COLUMN SIX: Pilgrim at Pelham Centre

Playing field at Pelham Centre. VOICE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

As elementary school closes, a former student takes a last look

Special to the VOICE

Let’s take a walk. It’s early in the morning, at Pelham Centre School, and the building is a week from retirement. It doesn’t look to be fading: its facade is as smart as ever, and you get a grim sense that the structure itself is the only one unaware of its own impending expiration. A pine has been allowed to grow up and cover the name, but there has been a school here since before the U.S. Constitution was signed, and it is unlikely anyone will mistake this place for anything else.

Now is the best time to visit. The new sun squeezes slants of light through gaps in the trees, projecting leafy patterns on the asphalt, and the parking lot is empty save for the cars of the most devoted teachers. The students are still in their buses, lapping the neighbourhoods picking up classmates. In a few minutes until they’ll be deposited here, at first walking to the doors, then running after their friends, then walking again once they’ve been scolded.

Turn the corner and look out to the field. That baseball diamond has to be new: the sport was only invented in 1839. Pivot back from where we’re standing, on the edge of the grass, and look to the school itself. Most of it isn’t so old, though in the centre still stands what was once a one-roomed schoolhouse, now the library. On June 20th, 1887, the school inspector noted just one student present from the fourth grade. “Strawberry season,” he wrote. Some things have changed.

When the first school here turned two, Beethoven was twelve. Aside from the steel posts of the soccer goals, and the grass cut too evenly to have been done over by a scythe, the view is timeless, and Ode to Joy might still be in its debut run in Vienna. Black raspberries line the woods that line the field, and they are darkening now in these last days of the school year. A shrewd student who knows her wildfruits might yet have a snack.

Let’s continue on to the north field. It’s much smaller—where the juniors can play and develop their own hierarchies without fear of being trampled by the seniors. The gentle slope that runs from the doors down to a playset was always the site of “King of the Hill” bouts, made more combative in winter when ice coated the bank and made it all the more difficult to seize the crown. The old wooden playset at the bottom of the hill was replaced when I was in the eighth grade. My class stood at our window and, one by one, recounted all of the injuries we’d suffered at its paws. “Why are they taking it out?” we wondered.

Between the two fields is a cramped bog. The skunk cabbage is in bloom, as it always seems to be, belching out its impressive imitation of the real thing. It was never much of a deterrent, though, when marble season came around in May. For weeks, we’d crowd its edges, tossing cat’s eyes and steelies and comets into the gnarled knuckles of the old trees’ roots. A sport for every season—football in the fall, hockey in the winter, baseball and soccer in the spring. Other activities, too. On the benches near the baseball diamond, kids would congregate with trading cards and Gameboys. Sometimes, when we tired of sports and were in the mood for a risk, we’d push the bounds of the field into the forest into which we were forbidden to go, collecting sticks, building little tee-pees.

“Before adolescence,” I once read, “memory is more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town were not yet idealized by nostalgia.” So it was of those hazy days of Pelham Centre. I can’t remember or imagine what most of the girls were doing in all those recesses when we boys were pretending to play touch football but really tackling when the teachers turned, or starting a snowball and pushing it around the yard, another boy joining our efforts each time the ball got too heavy. At those ages, from eight to thirteen, we don’t linger on the periphery, nor do we think about what we’ll think about when reflecting, years in the future. Youths are immortal, and immortals are not concerned with posterity.

To the mortal though, there is much to be nostalgic for at Pelham Centre. I see us playing football, our fingers so numb the ball slips as we try to throw—but now I see other groups, too. Even some girls playing. I see groups from the senior grades leaving the fields empty, instead standing in circles with their fists in their pockets to preempt any attempts to pull their pants down to their ankles. A few in the group are even holding hands; this is, after all, the age at which we begin to have vaguely—and then specifically—impure thoughts about others on the playground, classmates who were previously translucent.

There are no real fences at Pelham Centre. I recall a few students taking advantage of this and escaping into the woods, or down the street, once they’d cracked. Years ago, this absence of barriers allowed escapees in, too. One day, students were kept inside at recess because there were buffalo roaming in the field.

The new Pelham Centre/E.W. Farr school will be modern and sleek. More students will live closer to it, saving on fuel, among other efficiencies, that will total nearly two hundred thousand dollars per year, so we are told. The E.W. Farr site is lovely, too. It backs on to a sizeable wood and its yard has a slope suitable for tobogganing, if students are still permitted to engage in such hazardous activities.

But, still.

One day last winter I set out walking in the woods behind my house. I hiked southwest, in a course that brought me crashing through the barren brush into Pelham Centre’s back field. It was late afternoon, seeping into one of those winter evenings that seem to begin at noon and persist until the last glint of the distant sun drops away. When I looked to the asphalt, I could see that a young boy was there, playing basketball. Not wishing to look threatening, I ambled along the tree line, looking away, taking care to seem uninterested in this boy’s presence. When I was within a hundred yards or so, he caught sight of me, and stopped. I turned away again, and began walking, slowly, staring at the ground. When I looked back, he was sprinting off towards the road, ball in hand. I followed him with my eyes, until he was just a shape bobbing in the gloom, and then, soon, he turned a corner and was gone.

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