Friday, May 8, 2009
Peabody Elementary School, Memphis, Tennessee
In my memoir FIREBIRD I described Peabody Elementary, where I attended first grade back in the middle years of the last century, as "a square building, of gray and somnolent cement." My book's more allegiant to memory than it is interested in historical accuracy, so wouldn't you know I made my school seem as gray and moody as it did to me then. A reader in Memphis, who lives in the neighborhood now and describes it as a liberal enclave where black and white, gay and straight, single people and families all live side by side, writes to send me this great photo of the school. This was taken in the 1930s, but it's definitely my old school, and somehow it seems right for it be represented in black and white, which conveys such a sense of distance in time. And it's intriguing to see what a handsomely detailed edifice it is. There's some sense of civic grandeur implied in making an elementary school look like this, and perhaps a notion that our early educations were part of a tradition, and worthy of architectural ornamentation.
My most vivid memories of this place are smells: the safety patrol's cloakroom, with its fragrant wet yellow slickers hung up; the water and cold porcelain urinals in the boys' bathroom; the paper-and-paste smell of the library; the vague warm fragrance of school lunch. Nickels in my hand for milk. Rain on the asphalt playground.
Gaston Bachelard: "A soul is never deaf to a quality of childhood."