A Perfectly Good School

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I lost a childhood friend this week to a wrecking ball, or maybe it was an excavator, bulldozer, or crane; whatever it is that’s powerful enough to  demolish a perfectly good brick building these days. 

My career as a student started in 1978 at Lincoln Elementary School in Mrs. Schmalenberg’s kindergarten, and although I’m probably spelling her name wrong, I remember her striped turtleneck sweaters, rust-colored clogs with wooden soles, and the long braid that hung down her back. She let us do finger paintings on the surface of a table once using chocolate pudding, and I kept looking around, thinking we were going to get in trouble, until I realized that the only grown-up in the room was the one encouraging the mess.  

Even into adulthood, I would admire the beautifully rounded kindergarten room curving out into the playground every time I passed the school, remembering it as the place where the magic happened. I know I’m not the only one: I am sure a school built in 1938 has seen a lot of kids, and a lot of magic. 

I haven’t lived in Brainerd for 30 years, but the proposed demolition of Lincoln school in order to make a parking lot is the first big story in town that I have been invested in since the dismantling of the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center in 2003, a place where I once earned a total of  $458.72 for an entire summer of part-time work. After the amusement center closed, my mother sent me laminated newspaper clippings that chronicled the relocating of the famous animated statue. Paul Bunyan himself was strapped to a flatbed truck, and driven through town like a funeral procession. Now there’s a Kohl’s with a great big parking lot where he used to sit and welcome wide-eyed children, dazzled when he called them by name. 

Thankfully, some of the people in Brainerd are saving artifacts from Lincoln, but what I want most from the place is something I can’t have: one last walk through its hallways, one last jog of my memory. Lincoln always smelled of floor cleaner, wood polish, dusty books, pencil shavings, and something I could only describe as a metallic tang, like touching your tongue to brass, or the taste you get if you have a penny in your mouth.

I want to run my hand down the smooth, wooden banister the way I did when running down the stairs to fill a white plastic bucket with little square cartons of milk—18 chocolate, three white—from a cooler at the end of the hallway for morning break. I always felt bad for the kids who ordered the white milk, because I figured the only reason they did was because they were allergic to chocolate.

To be alive in this world is to participate in a constant state of change. I know this. I don’t expect, or want, to live in a world frozen in nostalgia, even though it might be nice if there was always a 26-foot animated statue of Paul Bunyan whose eyes fluttered open to greet me when I went home to Brainerd. “Well, there’s my good friend Karla, all the way from Missoula, Montana!” 

I recognize that positive growth often comes from what we dismantle, repair, reconstruct, and reimagine in our society. But tearing down a perfectly good school feels like amputating a healthy limb, or yanking out a viable molar. 

If you Google the words Lincoln School Demolition as I did, naively imagining the Lincoln School in my hometown was the only one suffering this fate, you will see it’s an epidemic. As I scrolled through article after article of similar stories of razing, I learned that some of the ill-fated Lincoln schools had succumbed to forces of nature, neglect, or economic instability, and that some were sacrificed for more noble causes than a parking lot. Either way, I cried, and for a hot second I considered starting a nationwide support group; Mourners of Lost Lincoln Schools.

Even though my Lincoln hadn’t been used as an elementary school in some years, it was still an active part of the school district, chugging along in its second iteration as a center for special education services. It turns out the need for a new parking lot superseded the  for the school district when all of a sudden, it got a pink slip. I can imagine the conversation, if ever there were to be a conversation with a building: “Listen, you’ve done a great job since 1938, and untold thousands of people have benefited from learning under your roof. But the time has come and we really need to destroy you because there are cars out there that need to be parked. Those are just the facts.”

Even my father, wading through the mystery of dementia, commiserated with me on the phone the other day. Though he couldn’t remember what he’d had for lunch ten minutes earlier, when I brought up the demolition of Lincoln, he emerged with his famous expression of fervent disapproval. 

“What a joke. What an absolute joke.” I could almost hear him shaking his head.

I followed him back into his ramblings, trying to untangle the tangential threads of reports of daily happenings interspersed with a story of how he had to get back to his job with the phone company, a job he left in the late 1960s. 

But after a long pause, he jumped back into lucidity.

“I’ll tell you something,” he cleared his throat with authority, “there’s just no getting around the fact that sometimes people do stupid things they’ll later regret.” I knew exactly what he meant, and so did he.

He sighed heavily, then added, “…and those windows were almost brand new.” 

And they were. 

But they saved the windows at Lincoln, or at least they removed them before destroying the building. I saw a photo of it online. I was hopeful for a minute, imagining they’d be repurposed, but maybe removing windows is just something you do before smashing a brick building to bits.

Where does it all go—the memories, the sense of purpose, and the distinctive smell that a building holds—once its walls are torn down. Does everything just re-enter the atmosphere and find another home in another building? Or does it disperse, then dissipate into nothingness? Maybe Lincoln’s essence, buried under the asphalt, will rise up like vapors. Maybe the high school students parking their hand-me-down sedans, rusted-out Nissans, or shiny SUVs where the cafeteria used to be will report ghostly odors of the rectangular slices of pizza, green Jell-O, and whole kernel corn that were served on Fridays. Maybe someone will be struck with the irresistible urge to finger paint with chocolate pudding. Who knows.

Either way, if someone out there can save me a brick from the rubble, please do. And if you can, make sure it’s one from the kindergarten room.

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