers who sexually prey upon them–and wish they knew a place like my childhood Woodson.
There, I learned how to talk, how to make friends, how to respect my elders. I actually got some book smarts when I allowed it. Emotions were formed, desires took root. Maybe I didn’t hate school so much after all.
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]
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