I’ve been staring at this picture for a long time now. Months, actually. For months this picture has been on my desktop. I found it while I was researching historical buildings in my hometown (don’t ask), and I snatched it up because this building doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone. Bulldozed. It’s just an empty lot there now and whenever I am back in Kansas I pass it, and a million memories come flooding back from that piece of land on the corner of 4th and Chestnut. Some of the memories are not even my own. They belong to my older sisters, friends, people who went to school in this building eons before I ever stepped foot in it.
The building was East Middle School when I was there in the mid-90s, but before that it was East Junior High, and before that it was Leavenworth Senior High, the first public high school in Leavenworth. And the more I look at it this picture, the more it conjures up, and the more sad I become. This was one heck of a school. Sure there was a tornado tunnel in the basement. And sure ceiling tiles routinely fell on us when we were in gym class. And even sure, sure, there were rats, but man, oh man, this school meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to a lot of people, and now it’s just gone.
I’m not sad of course to see the building gone. It was time for upgrades that the city couldn’t afford. So the church next door bought it, and even they couldn’t afford the upgrades, so eventually it was bulldozed. I’m sad in the way you get sad when you attach memories, deep, nostalgic, childhood memories to a place. A building. A room. A town. And then that place leaves. Or maybe you leave. And it feels like a betrayal. Even though I left this school, this community, this town, this state twenty years ago, I still feel betrayed, and also guilt, because betrayal is only one part of this mixed bag.
There was another empty field a block from where this one is now. It was owned by East Middle School and it was a regular part of our day to walk to the field for kickball games, or gym class, or games of baseball after school if you could scrounge up enough kids. But where this school was located, right in the heart of Leavenworth, across from City Hall, a couple of blocks from “Downtown,” across from the unemployment office, and next to the only pay-what-you-can walk in clinic in town, well, it wasn’t exactly what you would call a safe area. In fact, many times on the walk to our field, we would pass people smoking out of balconies, yelling things down to us. Our gym coach would tell us to ignore them. She’d tell all 30 or so of us middle school girls to walk in pairs, to ignore the looks from the old men shuffling by on the way to the senior center. We ignored the men and women, still drunk from the night before, arguing on stoops, about whether or not one of them had come home the night before. We ignored the racist gravity scribbled outside the little Korean grocery store, with the neon signs, inviting, but not overly welcoming. Today I wince as I remember, but back then, back then it was just part of this life. These memories serve me well sometimes. A reminder. These memories didn’t mean too much to me back then, but they are becoming more precious as the years drag on.
Once, the whole seventh grade walked to the gym lot, which is now a Domino’s Pizza, to set off rockets we had made in science class. It was a sticky-hot, midwestern day, but the blue sky and the clean air conjured up a song, so we sang. We walked down the cracked sidewalks, around the fire hydrants, past the Section 8 apartment complex, and through the open field across from the public library and we spontaneoulsy sang, “Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”
We sang and we laughed. We ran around the field before the teachers calmed us. We yelled at passing cars. We listened for horns blaring. We blasted rockets into the air. We dreamed of what this life would one day be. I don’t think any of us envisioned an empty lot. Or a Domino’s pizza. Just blue skies as far as the eye could see.