I stop by my parents’ house—the house I grew up in—first. I want the experience of driving back to high school to be as similar to the original as possible. Just not quite as early in the morning.
No one’s home, so I play with the dog for a few minutes before heading on my way, backing out of the same driveway where I once parked my first car, the tan ’88 Toyota Tercel five-speed that originally belonged to my grandmother. I trek up the same steep hill my younger sister and I would travel every morning in half-awake silence, making a left at the top of the same old subdivision before hanging a right onto Bridgetown Road. Past the street I turned down every morning of my sophomore year to pick up my friend Ellsberry. Past my buddy Scott’s old house, where his grandma is likely sitting on the porch around back, nodding off in the mid-morning sunlight. Past my old middle school and the spot where I rear-ended a guy on the way to basketball practice my junior year, then another mile or so before making a left on Harrison Avenue. (No, not that Harrison Avenue; fake Harrison Avenue, the one in Cleves.)
I swing wide around the first bend to avoid the cracks and potholes that have probably been there since the day after the street was paved, subconsciously slowing down a bit as I pass the church parking lot where cops used to sit and wait for overzealous youngsters to speed by in their hand-me-down Ford Tauruses, Honda Civics, and ’88 Tercels. A quick right down Ridge Avenue—where the sunrise would gleam perfectly in my rearview mirror during late spring and early fall—before turning left around the old student parking lot and again around the football field, until I finally pull up to the front of Taylor High School.
“Are we having fun?” Mr. Larrick asks, wide-smiled as always, as I step out of the car. Nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Larrick—Don Larrick, though I can’t bring myself to call him that, even in print—was my principal at Meredith Hitchens Elementary. He’s still a principal in the Three Rivers School District, and he’s going to escort me through my old high school this morning, guiding me through the hallways and classrooms one last time. Taylor High School—my alma mater—is about to be demolished.
Whatever else might have changed since I graduated from this place in 2008, Mr. Larrick’s unbridled enthusiasm has not. He extends his arm, throwing his entire 5-foot-5-inch frame into the handshake, his bald head and permanent grin a snapshot of that first morning we met on my way to Mrs. Coleman’s class. The same guy who greeted me on my first day of public education is showing me around one last time. There is some serious circular karmic/existential stuff going on here.
In the fall of 2013, Three Rivers School District opened a $63 million, seven-acre, nicer-than-the-house-you-live-in Pre-K–12 complex. This meant the end for the district’s old schools, including Taylor High, a building that had been around since 1926, ending its reign as the oldest public high school on the city’s west side. As soon as its December demolition was announced, scores of alumni—people who’d once complained about the lack of air-conditioning and the calcified water fountains and the fact that there were no cute boys there, like, at all—were suddenly distraught over knocking down a structure that hadn’t been state-of-the-art since Calvin Coolidge left office.
Suddenly every living Taylor High graduate was faced with the fact that their alma mater, the place they spent four (maybe five) of the most formative years of their life, would no longer exist. Conversations with old acquaintances drifted into laments about how we would never be able to show our children or our children’s children the building where we went to high school—inherently assuming this would somehow devastate them. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram became a breeding ground for rampant nostalgia, of friendships made and experiences recalled. I understood why demolishing the school was such a big deal to so many of them. I just didn’t feel the same way.
The easy explanation for this is that I’m a heartless, emotionless robot—as my girlfriend, Stephanie, a Taylor graduate herself, always tells me. But I thought (hoped?) it might be something more than that. I thought that maybe if I could walk through the school one last time and relive those formative years, recall those friendships and experiences, remember the taste of that calcified drinking water, that it would trigger the bursting of some emotional dam deep inside me. POW! Right in the feels! Maybe all I needed was to refresh my memory.
Outside, it still looks like my old school: red brick, three stories high, painfully mundane. Inside, it’s a shell. The place is more or less cleaned out. Nearly every window and door is propped open, and every desk, shelf, and table has been removed. Pockets of construction workers discuss their plans to strip the metal, copper, and anything else of value.
Still, Mr. Larrick and I walk every step of the building, swapping stories as I try to remember who taught in which room, what year I had which class. We stop by my old locker, layers of chipped yellow paint masking the rusted metal. We pass dusty, black chalkboards, a few of which still have writing on them, as well as a sticker that reads “I ♥ Biology” plastered on a corkboard. We glance into a room that belonged to the math teacher who never liked me, around the corner from the science lab where we dissected a pig’s heart. We venture through the catacombs of the building, an old Cold War bunker that lies beneath the empty, cracked swimming pool. Past the furnace that caught fire one morning my freshman year and got everyone sent home early. Down the narrow stairway to the art rooms that flooded when a sewage pipe burst a few years later, giving us a bonus vacation that we ingeniously dubbed “Poop Day.” Through the auditorium, where a couple got busted for having sex on the grand concert piano. Along the football field, where someone once traced a field-length penis in the snow after a blizzard. To the cafeteria where I ate the same peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day, and where my friend Scott nearly choked to death trying to swallow an entire piece of chicken Parmesan in one bite…because we dared him to.
