The brick schoolhouse I attended from kindergarten through senior year of high school is slated for demolition. (No, I didn’t cause any lasting damage to the structure. Honest: the school’s demise wasn’t my fault.)
I’ve been revisiting old yearbooks full of photos of people who grew up, married, and sent their kids to the same small-town school they’d attended. Familiar family names and resemblances to uncles, aunts, fathers, and siblings are all over the pages of old black and white photos. Familiar–and yet, growing up there, I never felt I was home. I never belonged, never paid much attention to the world I found myself in. In my head I was somewhere else, long ago and far away, or light years away in a future I was supposed to attend but I had lost my ticket. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was a general detachment, being “tuned out” rather than tuned in. I was lost, out of time, out of place, separated from whatever people or beings I must have belonged with.
The high school that burned before I was born (or old enough to remember)
I was ostracized or ignored by my classmates. I didn’t want to dress like them or do what they were doing. I couldn’t follow their conversations for long before drifting off into my own world in my head. With my own sisters–five of us all barely more than a year apart in age–I felt alien and out of touch. Much of my childhood was spent in a chair in a corner, alone with my books. In fairy tales, I felt at home. Fairy tales were full of misfits, magic, and happily ever after.
I learned to like the music and TV shows my four sisters loved, but antique stores, vintage photo albums, and the “Golden Oldies” radio station felt much more like “my” time and place. Stores and shopping malls held little that I wanted. This was the era of polyester, psychedelic prints and colors, palazzo pants, maxi and mini skirts, halter tops, hippie beads, bell bottoms, platform shoes, blue eye shadow, shag carpet, the velvet Elvis print, and other phenomena that defied explanation.
Photos were taken with cheap Kodak Instamatics, faded and out of focus.
For hours I’d stare at the 1950s yearbooks of my parents and think that was the way people were supposed to look. The 1960s and 1970s hair, fashion, furniture, and architecture felt alien to me. Old photos of ancestors I had never even met, or met only as frail, stooped, wrinkled elders, felt more like my contemporaries than my actual peers. I never asked why; I simply felt a kinship with people who had come and gone before my time.
These looked like the people I was meant to be with. Never mind they were teenagers in WWI and I was a child during the Vietnam war. On the left, back row, my mom’s mother; front row, bottom right, my mom’s father.
The present wasn’t a bad place to be. I knew the past wasn’t “better”–they didn’t have telephones, radios, TVs, paved roads, cars, refrigerators, running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. The people were not “better.” But their faces in old photo albums seemed to be calling me home. I don’t believe in ghosts or reincarnation, but I like to imagine ancestral memories can survive like radio waves. Or maybe it’s epigenetics. Maybe our best memories are somehow encoded in our DNA, and an occasional grandchild arrives in this life remembering a world that is gone.
What if some kind of interference from a paranormal radio signal was messing with me? Misfits cannot help but wonder why they don’t fit in. The most common explanation doesn’t explain much: “You are an old soul.” I was born with a sense of nostalgia for a time, a place, a people I had never seen, yet it seemed more familiar than the world I was in. At a party, I would gravitate to the old ones rather than people my own age. Other people’s memories, and even more so, fictional stories of other lives, seemed to displace my own, and I had many gaping black holes in my mind. I was disengaged from my surroundings, living in another world in my mind.
“Immediacy” and “agency” are key words here. I lacked agency; I passively watched the world around me, feeling out of place, instead of actively engaging in it; I missed out on immediate people and events. “You were there,” my sisters would say. “How can you not remember this?” And whatever “this” was, or “who,” it was elusive. Groping in the dark corners of my mind for memories of some specific event I had actually attended in real time and real space, I came up empty. To this day there are events I am told I was physically present for, but my mind was so far away from it all, I cannot remember my lived life.
Now that I am more than half a century old, now that I have seen the dawn of a new millennium and the advent of such wonders as “the picture phone,” I like to imagine that I wasn’t just born weird–I was born somewhere else, and transferred here in some kind of fluke of metaphysics or a magic spell gone wrong. Or a portal. I’ve had a fascination with doorways and tunnels, windows and winged things all my life. While Mrs. Hoffman was telling our first-grade class how to do simple math, I was riding a dragon or a space ship somewhere far away. When I went to her desk saying I didn’t understand how to do the worksheet, she’d spank me, in front of the entire class, and say “they” paid attention, so they knew what to do, and so would I … if I ever quit daydreaming.
She died of cancer in later years. That, too, was not my fault.
Today the school building is about to take a hit from a wrecking ball, and suddenly this place I felt so detached from feels like an important locale, a childhood home, a fixture that needs to be preserved a little while longer. One more generation, at least. But the body count is too low. The children didn’t stay close to home and send a new generation to that little school. They grew up and moved to bigger and better places. Me, I never moved more than 90 miles away, though I’ve lived in other galaxies and ancient kingdoms of Middle Earth in my mind. I’m the one feeling like an amputation is about to sever me from the schoolhouse where my entire childhood was lived, or un-lived, but it was where my body was stationed, and enough of my mind tuned in, I developed a sense of nostalgia for this old place.
So I have gone down the “Rabbit Hole,” revisiting these old yearbooks, which a guy named Andy took time to scan and upload to a Facebook group for Plainfield Pirates.
I walk those hallways once again. I revisit the cafeteria, the playground. I see all those upperclassmen, and the schoolbus drivers, the janitors, and — I see my sisters again. Hello, Julie.
The shortest member of the Class of 1975 (Julie) and the tallest (Carl) were “frenemies” before the term existed, relentlessly trading barbs with each other like a comic duo. They graduated together and they died, not quite together, but at the end of the year. Julie was murdered. Carl crashed his car into a bridge.
These four classmates, and far too many others, were dead before age 50. The class of 1976 had so many die before age 65. Brant, Kevin, Steve, Kenny: you left this world too soon.
UPDATE: Our sister Lori, 63, also class of 1976, died in September 2021. Here she is in May 1975, Prom night, next to Diana (far left), who drowned at age 60.
Our middle sister, #3 of the five, got hit with Stage 4 stomach cancer (the news came two months after we buried Lori). She died on Palm Sunday, 2022. She’s pictured in 8th grade beside our cousin Brad (who died of MS) and Mike (who’s still here). Brad was one of four brothers who died of MS. Plainfield Community School, with a class size of 25 to 30 students each year, has a staggering number of casualties.
Two of my own classmates, Jennifer (left) and Kim (center), died of cancer before age 50.
Carl’s sister Carol, also my classmate, died in a car wreck in her early 20s. I won’t tally the suicides. Cancer is our #1 killer.
For such a little school in a rural community, Plainfield turned out an impressive number of highly accomplished citizens. That would require a whole other post dedicated to the great minds and great people who grew up here and left for bigger (and “better”) places.
Hello to our bus drivers:
Farm girls in the sun, in the snow
Those farm boys were ripped!
Plainfield Community School, you had a good run. I’m sad to see the old building go empty. If I could walk through the hallways one last time, I would see Julie and Carl, my dad, his buddy Wayne at age 18, and all the little kids who grew up and left their rural homes for greener pastures.
The first school already burned to the ground. The 1960s version also has become last-century and has outlived its use. In August 2021, it went down, brick by brick.
What will take its place? um, how about a portal, or a launch pad for a spaceship….
Peter Saga cover art for Perihelion Science Fiction ezine
See also Symptoms Of An Old Soul: 7 Signs You Were Meant To Live In A Different Era
BY LAUREN MARTIN | JUNE 6, 2014