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."


Lakin said...

yr description of school brought it all back: coat hooks loaded with wet, wooly snow-coats and damp mufflers, galoshes sitting underneath, crooked over at the ankle, in puddles flecked with ice-crystals, (for a more few moments anyway), that specific smell of school lunch, the resiny smell of the sawdust-cleaner used on the hardwood floors. "Rain on the asphalt playground." captures it right there. Smells: our locators through time?

Mark Doty said...

Wonderful details, Lakin! You remind me of the way that Elizabeth Bishop changes scale in her poems, as if coming in for close-ups and then backing away-- those brief ice crystals in the puddles around the galoshes! Something that would capture a child's attention.

Jennifer Swanton Brown said...

Great old photo of a beautiful old school. I know what you mean about the grand imposing buildings. We don't have schools like those in California -- not in the 'burbs anyway. But we still have poety: here's a poem a class of third graders wrote with me recently about their school. Doesn't smell like much, but it moves around a lot.


Third grade floats as high as Ms. Cavanaugh.
We are smiley, shyly, shoelaces,
highly smart.
We float to another galaxy, like a television.
School obeys, does what we tell it to do,
comes up, starts dancing
with screamy, colorful moving pictures like a TV,
squeezed tightly in a box.

Happy Mother's Day!

Lakin said...

Thanks, Mark! certainly inspired me! That smell-memory connection is so powerful; the images arose from smells you led me to recall. Funny, I have a special fondness for Elizabeth Bishop and her work. Perhaps she's inspiring me, too.

Mrs. Sessions Class said...

My mom, Cubie Bauer attended Peabody in the 30s, and my grandfather, Victor John Bauer laid many of the bricks on the building. I would love to know more about this school, and would love to see my mom in an old school picture if anyone has any from that time. She said the boys and girls entered the building from separate sides, and the words "boys" and "girls" are still there on the sides of the school.
Boo Hildebrand Sessions