I return to the neighborhood where I grew up at least once a week to tutor high school students in math. The area has changed more than a bit since I once walked the short blocks from my home to the high school that I attended. I suspect that only a few if any of the people who once lived there are still around. It was a working middle class suburb back in the day with a mix of blue collar types and professionals. The entire subdivision centered on the Catholic Church and school that most of us attended. There were other denominations and public institutions as well but Mt. Carmel was the main attraction. Everybody knew everybody and the community spirit was probably the best aspect of living there. It’s not an exaggeration to boast that it was heaven on earth for kids.
Our parents were quite active in providing us with a faith filled life, a great education and lots of after school activities. There was always something wonderful happening and the whole neighborhood felt like a combination of “Leave It To Beaver” land and an episode of “The Wonder Years.” My mother was quite wise to find us a home there after my father died. Our little place provided us with a sense of stability as we were growing up as well as hours of fun.
Of course things never seem to stay the same. Once I was grown and gone the whole area began to change as the old timers moved to newer homes in newer parts of town or to land they had purchased for retirement. It was just never quite the same. The new folks who moved in stayed mostly to themselves and my mother lost her sense of security. Her home was burglarized so many times that on the last break-in the thieves left without taking anything. We joked that we were surprised that they didn’t feel sorry for her and leave something behind. All of her valuables were long gone. Because she was alone and no longer had old friends on whom to depend nearby she became more and more frightened. Each time that she came home to discover an invasion of her property she was less and less willing to stay in the place where we had all shared so many memories. She decided to sell.
It was truly a shame because she had managed to pay for the house in full. She enjoyed having the extra income to make repairs and purchase a luxury now and again. Because the area had generally deteriorated, at least on our street, she was unable to get a good price for the place. Essentially she had to start all over again making payments on a home that was little better but at least felt more safe. It stretched her already small income to the breaking point but she was always optimistic, believing that the good Lord would work things out, and somehow He always did.
I don’t think that Mama ever went back to see how our old homestead was doing which was actually for the best. The people who bought it did little to keep it in good condition. By the time that I finally drove by a few years back it was a sad broken down property. The roof was sagging and it looked as though it hadn’t been painted since the last time that Mama and me and my brothers had put a fresh coat on it. Mama had always taken pride in having a nice garden and had planted trees, bushes and flowers over the years. Literally all of that was gone. There wasn’t even much grass growing in the yard. It was stark and ugly in the saddest imaginable way. It literally hurt to see it like that. I couldn’t decide whether to be angry or just to cry.
I haven’t dared to go back again. I really don’t even like to think about how battered and neglected the house looks. I drive to my tutoring sessions from a direction that doesn’t take me near the old place. That way I keep only the positive memories of my youth that were so delightful. I picture our home at its best when it represented love and safety.
On sunny days when the temperature isn’t too hot there is a certain kind of breeze in the neighborhood that gives me a strong sense of deja vu. I can close my eyes and listen to the planes flying overhead as they approach nearby Hobby Airport and feel transported back to a time when the subdivision and the school were among the best in town. The sounds of the birds are just like they were when I was a kid and I can almost hear all of the old neighbors laughing and living inside their homes at a time when people still left their windows open and their doors unlocked. For a moment I find myself believing that they are all still there and that I might go see them after finishing my tutoring, but then something always stirs me back to reality and I remember.
The school where I was once a student has a new name now. It used to be Mt. Carmel but the Carmelites and the School Sisters of Notre Dame left and over time there wasn’t enough interest or financial help to keep things afloat. The school began to operate in the red without enough students or help from the diocese and finally was forced to close its doors. It was threatened with destruction until the Jesuits purchased the property and renovated the inside, creating a whole new high school called Cristo Rey. They brought in wealthy individuals willing to help support the education of students who might not otherwise have the privilege of an exceptional private school education. I now tutor some of those same kids and I have to admit that I am quite impressed with how well the hard working teachers and administrators have revitalized things for them.
It sometimes feels quite strange to be back in my old school fifty years after graduating. I tell my tutees about my own adventures there and they stare back at me as though I have two heads. I suspect that it is difficult for them to imagine an old lady like me as a young person with all of the same hopes and dreams that they have. I somehow feel that I am supposed to be there helping them. I have a deep connection and respect for the history of all of the wonderful things that happened inside those walls over the years. So many lives have changed for the better in the classrooms and the laboratories. I feel the spirit of all of us who launched our own lives there with the knowledge and confidence that we developed under the guidance of teachers and parents who truly cared about us.
As I walk through the hallways toward the library where I once devoured the words from books that opened whole new worlds to me I see the newest students experiencing the same emotions of joy and fear and discovery that were once mine. I know that we are somehow brethren. Some things like the freedom and wisdom and growth that come with knowledge never change. Whether they realize it or not those young men and women are part of the same long red thread of learning that wove through my mind so many years ago. We are bound together and no matter how different the world may become that red brick edifice will always represent the everlasting power and beauty of education.