The attack when it came was in direct relation to the old school. That much I understand. It’s the rest that eludes me, the reason memory puckishly glimmers away the years as if they were no more substantial than a dream, leaving me adrift in a moment of time long since forgotten, but only for a brief moment, and with a fractured, imperfect recollection that leaves me weak-kneed and yearning for more.
But for now we stood in an icy wind, complaining vigorously of the worsening conditions, the sullen clouds, the battering gusts, the cold. We walked across a muddy road onto short-cropped grass studded with the season’s first dandelions and hunkered in the lee of the building. Sheltered from the wind, the sudden silence rushed in like a shout. Opposite us, across barren gray fields as yet untouched by spring, a small group of bison ambled from behind a stand of cedars, their coats shaggy and worn, as darkling as the trees. A stone’s throw away two narrow roads converged, rough scrapes luminous in the waning light. I turned to the door and tried the knob, and finding it unlocked entered into a tiny foyer. It was like stepping back in time.
I have no experience in this other than the stories I’ve heard or read: a clapboard single-room schoolhouse alone on a prairie swell, kids of varying ages arranged in front with stern-faced teachers flanking them like jailhouse guards, the boys in denim overalls, the girls in skirts, the requisite pair of single-holers tucked away behind, a horse or two staked to the grass. It’s an iconic image of where prairie people began, of an era when the land was freckled with small towns, smaller farms and larger families, when Americans were connected to the soil in a way that will never be again. And now these neglected remnants stare hollowly out on empty fields stretching unbroken to the edge of the world.
Beyond the foyer the main room opened up. Rows of scarred desks led to a raised platform where the teacher’s heavy oak desk loomed ominously. Stretching the length of the back a green slate waited endlessly for the scrape of chalk. Above it a narrow banner spelled out the letters of the alphabet in a fine cursive script the likes of which has passed from existence. From the ceiling a globe dangled on a rope and pulley. Low benches ran the length of the sides. A piano stood in a corner. The flag mounted high on the wall held thirteen stripes, forty-eight stars.
Thus our abandoned history. It would a mistake to imagine this as a more innocent time, for not all was innocence—the numerous small headstones in the adjoined cemetery whitened the grass like lethal toadstools, reminders that life then was often hard, brutal and short.
One long shaft of light ran the length of the platform and up the side of the desk. Wood grain standing out like ridges of a fingertip seemed to emphasize the long decades of disuse. I snapped the camera to the tripod and framed the shot. This was why we had come, to capture some of time’s essence, and though the storm raged outside, here was a quiet calm that bespoke of long years of waiting.
Several days later I experienced one of those memory attacks where between the inhale and exhale I go from now to elsewhere. One heartbeat I’m sweeping the floor, the next I’m entering a schoolroom and freezing in midstep. Other kids jostle me as I gape at the neatly-arranged seats, the posters lining the walls, the windows slatted with wide ivory blinds, the expectant chalkboard. Nervous energy humming through my body, tense and scared from facing a new class.
At first I thought this was merely a recollection of someplace else—the yeshiva just off Sheridan and Colfax in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish section in Denver, where I occasionally worked on their burglar alarm, but I realized my angle of view was all wrong. I was seeing the room from a perspective unfamiliar to adults, lower, at a child’s height. So the memory was true, if not impossible to trace back to a specific place and time.
One of the biggest surprises was the smell associated with the schoolroom. Impossible to describe now—its tantalizing brevity was as pungent as it was ephemeral—it nevertheless proved the sudden time shift. Scent is the truest form of memory.
(But why the yeshiva? Was there a shadow where no shadow should be, as if I were in two places at once and the images juxtaposed haphazardly? Again, in a dark hall I paused in a doorway to a darker room where a blocky commercial refrigerator hummed softly and unfamiliar smells cloyed the air. My ears strained for the sound of movement. As I paused, I ran a finger across the surface of a scrolled mezuzah affixed to the doorjamb, lightly tracing the name of God. Yes, I was there, too.)
These disjointed memories are like light falling in empty rooms. Sometimes intense and hard-edged, merciless like a honed blade, at other times soft and forgiving, less illumination than a drapery of luminescence turning the years translucent, through which the past can be dimly discerned but never fully realized.
The years come and go, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’re allowed to go back. Maybe not for long, and maybe with imperfect results, and maybe even to several junctures simultaneously, confusing though that is. Though each of these instances turns me inside out, leaves me momentarily shattered and weak, in the end the past is all we have. I’d rather remember than forget.