I keep having bouts of deja vu as I work at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. The building is different from when I went to school there and yet it is not. The neighborhood is filled with people that I have never met and still it is so familiar. It is a strange feeling to return to the place where I once received the foundations of my education now that I am a teacher.
As I walk through the hallways the speckled brown, white, orange, and black terrazzo floor gleams as though it had been laid down only yesterday. It still has the same smell of wax and paper and books that it had when I was a teenager navigating my way from class to class. The old lockers are gone, the windows are solid and sealed to accommodate the air conditioning and carpet softens the feel of the classrooms but otherwise little has changed. I can name almost every place where I once sat learning mathematics, science, English and languages. In my mind all of my classmates are still young and yet when I see their images on Facebook they appear to be more like their parents than the people that I knew in my teens.
I can walk to the exact spot where my locker once was but now there is only brick where I used to store my belongings. I remember hating that tiny storage unit because it never seemed capable of holding everything that I tried to cram inside. I realize now that it was actually more than adequate and that the school itself was an exemplar of modernity. Many of the present day teachers marvel at the forward looking aspects of the building and find it difficult to believe that the labs were built so long ago because it took very little effort to bring them up to date. The educators who guide the students now cannot imagine what the neighborhood was once like but they comment on the potential that they see in the homes. When I tell them that there were once grocery stores, restaurants, bowling alleys, and other conveniences within walking distance of the school they find it difficult to picture.
When I was growing up on Belmark Street a girl who lived in the house behind ours was learning to play the clarinet. Her mother made her practice outside in the back yard, so we heard her progression from beginner to master of the instrument. Now each time I visit Cristo Rey there is someone in a house across the street from the school who is also learning how to play the clarinet. Whoever it is practices in the afternoon and when I hear it I can almost close my eyes and be back in a time that was fifty years ago. If I don’t look around at the reality of today I can feel the same breezes and smell the same perfume from the flowers in people’s yards that were there so long ago.
I’ve driven all over the neighborhood and I am still able to recall who lived in so many of the houses. I remember driving to church on Sundays with the streets crowded with parishioners from our church. I often wondered what the residents thought of all of the traffic so near their homes. I suppose that they didn’t mind because they made little or no effort to either complain or move away.
The cafeteria windows of the high school are now covered with burglar bars and the back and sides of the school are surrounded with a high chain link fence topped off with concertina wire. The front is ringed with a more decorative wrought iron enclosure. The teachers are astounded when I tell them that there were no barricades in the past because now there are even special gates across the doors to the stairways that allow only those with a key to enter from outside. Everything was so open and inviting when I went to school there. People were just not worried about theft or violence back then. In fact, I don’t remember locking the doors on our home except in the evening before we went to bed. I suppose that it made little difference to batten down the hatches because we slept with all of the windows open since we had no air conditioning. Anyone who really wanted to would have been able to get inside without much effort and yet I don’t recall ever being afraid that such a thing would happen.
I’ve gained a great deal of unearned “street cred” by revealing to the students that I once lived so close by the school and that I used to walk everywhere, even as far away as Gulfgate. They gaze on me with amazement and a bit incredulously as if they actually believe that I was somehow the bravest young woman ever. They little realize how calm and serene the area was back then.
I often wonder if the old places will ever witness a renaissance. For now it seems unlikely. With the exception of the church and the high school it is almost as though the entire city has forgotten the glory that was once so present all around the school. The esplanades are filled with weeds. The retail establishments have been torn down or abandoned. Used car lots stand where once there were homes and yet there are still places that are as lovely as they ever were. Many people still seem to take pride in their yards and some of the houses look as though they have new roofs and paint.
The home where my family lived when my father was still alive appears to be as strong as it was when we moved into its brand new rooms. The sidewalk that Daddy built is as sturdy as he predicted it would be. The place where the Barry family lived is quite pretty even to this day. I suppose that these are the kind of places that show potential to the young teachers who never knew Overbrook or Garden Villas when they were vibrant and filled with young families.
The football fields from the grade school and the high school still host games of all sorts but the preferred sports today are soccer and baseball. The gym is often filled with the sounds of exciting basketball games but there are only half as many bleachers as there once were. The old stage has been dismantled and the cafeteria looks more like a cute bistro with its metal tables and chairs where small groups of students gather. If only those bars weren’t on the windows to tell a tale of crime and fear it might appear that the school is in a quaint suburb.
I have been told that few of the students at Cristo Rey actually come from the neighborhood which is a shame. It would be great if more of the locals benefitted from the superb educational opportunities that are within walking distance of their homes. The students who are there remind me so much of the kids that went to school with me. They are mostly of different ethnicities and economic groups but they are nonetheless fairly typical teenagers with hopes and dreams and anxieties and all of those things that we experienced so long ago.
Next month some of the people from my class will be meeting to begin plans for our fiftieth class reunion. It seems impossible that it has already been so long since we were the young ones walking and talking and laughing inside that old building. It has somehow survived the blows of weather and age and even some neglect which is more than I can say for the house where I once lived. Unfortunately some of our old friends are already gone and many of us who are still around sport gray hair, wrinkles, and thicker waists. We’ve also become wiser and we have a better idea of what is important and how to love.
We received a great education inside our homes Mt. Carmel High School. Sometimes if I quiet the noises I can almost hear the sounds of yesteryear when a whole lifetime still lay ahead. Now I am just the old lady who comes to help make sense of Algebra and Geometry. As I stand in one of the upstairs classrooms explaining slope and how to find an equation from two sets of points it seems impossible that so much time has passed since I listened to Father Franklin and Mr. Maroney. They prepared us for careers in teaching, engineering, architecture, business, shipping, social work, medicine, raising a family and so many other endeavors. For the most part everyone that I have encountered who once went to Mt. Carmel High School has been successful as an adult. We’ve been guided by the faith and the foundations that still whisper in that old building that has withstood so much over time only to rise again to serve a new group of students.
At first going back to the old school was heartbreaking but I have learned that wonderful things are still happening there. I am content that the magic that we once felt is alive and well in those halls and it does my heart good to know that the story of that place goes on and that I have been able to play a tiny part in keeping alive the promise of what it has always represented to the community. I generally prefer looking forward to looking back but I also treasure what that whole neighborhood meant to me and to my family. I’m grateful for the opportunities that opened up to me because of the exceptional education that I received. I pray that today’s students will be as fortunate as I once was. Their lovely school is still very much a center of wisdom and hope just as mine was nearly fifty years ago.