Sitting in my fourth-floor hotel room at the corner of Quinpool and Robie Streets in downtown Halifax some years ago, I watched as the bulldozers demolished what was left of my old high school.
The experience was surreal, requiring as it did a stiff drink to keep me company. After all, this was the place where I finally managed to prove to myself that I wasn’t a hopeless math dummy. This was the place where I actually scored a perfect 100 in one term of Grade 11 Geography. And, of course, this was the place where I met my future wife, who was now beside me peering out the window, shaking her head.
“Isn’t this weird?” she mumbled. “I can’t even see where I parked dad’s car. I think it’s under that pile of rubble, which used to be the French lab.”
Naturally, I had to correct her. “No, it’s where the auditorium used to be. . .Do you remember that play we were in? I think it was Grade 12. You had this scene where you had to slap me. During final dress rehearsal, you hit me so hard, you broke my glasses.”
She started to laugh.
“Oh sure,” I mused. “You giggle now, but when I got home I had to explain to mum what happened to my face and where my expensive spectacles were. I remember telling her something like, ‘No big deal. . .I got into a fight with a jock.’”
My beloved continued to laugh. “Remind me again,” she queried, “why you didn’t just tell her the truth.”
I looked down my nose as the last of the school’s library quite literally bit the dust. “What,” I said, “Tell her that I got beat up by a girl?”
I was reminded of this afternoon of reverie after reading, the other day, accounts of the sturm und drang associated with the future disposition of the downtown Moncton High School site. As far as I know, no one is seriously suggesting bulldozing the grand, old building, but rather “repurposing” (awful word) it in any number of ways.
Still, it doesn’t matter. Mess with a building as formidable as a person’s high school and you’re bound to elicit debate. As for me, I recall entering through Moncton High’s hallowed doors only a few times while my daughters were in roughly dutiful attendance.
The first was on an impossibly hot May afternoon sometime in the late 1990s to give a speech to my eldest child’s journalism class. (Since then, I have delivered many addresses to movers and shakers, power brokers and bankers; none, I warrant, was more terrifying than that one at ye old alma mater, as I looked down the business end of teenage derision for 40 minutes, which felt more like 40 years in purgatory).
All of which is to say I do not have the degree of connection to Moncton High as do the men and women of this city who are debating the disposition of its edifice. But I can sympathize. To paraphrase Canadian songwriting great, Neil Young, some places in life are where all your important changes occur.
That was certainly true for me and Vivien at Queen Elizabeth High School in the 1970s.
As we sat watching the old girl’s final humiliation, pouring ourselves another drink, mixed feelings overwhelmed us. So did the memories. It’s funny how we hadn’t thought about these things for years – the teachers we liked, the ones we didn’t.
Nothing lasts forever, of course.
But, in memory, the important stuff somehow manages to endure.