There was a hawk sitting on the window air conditioner, three stories up. There was me. But otherwise the place was dead.I kind of figured there’d be a lot of liquor bottles, but mostly the empties had held water or pop. Westport Junior High has been closed for a year. Across the street is Westport High, a place much mourned at its closing. I didn’t hear much about the junior high. It’s a red brick building with plenty of architectural flourishes. Bold, proud ionic columns on each side of the main door, and those curls like Hawaiian surfing waves roaring over it. At some point, they built a clumsy-looking parking garage to the west of the main building, and a bridge from one structure to the other, about three stories up.
I walked around the whole place. Imagining a kid getting pushed down the steps. Kids screaming and waving down at people below from the bridge to the parking garage. Kids walking around there in the worst state of their bodies, in the worst moods of their lives, enduring the worst social traumas. In the back, there’s a long, paved strip of blacktop, only one runner’s lane wide, that looks like it might loop around the field back there. It doesn’t. It just stops.
The school where I work is much plainer. It’s also red brick, but our only decorative features are a few images around the front door: an oil lamp, an open book, some Latin that I don’t know what it means. Inside, we have the empty niches where saints and Jesuses used to preside. There are still crosses embedded above them. Once a kid was perched up there during passing period, and I didn’t think that was such a great idea, so I said, “Do you know who used to sit there?” He looked up at the cross. “Oh.” “So maybe you don’t belong there.” He smiled and got down.
In places, it’s crumbly, but our school is alive. I went by today to pick something up, and the voices of the students are, as always, scampering around and bouncing up new expressions. There’s usually someone in the garden, picking collard greens– a kid who doesn’t want to be at home and couldn’t get a summer job. In the library, there are kids gossiping about what happened at a party last weekend, and what someone said on facebook. The summer school kids burst out at 12:30 and zip in to bug the library kids. There’s football weight lifting and volleyball practice and cheerleading practice and open gym and people coming in to pick up bags of produce from the garden for tonight’s dinner.
I love schools, places where people were vulnerable, and places where they changed, for good or for ill. At my school, I know the stories: my mother, my aunts and uncles, my friends, friends of friends, people who only exist in stories that I pass along over pitchers of beer– they’ve given the walls character, and it pleases me to see it still so alive. We don’t need perfect schools in the inner city. We just need schools that are healthy enough spots for kids to grow.