For each one of us, there are places in our lives that hold great significance. Maybe it is the place where you were married, the elementary school you attended, the house you grew up in, the hospital where you had to say goodbye to a loved one, or the roller rink where you had your first kiss. These are places that matter in the personal narrative of an individual life. They are existentially important.
But the nature of things is that things never stay the same, and over time, these structures in which our important events happened go away. Some burn down, some fall into neglect and disrepair, some are repurposed, and some, like the L-wing of Temple High School, are demolished to make room for something new.
While the narrative that follows might not be personally meaningful to many readers, I would like to argue that the underlying issue is.
Matter and Spirit
The L-wing was a 16-room, stand-alone building that sat on the backside of Temple High School. Two of those classrooms had an exterior entrance. No one is quite sure why it was called the L-wing. Its layout consisted of two hallways connected at the end by another short hallway, so at least in relation to shape, it should have been called the U-wing, but these are the funny kind of facts that give buildings such as the L-wing personality.
And speaking of personality, the L-wing had plenty of it. In order to get to the L-wing from the main building, you walked on a sidewalk until the school finally built a fully enclosed aluminum tunnel around the sidewalk. This protected students from the rain but made for oven-like walks during the hot months and frigid walks in the winter. The classrooms were small; it was a struggle to fit 28 students into a room. Many animals made their home underneath the L-wing including cats, skunks and opossums. They would greet me each morning as I walked in, then dart into the hole they had dug underneath the foundation.
When it rained heavily, water would puddle up on the floors next to the windows, which of course did damage to the tile and desks. By the end of each school year, the glue that held the floor tiles down typically began to seep up between the cracks requiring an annual scrapping with putty knives. This, along with the water damage, necessitated the frequent replacement of tiles. By the time I left Temple High School, the room I had finished out in had three different patterns of tile, making for a comical, mismatched aesthetic.
There could be much more said about the conditions for the L-wing. By all accounts, it was a dump, but talk with anyone who ever worked in that little building, or the students who were educated in there, and you will have a difficult time finding anything aside from kind words and fond memories.
Since the L-wing was so far removed from the main building, those who worked together shared a palpable camaraderie. As there was a parking lot behind the building, we hardly ever had a reason to go into the main building except for meetings or other small errands; we would just get out of our cars and walk right into the L-wing. In fact, we kind of detested having to go to the main building.
Due to being largely left alone from the politics of the main building, we typically formed our own opinions, and when our strong opinions were forced to interact with the main building politics, it usually did not go well. I always linked us to the state of Alaska; we were part of the United States, but the lower 48 never really paid us much attention, and when they did, they did not understand us, nor did we understand them. We knew how to take care of our business and did not need the involvement of the main building in our affairs, thank you very much. To say that the people who worked in the L-wing was family might be a bit mild. We were clan. We were tribal.
Each person who worked in that building has a story to tell; mine covers a span of 12 years. In a type of second coming-of-age story, when I came to the L-wing, I was a hapless first-year teacher; it is a wonder the school offered to renew my contract for a second year. By the time I left, I was a fairly competent teacher and quasi administrator. None of that was anything I achieved on my own; growth does not happen in isolation. I had a host of caring colleagues who mentored me through those early years. I still consider many of those people a mentor to me.
My 12 years in the L-wing were also a time of personal development. There was indeed a happy ending to all that personal development, but the road to it held dark days. Many of them saw me at my worst, but through it all, these people who I spent 12 years with counseled me, encouraged me, loved me. It is this type of experience that makes a place like the L-wing important. It is experience. It is memory. It is a life lived. I am bonded to those people, not because of matter, not by the bricks and mortar of that building, but because of experience, because of spirit.
A Note Played on the Heart
And now that old dumpy building is gone. Last week, Temple Independent School District tore it down in order to build a new building on the same site, rightfully so and long overdue. Yet emotional attachment remains. Of the many I have conversed with over the past week, students and teachers, all express a sense of loss.
When places of significance no longer physically exists, what do you do about that? We have very deep attachments to physical structures. Even after we have left those structures behind, like a childhood home, we like to go back to them, to visit them. When I return to my home town, I love to drive around and see the old places, especially my elementary school. A wave of memory and disembodied nostalgia washes over me as I pull into the parking lot and look at the front doors of the school or the playground. But when those structures no longer exist, there seems to be a sort of ambiguous loss associated, as if part of your identity has been erased. For instance, a year ago the church in which I grew up burnt down. I can go to that physical place and stand on the patch of earth where it once stood, yet something is missing. It is not like when I visit my old elementary school. Something is different.
I think of that old saying, that a person leaves a part of themselves behind in a place. What is that part of the self we leave behind? Is it true in some metaphysical sense? I never did go back into the L-wing once I took a job in another district. I wish I had. In a way, it was too hard. There was too much power there and I did not feel I could confront it. This is one of the mysteries of experience, the difference between matter and spirit, as if some sort of latent consciousness persists, some psychic residue left behind. Yet something resonates, a note played on heart strings and a harmonizing chord out there in the universe reverberates in response. It is the type of answer that only metaphor can offer. There is nothing objectivity can identify.
The ancient Celtics, and then by extension Christians, spoke of Thin Places, places of mesmerizing location, like the windswept western coast of Ireland. There are other locations like this, lonely places that inspire a kind of inward contemplation. There are other places too where great human trauma was carried out which still possess a haunting kind of atmosphere, like a holocaust camp, or where the Twin Towers fell. We even consecrate some of these types of locations, personally or collectively, making them holy ground. Cannot the house in which you grew up be considered holy ground? Cannot that patch of earth where the L-wing existed also be considered sacred? For the many people who walked through it, teachers and tens of thousands of students? Why not? Though the matter no longer exists, the spirit carries on.
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