Sunday, June 14, 2009

Memory Images

Those who know me say I have an uncanny memory for details. They are amazed at what I can recall about places we’ve been and things we’ve done, things they’d forgotten which start to come back to them as we reminisce together. Because writers tend to be reflective people by nature, details simply become deeply ingrained by revisiting them in thought, so that they become nearly photographic – memory images.

A particular place that stands out for me as a memory image is the rural three-room school where I began my education in the early 1960s. At New Fairview Elementary we had two grades per classroom, three teachers and approximately 75 students in the entire school. There were weekly visits by a school nurse, a music teacher who arrived carrying an autoharp to accompany the songs she taught us, and a band teacher who gave lessons to those in the fifth and sixth grade who chose to take up a musical instrument. Two of the friends I made at New Fairview, on my first day of first grade, still remain my closest friends.

I have many memory images from New Fairview, but no actual photographs from those days except for the usual student portraits taken when a local photographer visited each year. When I was in the second grade, my mother allowed me to take her Kodak Brownie camera to school so that I could take a picture of my classmates on the playground. The teacher marched our entire classroom of first- and second-graders outside before recess to pose as a group for my picture against the school’s brick wall where we normally played dodge ball. However, that roll of film was never developed and I lost track of what happened to it. The roll had been put away in the drawer of a kitchen cupboard for when there would be enough extra money to take it to the drugstore for processing on one of our weekly trips to town. I imagine the film got shoved to the back of the drawer over time and was forgotten, and then eventually discarded.

From time to time I revisit the old school building, which has been converted for use in recent years as a community center. A municipal maintenance building has been built beside it on what was once a big yard where we played Red Rover and Prisoner’s Base, and road maintenance equipment is now stored on what was once the old macadam playground where we played hopscotch and jumping rope and marbles.

The last time I was inside the building I was amazed at what remained intact there: blackboards, cloak closets with coat hooks mounted low for a child’s reach, an old janitor’s ladder still leaning against the wall behind a door to the basement stairs. At the front of the first-and-second-grade classroom still hung a portrait of George Washington, and still tacked above the blackboard was a row of faded green placards with the alphabet printed in white lettering: A a, B b, C c.

You can’t really photograph what’s no longer there. It has no resonance unless there is a large collective memory to witness and attach meaning to what is missing. The collective memory for New Fairview was a very small pool to begin with, and is rapidly dwindling since the last class to enter first grade there is now nearing age 50. Nonetheless, I’m drawn back to that building from time to time to see what has changed, to gaze at the cupola and weather vane atop the roof, though it’s doubtful that weather vane is still a valid indicator of which direction the wind blows. Yet I stare at it and photograph it as though it holds answers for some quiz I have yet to take.

New Fairview was closed at the end of my fourth grade year, when we were bused to the town school where there were three separate classrooms for fifth graders alone, and where we were split up according to some sort of ranking system based on test scores, achievement, and “potential” (with that third category seeming to have vague socioeconomic shadings associated with it). I’ve always felt that something was taken away from us when our school was closed. What had been deemed “underprivileged” by those in power had in reality been a very positive and nurturing environment.

A vintage photograph of my classmates on the playground would be priceless to me now. I can almost see the glossy black-and-white deckle-edged snapshot that might have been. Instead I’ll have to rely on my memory of those days at New Fairview – memory images that are oddly often also in shades of gray. That school has become one of the settings in the novel I’m writing, although for the purposes of the story I’ve moved it to a different state and filled it with fictional characters. It is words on the page that will have to capture the essence of that place of the past as photographs no longer can, the fictional story holding deeper truths that go beyond the late afternoon shadow of a weather vane on a tiny rural playground, beyond memory, in a new direction.