That very good place
called school

By Ardra L. Cole*

I drove into the schoolyard and parked immediately beside the front entrance, conscious that I felt more than a little sheepish at this bold move. I was eager to see inside; it had been over thirty years since I left. I pulled open the heavy, wooden door. Entering the building through this main door felt only slightly disorienting. When I was a student, this door was only ever used by staff or visitors; students had to enter through side doors. On Tea and Sale Days or when I helped my mother with school functions were the only times I ever used that door. As I walked up the several worn wooden steps to the main floor my nostrils knew immediately where I was; my other senses fell into line. I continued down the main hallway toward what appeared to be a reception area.

My old elementary school closed its doors for that purpose several years ago and subsequently went through a number of incarnations. Currently it houses a music academy. A portable sign outside, "OLD SCHOOL DESKS FOR SALE, INQUIRE INSIDE", had drawn me in.

Despite the relative emptiness of the building and the mainly cosmetic and minor structural changes to accommodate the new residents, it could have been thirty years ago. I found myself identifying each room, niche, or doorway I passed testing myself on what its purpose or function was when I knew it. I was almost certain that as I passed room 5B I heard a shrill "Quieten down!". That'd be Miss Williams, still making up her own rules of grammar. And at 6D didn't I catch a glimpse of a dark plaid mohair skirt? I unwittingly paused, glancing down at my bare legs showing below my short hemline. I didn't want Miss Longard to catch me in the hall. Reaching the reception desk, set up in front of what used to be Miss Drysdale's room, I expressed my interest in purchasing one of the desks. "I'll have to take you down the basement to see them if you don't mind. It's kind of dirty." "Mind"? I thought. I was ecstatic. It was the very place I wanted to return to. I wanted to see how my memory had served me.

On December 6, 1917 in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia a Belgium relief ship, on her way to New York to pick up supplies, collided with a French munitions ship carrying a full hold of bulk explosives. The resulting explosion was then referred to as the worst man-made explosion in the history of the world. It and the tidal wave aftermath devastated the city. Two square miles were virtually razed leaving 20,000 people homeless, some 2,000 dead, and countless injured and maimed. Rescue and relief operations were hampered both by the physical destruction of the city and the lack of resources and man and woman power diverted by the War. The situation was exacerbated by a blinding snow storm which paralyzed relief transportation efforts. Halifax and its sister city, Dartmouth, still bear the scars of the disaster.

The Halifax Explosion owns a distinct place in local history and culture. Details of the event and its impact are recorded in historical and personal accounts, novels, folk songs, lore, and family stories. Most written accounts of the Explosion are accompanied by photographs; the visual images of the destruction are more powerful than words. I remember the shock and disbelief I experienced when I first saw a photograph taken in the basement of Chebucto Road school -- my school -- which, I learned then, served as a temporary morgue. A chill tingled its way up my spine as I struggled to make sense of an image that was in part so familiar and in part so unimaginable. The photograph shows the basement where we played on days when it was too wet or cold to be outside. Depicted in black and white are the same cement floor and walls that I knew as dull, institutional green and cracked in places but otherwise well maintained. The large, round, cement support columns, placed every ten or so feet apart and which often serve d as an anchor for skipping ropes, defined rows of shrouded bodies. Seemingly unaltered since the photograph was the ceiling with its complicated pattern of electrical conduits and water pipes and bare, incandescent, hanging bulbs which supplemented the few rays of sunlight that managed to filter in through the narrow mesh-covered windows at ground level.

On any "indoor recess" day this basement was alive with the voices and movements of children at play until a low, grinding signal brought silence to the group and we fell in line, row after orderly row, waiting for our orders to march back upstairs to class for the rest of the morning. The row after orderly row in the photograph bore no resemblance to this image. Where we skipped, played games, and clustered in conversation, once lay hundreds of shrouded, unidentified dead -- victims of the Halifax Explosion. From dawn until well after dark in the days following the Explosion, the basement mortuary was thronged. Desperate family members searched for lost loved ones. Soldiers and relief workers delivered more unidentified bodies extracted from the ruins. Mortuary workers (most of them voluntary civilians and military personnel) carried out the gruesome tasks of stripping and washing the bodies, embalming those not too disfigured, labeling personal belongings, and finding places to lay the dead on the increasingly crowded cement floor. There on the basement floor of my school the charred, disfigured, and unidentified remains of more than 100 men, women, and children lay for eleven days. A mass funeral service finally marked the beginning of a series of burials that lasted for nearly ten more days.

Photographs of the schoolyard show crowds of mourners gathered to pay last respects to those they did not know, and perhaps to say a prayer in gratitude that their own lives and their loved ones' had, by chance, been spared. The coffins, lined up in preparation for the mass funeral service, cover most of the length and width of the playing field -- a stark contrast to the lines I was used to forming for games of Red Rover and dodgeball.

"Is this true?" I remember asking my mother, still not prepared to accept her affirmative response. "Is this really Chebucto School?" I asked my father, wanting him to tell me otherwise.

