September 8, 2021

Lost and Found: A Back to School Reverie

By Stuart Mitchner

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back…

—Carole King, from “Goin Back”

Looking ahead to Thursday, Princeton’s first day of the new school year, I’ve been going back to school, way way back to my first, McCalla Elementary, which was named for Bloomington Indiana’s first female school superintendent and was an easy two-block walk from home. Otherwise, all my schooling, K-12, took place in the same building, with one notable exception (ninth grade in New York City). The country school where I spent grades four through six is a lesser exception since getting there involved a long school bus ride through hills and valleys and woods to a two-room red-brick schoolhouse called Poplar Grove. That humble building still stands and so does the two-story Classical Revival structure that housed McCalla, which is currently used by the Indiana University School of Fine Arts for sculpture classes.

Lost and Found

After a too-hasty online search, I actually began to fear that the university had demolished the Art Deco building I’d entered as a kindergartner and left as a graduating senior. I was aware that the interior had been gutted long ago because I have a small, neatly cut and polished chunk of the wooden banister with a small plaque attached: University School 1937-1964. On the opening page of my senior yearbook there’s a two-page photograph of U-School’s Indiana limestone facade next to which a “lamentful” sophomore friend has drawn a ballpoint arrow and the words, “Stu, if you’re smart, boy, you’ll stay the hell out of here.”

And so I did for decades, until a classmate and I wandered inside on a June day in 1989. As soon as I walked down the hallway where my locker had been, I realized that I’d been there before in my dreams. I don’t mean nightmares, just dreams of the sort that take you down long, strange, vaguely familiar hallways and stairways and landings, while you try to fulfill enigmatic missions at the urging of various ghostly teachers whose names you’ve forgotten or would prefer not to remember. In these dreams I sometimes end up on the ground floor outside the boy’s locker room, the scene of an ugly, real-life fistfight between a senior class officer and a tough country kid. The class officer was getting the worst of it, his nose bleeding all over his powder blue cashmere sweater. Here were two societal extremes, the elite city kid and the country boy who was never invited to parties of the in-crowd, even if he happened to be a hero on the field.

My friend and I were in there no longer than the time it took to hear the spooky quavering of our voices echoing in the hallway. We’d been kidding around, like old times, and the sounds we were making came back at us like something on the soundtrack of a low-grade horror movie.

The Haunted Yearbook

It still surprises me, how bereft I felt during the brief time when I thought that all traces of that building had been erased. Looking just now at the halls and lockers and classrooms in my yearbook, the idea became even more inconceivable. There we are, our little society in words and pictures, a small scale democracy, where the person elected student body president was the one who actually got the most votes, even the year a longhaired, trombone-playing nonentity ran against the elite shoo-in candidate whose father was an administrator at the university. Whether it was for Student Council or Senior Council, all the votes counted, fair and square. And even though our various teams were as often as not on the losing side, no one was ever crazy enough to deny the reality of the final score. Whatever that fight outside the locker room had been about, both fighters were starters on the football team, country boy in the line, city boy in the backfield, and soon enough they made up, they were teammates, the fight cleared the air.

What innocents we were! With yearbook headings like “We Study, Plan and Work So We Will Belong,” “We Strive to Fulfill Our Responsibilities,” “Yesterday the Classroom, Tomorrow the World!” But here’s a picture that lights up the page. It shows that year’s homecoming queen, not a senior but a sophomore, smiling so sweetly, so absolutely naturally and nicely, eyes closed, even as our otherwise formidably grim and glowering middle-aged principal plants a big kiss on her cheek. When I showed my wife the photo, she said: “He’d be in trouble if he did that today.” Sad but true, and sad but true the story behind the photograph on the next page, two indisputably attractive females, the valedictorian and salutatorian, winners of National Merit scholarships, both branded as “Brains” in our little society because no one could see beyond the stereotype.

The Haunted Hallway

The yearbook photo that really gets me is the one spread across the top of a page showing the most familiar of all school scenes, the classic crowded hallway shot of kids of all shapes and sizes coming and going, from seniors to seventh graders. The caption reads: “Traffic jams are frequent happenings in the overcrowded halls between classes.” Tell me about it. I’ve just been there. I’m thinking of the TV schools I’ve attended, of kids coming and going in the halls of Twin Peaks High (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”), Dillon High in Texas (Friday Night Lights), Hawkins Elementary and High in Indiana (Stranger Things, built adjacent to the Upside-Down), Sunnydale High (built over The Hellmouth to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer busy), and, most recently, the nameless high school that haunts Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

Saved for Music

I must have spent an hour Monday morning trying to find evidence that U-School was still there. What a relief to finally locate an image of the building on the corner of Third and Jordan, a view from 2019. Once I found out what actually became of it, I felt even better. My old school now houses one of the largest academic music libraries in the world, with numerous special collections, among them one containing clothing, furniture, recordings, books, and awards from Leonard Bernstein’s composition studio. Now I hear from another classmate that he and his wife recently enjoyed a summer concert “in the old UHS building, where there’s a performance space on the second floor.”

Ninth Grade in New York

Walking through the Boy’s Entrance at McBurney School on West 63rd Street was not something a freshman from the Midwest ever took for granted. According to a “Streetscapes” piece in the June 16, 2002, New York Times, the 14-story West Side YMCA building occupied by the school resembles a “castellated Italian hill town, with towers, battlements and balconies rising in irregular sympathy, culminating in a huge, central tower with an octagonal roof.” New York 1930 (Rizzoli 1987) refers to the building’s “delightful lightness … a feeling further enhanced through the extensive use of polychromed terra-cotta.”   

When McBurney closed in 1988, there was an auction of its contents. A story in the Times describes buyers looking for old yearbooks containing photos of future celebrities. While J.D. Salinger remains the most illustrious McBurneyan, two of television’s favorite high school students went there: John Boy of The Waltons (Richard Thomas) and the Fonz from Happy Days (Henry Winkler). Although McBurney had other noteworthy alumni, including Felix Rohatyn, chair of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, and Ted Koppel of Nightline, it “may be best remembered,” according to the Wikipedia entry, “as the destination of Holden Caulfield when he left all the equipment of the Pencey Prep fencing team on the subway.”