Mr. Larrick even braves the basketball locker room with me—which smells exactly as I remember it, unfortunately—before we swing by the gymnasium. If any room in the joint were going to jump-start my emotions, it would be the gym. This is where I spent countless hours dribbling a leather ball, soaking the hardwood with beads of sweat. My dad was a basketball coach at the school for a big chunk of my childhood; I hadn’t just spent high school in this gym, I’d spent my childhood here. I was practically born in those wooden bleachers.
But…nothing. No tears. No lump in my throat. No “Glory Days” lyrics flashing through my brain as we head back through the main entrance. Four years of my life—more than that, really—and the nostalgia tour was over in 30 minutes.
The only thing that made me pause was the stone at the base of a tree out front, planted in remembrance of a former student who passed away in 2007—the older brother of a friend I grew up with. “The tree is young enough that they are able to move and re-plant it at the new school,” Mr. Larrick tells me.Which is both endearing and heartbreaking—endearing because a living memorial won’t be left behind; heartbreaking because the loss still lingers.
We shake hands again. I peer back for one last look as I hop in my car and drive away, taking off the same way I drove in, slowing down a bit as I pass the nearby church parking lot before speeding around the curve.
“So what do you think about the school getting torn down?” I ask Stephanie, trying to sound casual.
It’s a crisp autumn day. We’re in the car on our way to Athens, Ohio, to visit my sister at college, driving through the beautiful yet dreadfully boring southern Ohio countryside, sprawling fields of green and brown dotted with cows and horses, edged by clusters of yellow and orange trees.
“I don’t know,” she says, giving the question some legitimate thought, eyes narrowed as she stares out the windshield. “I mean, I guess it’s kind of weird.”
This is the word that comes up again and again: weird. Some former classmates think it’s sad, some think it’s a shame, some even feel as apathetic as I do. But any discussion always seems to involve the word weird. It’s as if everyone is worried that knocking down a building that stood for 87 years will somehow erase the 87 years of memories it holds. As if the ancient, sticky-tack-ridden walls are the only thing preserving those experiences.
This is also the part I can’t seem to wrap my head around. Is this what makes me a heartless, emotionless robot?
“I mean, it’s where we started dating, and now it’s crumbling apart,” Stephanie says, turning toward me. She tries to veil a smirk as she amps up the drama. “Just like our relationship. It’s a metaphor, really.” She’s enjoying this just a little too much.
Then she turns back to the window, her mind now somewhere in the past.
It’s early January and again I pass old friends’ homes, dodge potholes, and creep by the church parking lot, returning to Taylor High.
Or to what was Taylor High. The school hasn’t been totally leveled, but the word weird begins to make sense. I’m having a hard time visualizing a place I’ve been countless times, unable to determine how far back the walkway extended from the street or where the building stretched along the horizon. The grounds are completely surrounded by fencing. A for sale sign offers 8.5 acres—more than I would have guessed. Off to the right hangs a no trespassing notice—ironic for a destination most of us could barely drag ourselves out of bed for each morning.
The site looks like a pillaged hamlet in a scene from Game of Thrones. Broken bricks and damp, rotting wood jut out from the dirt. Stairways lead to piles of rubble. Shattered windows and naked doorways frame hollowed-out, roofless classrooms. I wander over to pick up a chunk of sunbaked brick that tumbled beyond the fence line. As I turn to make my way back, I see that a few other cars have paused out front. One car idles in the middle of the road, the woman pointing from the passenger seat as the man next to her nods in affirmation; a silver Mercedes coupe is pulled up to the curb so the driver can snap a picture with his cellphone.
Each of them is no doubt running the mental movie of their own high school years. Remembering that teacher. That class. That test they bombed. That football game. That concert performance. That hallway conversation. That cute girl. That piece of chicken Parmesan their friend tried to swallow whole.
Me too. But it’s also why I still feel the same about high school and the phantom structure that housed it: Those years haven’t been tarnished. My experience was not erased by the demolition. That the building no longer exists doesn’t change any of the things that happened in it or the people they happened with. The building is simply one of those things now, too—a memory. Same as it ever was.
Illustration by Andrew Holder
Originally published in the March 2014 issue.