Raze the Roof
Treading the unsteady ground of our memories
The grocery store around the corner from my place here in Haarlem now sells White Claw. Have you heard of this “hard seltzer” stuff? Just kidding. Of course you have. Things sometimes take awhile to make their way over here, and probably, we’re all the better for it. But I’ve cracked a can this Sunday afternoon to start getting myself in the zone for my upcoming trip to the motherland next month. I haven’t been back to the States in more than two years! What’d I miss?!
All things considered, and especially with the past 18-ish months of confinement we’ve all experienced, two or three years isn’t really that long to have been away. I know people who haven’t been home in a decade or more. People who can’t go home, or maybe wouldn’t even want to.
It’s a tricky thing, facing the friction of the ways that you’ve changed against the ways the places you’re from have changed. Even if you expect it, you’re never quite prepared for it. It’s almost offensive: why wasn’t I consulted! Of course, my gut says that it’s more than just my favorite haunts that have turned over. That it’s a feeling, an attitude, a vibe. A sea change. Imprecise, but palpable. But something has shifted in me, too. Can we pick up where we left off? Could we start again please?
The door I walked in every day for four years, image sourced from an unfortunate article in the NYT profiling my high school’s most embarrassing alumni and New Britain’s hometown shame, Paul Manafort.
My high school is about to be demolished.
Razed is the better word: "destroyed to the ground."
In sixth grade, I was in the final round of the city spelling bee. One word determined whether it'd be me or Sacred Heart's Barbara Stanek (you bet your ass I remember her name) going to the state event. The word was "raze."
It couldn't be, I thought. Way too easy. Were they serious?
"Can you use it in a sentence?" I asked, just to be sure.
"To raze a building."
"Raise. R-A-I-S-E. Raise."
"I'm sorry, that's incorrect. It's R-A-Z-E. I'm sorry. Good try. Congratulations Barbara!"
I'd never heard the word before, and I think we can all agree that their example was more than a little misleading. But just like the name of my spelling nemesis, I've never forgotten this word and its meaning.
It's such a violent image, razing, a picture of scorched earth, of leaving no trace. Like what was there had never existed. It also feels instantaneous, a single powerful dynamite blast is all it takes. When the dust cloud dissipates, poof, a magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't.
Demolishing, on the other hand, almost sounds like relishing, the satisfaction of swinging a wrecking ball, pummeling again and again until every wall is reduced to a pile of rubble. The destruction is exhilarating, a feeling to be savored.
The building has actually been abandoned for maybe twenty years by now. The last graduating class was 1999. For a short time after, it housed a charter school, but then that shut down, too. It was an old building, crumbling and dilapidated even when I was a student, from 1991-95. In the fourth-floor classrooms, chunks of spongy ceiling tile would drop onto our desks when it rained. The chemistry lab was tucked in the farthest corner of the basement, ventilated by a single fan that sometimes pointed inward. The glass panes of the massive windows looking out onto leafy Sheffield Street were pocked with spidery BB-gunshots, and their wooden frames flaked with a full generations’ scabs of lead paint.
Every so often, someone would break into the building and then post a video of exploring the ruins like it was some haunted asylum, edited with dramatic music and whispery voiceovers: ooh look over here, a shelf of geography textbooks crashed into a moldering pile. Hey, is this the janitor's closet? There's a bed in here! Lit by headlamps, a whole roomful of desks and chairs, aluminum frames twisted and disjointed and tossed into unceremonious heaps like a boneyard. Shredded notebooks, broken glass, graffiti tags, a whole collapsed ceiling. It was heartbreaking. It was inevitable.
I could picture myself in the building. The side entrance where my mom dropped me off every day. The imposing carved wooden front door and stained glass. The principal's office, upholstered in 70's burnt oranges and browns, where I'd pop in for early morning chats with the formidable Mrs. Greco, leather-tanned as her chair, with her quiff of lightning-white hair and a steely gaze. The stairs connecting the "new" part of the building–the 200s corridor, my French classroom, Ms. Ponte's art studio. The music room, a windowed mezzanine overlooking the gym, where I once found a copy of "Blonde on Blonde" and spent an afternoon copying the lyrics into a notebook. I could see it all so clearly. I knew every inch of that place.
Over the past few weeks, former classmates have been posting endless streams of old pictures of their teenage selves in an alumni Facebook group. There they are, goofing around in the cafeteria, in front of lockers, in the dark hallways. Mugging for the camera, rubber-band limbs draped over each other's shoulders; smooth, unworried faces framed with flash-bulb halos, luminescent as child-saints.
I look for a trace of myself in these pictures, but I'm never there, not even captured by accident, either in the background or on the periphery. I don't have a place in these memories. They're not mine to reflect on.
High school was neither the best nor the worst time of my life. If anything, I'd describe it as a liminal space, something in between. I was just on my way somewhere else. I was focused on looking ahead instead of looking around. In a way, I guess I took the whole experience for granted, but I don't regret it. I don't feel maudlin. I had a few good friends, some truly amazing teachers, and received a great education. High school didn't break me, but it didn't make me, either.
There's no way to say this without sounding kind of smug and aloof, but I always had the sense that I was different than the other people in my school. It wasn't a matter of feeling superior. I just felt different, with different ideas and different ambitions, and I knew that the kind of different I was would find its home elsewhere in the world. I thought the stuff I was into was cool, and I didn't care if the kids in my school agreed or not. Ultimately their opinion about what was or wasn't cool didn't even register for me.
There was only really one kid who teased me, and it was because I once wore vintage bellbottoms on a jeans day. He'd shout, "Hey Woodstock" at me in the halls and I could not give less of a fuck. I think my rejection of his attempts to wind me up made him more aggressive about it, but I remained unfazed. Also, he was rumored to have put his cat in a microwave.
There were times when I felt lonely and dejected. There were times when I was frustrated by my inability to connect with my peers. But I found my people through going to ska and punk shows, through my penpals and zines. People who felt different from the kids in their schools, too. Weirdos, misfits, loners, geeks, sure, but mostly kids who chose being themselves over fitting in. Kids who left and never looked back.
Time makes you bolder
Even children get older. And I'm getting older too.