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Moving Day

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The big move had arrived. Our new school stood a mile north on Route 1, just waiting for the finishing touches. All that was left to be done before vacation was to pack up our belongings and close down what had been our home for many years, Memorial Elementary. In a corner of my classroom stood 19 empty rent-a-crates, one inside the other, rising above my head. I watched as day after day students marched assembly-line fashion past my windows to a trash-compacting truck parked under the basketball hoop, hauling boxes of the artifacts teachers had accumulated over the years. Our outdated textbooks would be sent to Africa by way of a local college professor. Students had volunteered to add their books to the lot, figuring they wouldn't need them with all the technological marvels of our new school.

Cautiously, quietly, my students and I wandered hallways still dusty from the installation of Sheetrock.

"Is it true in the classrooms of the new school a kid can dial his mother and hand the teacher the telephone?" David asked me.

I nodded.

"Ouch," he said.

Every hour or so, I listened as garbled announcements concerning the move issued from my ancient P.A. box, the same information repeated over and over so no one would hassle the office with a question. For weeks now, my mailbox had been flooded with memos informing me of parking regulations, warning me not to tape anything on the freshly painted walls, advising me that objects hanging from the ceiling might trigger the motion-sensitive alarm system, and forbidding me from bringing any of my used furniture151;dented metal file cabinets, particleboard bookcases, pegboard cubicles, makeshift tables—to the new school.

Although our principal assured us that we would all survive the move, I'd heard of teachers who had freaked out after using up their crate allotment and pilfered from neighboring classrooms. Some of my colleagues, it seemed, intended to take everything they'd ever brought into the classroom with them.

Students, on the other hand, were determined to take nothing. Repeated announcements asked them to claim clothing from the lost- and-found items piled on a large table in the lobby. Heaps of jackets, hats, sweatshirts, mittens, socks, sneakers—even a pair of pajamas—lay unclaimed, despite the fact that the table was an obstacle kids skirted every day on their way to lunch.

The week before vacation, I took my class to see our new school. We rode a yellow school bus and were met by tour guides-our special- subject teachers wearing black pantsuits—who lined us up outside the front door in long, silent rows of twos, as if we were entering a museum or a house of worship.

"Stay together," they warned us. "It's easy to get lost. Know who your partner is and remain with that person at all times. Beware of hazards."

Cautiously, quietly, my students and I wandered hallways still dusty from the installation of Sheetrock. We flowed around portable staging that supported workers almost completely hidden from view by ductwork. We passed the computer center ("Can we access teen chat rooms?" asked Jill), the science lab ("I heard you can light fires in here," whispered Dan to Tommy), the library ("How come the shelves don't go all the way up to the ceiling?" inquired Casey), and cut through the gymnasium ("Stay against the wall; the floor's still wet," cautioned our tour guide).

On the last day of school before vacation, we said goodbye to Memorial, a brick-and-cinderblock, high-ceilinged, steel-doored monument to the way things used to be.

The new school had big windows, circular community rooms, and recessed lighting. It was long and sprawling and accessible. In my classroom, a corner room on the second floor, my students tried out their desks, gulped water from the bubbler, tested the wall telephone, splashed in the stainless steel sink, opened and closed storage drawers, swiveled in my fancy new armchair, and stared out the wide windows. Below us lay the baseball field and a vernal pool, each surrounded by a chain-link fence.

"Frogs and foul balls," exclaimed Mack, "right under our window!"

My students didn't want to leave the new classroom. It was as if they were making up for all the times they had been told not to touch something that was new. They pawed the whiteboards, ran their hands inside the cool metal of their desks, squirted pink liquid soap from the wall dispenser onto their palms, and crunched themselves inside the coat cubbies. I reminded them we had a schedule to follow. It was time to shuttle back to Memorial so that other classes could take their tours.

Once back at the old school, our principal talked to our class and three others about the move. He reminded us that our new school cost $16.4 million and that we ought to thank the people of our town who had paid for it. He told the students that, in case they hadn't noticed, the walls of our new school were white, and they should not write on them. Then he took questions, encouraging students to speak up because he held the microphone.

"Will the food be better in the new school?" Billy asked.

"You'll think so," he said.

"What happens if we get lost?" wondered Annette.

"Ask directions."

"Are there cameras in the bathrooms?" James wanted to know, his question galvanizing the audience.

"No comment," replied the principal.

My colleagues and I had questions, too, but we didn't raise them in front of the children. We wondered, for example, when we were supposed to find the time to set up our new classrooms.

On the last day of school before vacation, we said goodbye to Memorial, a brick-and-cinder-block, high-ceilinged, steel-doored monument to the way things used to be. I wouldn't miss the crumbling floor tiles, the wonky heating system, or the terrible acoustics. Had the school been a battleship slated for the scrap heap, some organization would likely have stepped forward with a plan for preserving it as a historical landmark. ("It was behind this desk," the tour guide would say, "that Mrs. Mulkern taught for 37 years and handed out jelly beans from this glass jar.") Instead, Memorial would serve as a temporary community center until it was torn down or renovated into high-end condominiums.

Some of my colleagues, it seemed, intended to take everything they'd ever brought into the classroom with them.

At 3 o'clock, the kids stomped down the iron staircases and out of Memorial the way they would before any vacation—balancing paper plates filled with party food and squeezing through the doors, too many at a time. They moved a bit slower this year, not so much from nostalgia as from the weight of their backpacks. Transporting the contents of their desks to the new school, I had pointed out, was their responsibility.

Later, teachers assembled in the lobby for a group photograph. We stood shoulder to shoulder in three rows while a parent snapped away with her pocket camera, first getting one half of the group, then the other. We joked how we would outlive the new school, too, since none of us could afford to retire. After the photographs, we lingered awkwardly for a few moments, unwilling to move, as if we expected a curtain to fall or applause to erupt—or as if, by standing still, we might honor the old building for all the years it had given us. Then someone mentioned how the weather was turning for the worse and how traffic was already piling up. We took our cue, slowly making our way back to our classrooms to secure the windows, snap off the lights, and lock the doors for the last time at Memorial.

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