Originally published in the S.F. Chronicle, Sunday, October 11, 1998
Thousand Oaks Elementary School is gone now, and I suppose one could argue that the field of dirt on which a new structure will ultimately be built is already an improvement over what the place had become. Years of neglect had ravaged the once majestic main building. Tacky pre-fabricated portables, stained with layers of graffiti, had replaced the honest, sturdy bungalows we had when I went there.
But I’d rather look at the old Thousand Oaks in any condition than at the empty lot now bordered by a National Rent-A-Fence, with a yellow sign that reads “Thank You Berkeley for Fixing Our Schools,” blue spray paint and dandelions obscuring the fine print below.
For years, I’d drive past Thousand Oaks and think of getting out of the car to look around—then come up with a reason why not. It was after hours, or a weekend, or I was in a hurry to get home. I couldn’t bear to confront the decay close up.
But when I found out last year that Thousand Oaks was being torn down because it was cheaper to build a new school than to earthquake-retrofit the existing one, I was sick over it. Why hadn’t I visited when I’d had the chance?
Superstition crept up the back of my neck: had my negligence made me in some way complicit in the demolition of my beloved school? Then outrage took over. This gracious, pale yellow building from 1920, its entire southern wall lined with two stories of French windows, with terra cotta roof tiles and wood cabinets whose brass latches gave a satisfying “click” when they were shut—this they were going to destroy?
* * *
I don’t have many memories of academics at Thousand Oaks. What I remember is solidly built classrooms connected by wide, high-ceilinged halls whose brown floors were polished to such a sheen that you could see the lights in them. Outside, the younger kids had their own wooded yard, referred to as the Grove, while the older ones had the rest of the well-maintained seven-acre grounds in which to play four-square, hopscotch, hoppitaw, tetherball and kickball.
On Halloween, we’d put on our costumes in the classroom closets after lunch, then parade up and down the nearby Solano Avenue business district. And every spring, the sixth graders were given the honor of weaving colorful banners of fabric around the maypole while dancing to music in the annual parade, the boys hanging their heads at the indignity of having to participate.
I remember, too, the day I stood outside my bungalow with the rest of my fourth-grade class, all of us wondering why Miss Miller was so late to come back from the 11 a.m. recess, all of us bewildered by her messy hair and watery eyes when she finally arrived. “Our president has been shot,” she said simply.
But in general, things were wonderfully predictable at T.O. (as we called it). It was a place where I was consistently rewarded for being an obedient child and a dedicated student. More to the point, it was a refuge from the terrifying whims of my household, in which my parents fought loudly and explosively.
At school, order prevailed. Nothing ever made the adults angry enough that they would throw large objects, or use their fists, or shout so hard that the veins stood out in their necks. Things kept going no matter what. I could check the monthly cafeteria menu for the day when my favorite side dish, “cubed” baked potatoes, would be served. If something broke, our crusty old gray-uniformed janitor, Mr. Shaw, would fix it.
Even my parents, usually skeptical of authority, seemed to grasp the sanctity of the place. My mother sent me and my three sisters to school with the correct amount of money for cafeteria meal tickets, and turned up on time for parent-teacher conferences. My father, who normally dressed in slacks and T-shirts, wore a suit and bow tie to my graduation.
There’s a heartbreaking black-and-white photograph of him and me in front of the school on that day, heartbreaking because as bad as things were at home, they would get worse afterward. My parents’ divorce, as stormy as their marriage had been; racial tension and violence at my junior high school; the loss of my father’s retail store and livelihood; then the custody fight that split my family apart when I was sixteen. But the photo was taken before all that: my father is spry, fashionably bearded, smoking a pipe as dark as his glasses, his left arm around me, everything pulled together for the happy occasion. I’m sure it was my mother who snapped the picture.
* * *
When I first heard the news about Thousand Oaks, I avoided the place. Then one day, after an errand on Solano Avenue, I was suddenly ready. I drove up Tacoma, bracing myself for the worst—a noisy, obscene construction zone with no trace left of the elegant edifice I’d once called my school.