At a young age, when seeing is believing, my school -- the building in which I received my formal elementary education -- took on a new importance because of the significant role it played in the history of our city.

Now more than 30 years later, in the dim light provided by a low wattage bulb hanging halfway down the stairwell, I followed the receptionist down the old wooden steps. It was the only incandescent light we had until we crossed the basement to a switch that illuminated the area of the basement where the desks were piled -- in what used to be the "boys' side". It was enough light. As always, the metal mesh covering the ground level windows allowed daylight to filter in. It was light enough for me to see the cement, support columns spaced at regular intervals across the expanse of the basement. It was light enough for me to distinguish the cobweb-covered electrical conduits and water pipes that travelled the ceiling and to see the empty hanging sockets that had been our main source of light to play by. Despite the dirt and dimness of light I thought I could hear, off in the distance, a rhythmic slapping of plastic on cement and a faint chorus of "All in together, such a fine weather, bees in the clover, all jump over. January, February, March. . ."

I followed my guide across the basement to the boys' side. I don't think I had ever been there before. It was just like the girls' side with which I was so familiar but I was met there by silence not memory. I rummaged through the stockpile of wooden desks: some damaged, some with heavily carved surfaces, some that looked like they had been attacked by heavy grade steel wool probably in the hand of some errant student doing detention. I chose one without any particular criteria in mind -- I just wanted a desk from my school -- and we retraced our steps in the almost darkness. "Sorry it's so dirty", the woman said. Unsure whether she was referring to the basement or the desk, I muttered a benign response. I was sorry too but she wouldn't have understood why. I felt a tear ease its way from the corner of my eye and trickle down my cheek as we made our way back up the steps. She led the way to hold doors and I followed with the dirty, old desk that I could very well have sat in some thirty or more years ago. I wasn't so sorry about the condition of the desk or its abandonment; it was the state of the basement that landed a tear on my cheek. The same basement that had played such a vital role in the city's history had been left to deteriorate, its importance seemingly forgotten. That bothered me. Re-entering the door to the main floor brought me back to the present. I set the desk down by the front door, handed over ten dollars, and asked if I could take a quick look around the rest of the building. The worn-thin steps of the large winding wooden staircase to the second floor still creaked in the same spots. This floor, which had housed the principal's office, auditorium, and the senior grade classrooms, had undergone the most change. Looking through the open doorway to what had been the principal's office, I half expected to see him seated behind his desk writing or talking on the telephone as he often was. Instead I looked into what seemed to be an artist's studio. I tiptoed by, so as not to disrupt the conversation underway inside, moving in the direction of Mr. Baker's room. "Cello" said a sign on the closed door. All of the classrooms had become music studios. I wondered what Mr. Croft would think about his silent classroom becoming a space where learning depended on the creation of noise. The auditorium perplexed me most. How, I wondered, could the women I was sure I could hear working in the kitchen preparing for a Tea and Sale (Was that my mother's voice?) set up in the auditorium now that theatre-style seats had been permanently installed?

I returned to the main floor, retrieved my desk, and left the building curiously bewildered by my simultaneous feelings of familiarity and strangeness. Despite the fact that time and circumstance had caused changes to the school, it was also as though nothing had changed. My memories were intact and the force of them overpowered any mere physical tampering.

For students less enamoured with school, the mere sight of the three red brick buildings clustered on an expanse of cracked concrete was possibly enough to evoke dread and fear. For me, the buildings were as familiar and inviting as the house where I lived. For some, the creaking of the old wooden floors and relentless clanking of the hot water radiators might have seemed threatening or even eerie. For me, those sounds were like intermittent tunings of orchestral instruments. The orderly and uniform classrooms, with wooden desks bolted to the floor in unmovable rows facing the large, unapproachable teacher's desk, and neat stacks of textbooks, workbooks, and scribblers with lessons and teachers' markings kept forbidden between the covers, likely were an ominous and alienating presence for some. For me, they represented a much loved environment of structure and organization, a place where I could quickly and effortlessly complete my work and win the teacher's praise. For some, the smell of sweeping compound probably conjures up memories of after school detentions for such glaring misdemeanours as colouring outside the lines, being playful or "overly" imaginative, finding the "right" answer the "wrong" way, asking "impertinent" questions, or other intolerable acts of non-conformity. For me, that smell evokes fond remembrances of staying after school to help the teacher or to be with my mother who regularly volunteered at the school as coordinator of social and fund-raising functions.

From my privileged position as a smart, obedient, clean, well dressed, white girl with a mother actively involved in the non-academic affairs of my school, I began a love affair with School as an institution and with my school in particular. Although the very qualities of School that enamoured me as a young child were the qualities that repelled me as an adult and young teacher, I, nevertheless, began my educational career in what to me was a very good place called School.

More than thirty years later even through my grown-up, educated, and discerning eyes my school looked every bit as good (and bad) as I remembered it. I loved being in the building. It felt like home, just as it did over thirty years ago.

*Ardra Cole is a Professor of Education and Co-director, Centre for Arts-informed Research, Dept. Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto