In my youth, Petrova School was a K through 12. I went to kindergarten at the Broadway school (now a skanky lot next to the E&M Market), so I spent a mere 12 years at Petrova.
Truth is, I never liked school till college. I guess it's due to a multitude of reasons, two of the greater ones being my anti-authoritarian attitude and an almost pathological inability to conform.
But the causes aside, whenever I think of Petrova, I don't get awash in warm fuzzies, thinking about all those great times I had in its hallowed halls. In fact, I have almost no specific memories of the place at all.
Sure, I remember a lot of students and teachers and some events, but for the 17,000-plus hours I spent in the joint, precious little has stayed with me.
I go by it almost daily when I walk my dogs, but to actually go in it holds no appeal. Nonetheless, I've been inside a few times since 1964, and each time is a weird-out.
What makes it weird? Not the place itself - hey, it's a public school, something by its definition is as straight as it gets. No, as any guru worth his loincloth would tell you, the weirdness lies within.
It's me that's weird, and the reason I am is due to a cognitive disconnect: The school is the same structure, but everything about it is radically different from the school I remember.
The old junior and senior study halls, which were also the ninth- and 10th-grade homerooms, are now something else. The old health suite is an office. The current library used to be the cafeteria, and I've no idea what the old library is. The chem and bio labs are also something else since I don't think they teach those things in grade schools; plus, if they did, they wouldn't be doing it with the ancient stuff we had.
Interestingly, the art room today is the same art room I knew. Or at least it's in the same room, but it sure doesn't look the same. In my flaming youth the art room was also used for mechanical drawing, so that, coupled with the fact art was an upper-class course, meant the place was strictly organized and maintained.
Now, since it's for little kids, it looks like a little kids' art room. It's funkier and friendlier, a place some kid might actually enjoy doing art, not a place where he had to do it. The only thing I remember about art class was I was lousy at it and I didn't like it. Looking at the room today, I don't think I'd feel that way if I was a kid taking art today.
Speaking of rooms: On Petrova's first floor are three rooms I remember fondly. Two were the auto-mechanics and the wood shop. They were on the south wing, across from my fourth-grade classroom, so I saw them a lot. Each had its own appeal.
The auto-mechanics shop was a heavy-duty place full of heavy-duty stuff. It was crammed full of huge chunks of steel, powerful tools, cables, clamps, welding equipment - the Industrial Revolution, come home to roost. Today, whenever I hear the phrase "the Wheels of Progress," the first thing that comes to mind is that shop.
That shop was also full of heavy-duty dudes. I'm sure my memories are a good part imagination, but when I recall the guys in auto-mechanics, they all seemed to have DA haircuts, cuffed jeans, and a pack of Camels tucked in their T-shirt sleeve.
I liked the wood shop because it smelled good. Auto-mechanics smelled of grease and burnt metal; the wood shop smelled of aromatic sawdust, something that still delights me.
Also, the shop teachers, Mr. Smith and Mr. Seifreid, were very laid-back and obviously had a way with young people, and so were eminently likeable. The shops were clearly safe havens to their denizens.
A cave to rave about
The third room was less a room than a cave. It was a weird little hole in the wall, long and claustrophobically narrow, next to the first-grade classroom. By today's commercial or educational standards it wasn't much, but it was one of the things - perhaps the first thing - responsible for my love of writing.
It was where we bought our basic school supplies, which back in those Golden Days were about as basic as it got. There were writing tablets - the ones I remember had a gray cover, stamped with the school seal in red. There were also pencils, of course - good ole Ticonderoga No. 2's - and, to go with them, erasers, either of the rectangular bright-pink type or the more cubical gum erasers. The pink ones cost a lordly 5 cents; I never bought the others - they seemed too grown-up for me.
We could buy pens there, but not the kind any young person is familiar, let alone even aware of. They were the ones we used with inkwells and consisted of a metal nib and a wooden holder. The holders cost 5 cents, the nibs a penny. While I may have discovered my love of writing in that supply room, I did not discover it due to those pens. They were impossible to use without ripping holes in the paper, making huge Rorschach-like splotches, or just ruining the nibs. It takes a fine hand to write with a nib, something I never developed till I was in my 30s. But it also took something else - a decent nib. The ones we got were so impossibly rigid; they more suited the work of a tattooist or assassin than a scribe.
The room had a Dutch door, and when open for business, the top half was swung out of the way. And then I had access to the greatest treat the room had to offer.
It was the smells of all the writing stuff: fresh paper and erasers, and a faint background bouquet of cedar from the pencils. Fresh writing material is not like the used stuff, in that it holds The Promise.
Yeah, logically, I know now (and I may have even known then) that just having a new tablet and pencil won't make me any better a writer, but somehow I feel it will, or at least that the possibility exists. The new stuff is a new beginning, another start, another chance to write something not just different, but better than anything I've ever done maybe even something great.
I felt that then, as a little kid in the Petrova school, and I feel that now, as a fairly jaded adult.
And while I never wrote anything great, either back then or now, it doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter if I ever will write anything great. Ultimately, all that matters is I keep writing. That may be the most important lesson I learned in the Petrova School - a lesson all the more precious since it was never learned in a classroom.