But Thousand Oaks was still standing! A huge series of yellow tarps covered it; there was scaffolding all around. Men were working on the building; could they be saving it after all? I didn’t dare to hope.
I pulled up in front of the school next to the flag pole, thinking of the carnival that used to be held every fall. Most of T.O.’s 600 students would attend, bringing younger brothers and sisters along. Our principal, Mr. MacFarland, would volunteer to be dunked in water as the target of a pitching game set up on the playground. In the cavernous, wood-paneled auditorium, there were indoor activities—bean bag toss, fishing for prizes, and most impressively (though I was too cautious a child to try it), a giant rolling machine set up on the stage, consisting of two massive padded cylinders through which children took turns being “ironed” and released out the other side.
In the years after I left Thousand Oaks, I had thought of coming back for the carnival: it may have been in the back of my mind to try the rolling machine. But every time I asked my mother about it, the event had already taken place. The carnival was always held earlier in the school year than I remembered.
I got out of the car and asked a young worker if there were any way to get in the building. “You could talk to the project manager, I guess,” he said, motioning vaguely toward the playground. I made my way down along a makeshift Cyclone fence toward the Grove, past the driveway where Matt Pollock had once walked by me on his way to traffic duty and had let a trace of a smile escape his lips, trigging months of hopeful speculation: had he meant to smile at me?
There was an open gate in the fence, and I suddenly saw that not twenty feet away, the southwest door to the school was propped open.
Just get me in, I begged inwardly. I promise to be grateful. I don’t care about the years of corrosion—that’s all cosmetic. I just want to orient myself. I just want to recover whatever is in there that’s still mine.
The vinyl flooring had been stripped off the familiar steps just inside the door, the tarry black underneath covered with pebbly grit. Breathlessly, I climbed to the top of the stairs, where the project manager suddenly appeared. “Can I help you?”
“I used to go to school here,” I told her. “I know you’re working on the building. But I was wondering, is there any chance I could look around?” I gasped as I recognized the south hallway of my school. There were two large flood puddles on the floor, the ceiling had been disemboweled, and there was rubble everywhere. It was like a wrecked ship, still magnificent under water.
The project manager eyed me. “OK,” she conceded. “You can look around. But don’t go upstairs. They’re working up there.” I had especially wanted to see the second floor, where I’d spent one of my happiest years, fifth grade. I didn’t betray my disappointment. “Thank you so much!” I exclaimed.
* * *
Unsupervised, I meandered through the halls, peeking into the spacious, once lively classrooms. There was broken glass on the floors, piles of debris everywhere. One of the classrooms was filled entirely with uprooted carpet, bent window blinds and other compiled ruins.
I made my way downstairs, past the spot where two impeccably coiffed ladies used to sit behind a table and punch our meal tickets or put our money into an army-green cash box before handing us half-pint cartons of milk. The low-ceilinged cafeteria was smaller than I had remembered, and after a glance at the desolate kitchen, I wandered back up to the classroom area. Thousand Oaks was a shell, its life force gone. How was it that I had been unable to accept the external signs of disintegration, yet found myself strangely peaceful, happy even, at the opportunity to view the wreckage from the inside?
There were still unlocked crevices—an all-wood closet tucked away in an intriguing non-rectangular space, a white hexagon-tiled bathroom (I could nearly feel the cold water and scratchy pink powdered soap), built-in greenish wood drawers the perfect size for art projects. Wondrous nooks and crannies that will never be reproduced.
At the end of the hall, a torn clear tarp was all that separated me from the upstairs. I touched it, looking behind me to see whether anyone was watching. I could probably have gotten away with it. But I had never been disobedient in this building, and somehow, I couldn’t change now.
I wandered back down the hall and peered in through the stage entrance to the stately auditorium. Unlike the cafeteria, it was much bigger than I remembered. A familiar light flooded the platform where I had avoided the rolling machine but had led my team to victory in the fifth-grade class debate. From that angle, my view was clear of any rubble, or any hint of disaster, and I could imagine my mother and father in the audience, applauding with the rest of the parents at the end of the contest.