Monday, June 4, 2012

Sacred Space

Where does the Soul reside? Is it somewhere in the body? Can it be located by computer brain scans? Is it in the land itself, a particular spot that sings clearer and stronger? Is it inside the bricks and mortar, wood and nails, of the cathedrals, shrines, temples? Does it float weightless in the air or hover solely in the imagination? Fresh from a ceremony giving a ritual goodbye to sacred space, this is much on my mind.

In 1969, the year I graduated high school, a young fledgling school housed in a rented church basement made the bold move to buy an old Baptist Church in the neighborhood. They had already begun their dream of a Montessori education that would give children the dignity, the independence and the habits of mind that would serve them their whole lives through. When I joined the community in 1975, the building was already soaked in six years of joyful experimentation continuing up to 5th grade. The Montessori preschool stayed as it was in one wing, while the elementary school was housed in another wing in one enormous room loosely defined by India bedspreads and bookshelves. It was kind of an open-classroom model and typical of the “take-down-the-walls” alternative school model we were following. But it definitely made the challenge of educating 75 kids yet more challenging with the constant loud hum and buzz and sometimes just plain noise of children at work.

And so the bedspreads changed to more solid structures and finally we put up the walls and wondered why we waited so long. And it was in these five self-contained classrooms that the miracles of curious children investigating the world were housed.

But on June 18th, the wrecking ball will start swinging and those sacred spaces will live only in our memories—and a few thousand photos. Why? To build the long-awaited gym/theater/community center. I had always hoped that this could have happened across the street or down the hill and we tried, but in the end, the only solution was to tear down the existing elementary school and build a three-story structure from the ground up. So to mark this bittersweet moment of bidding farewell to the old and welcoming the new, I decided to host a little ritual in our unique school fashion.

After a hard morning’s workday with parents helping teachers box up materials to clear the classrooms, a handful of dedicated alumni students, teachers and parents came by to say goodbye. We gathered together and opened with our “Side by Side” school anthem and I called up some of my fellow colleagues (now retired) to tell the old war stories about the ever-changing elementary school space. Things like building the stage for the Holiday Shows, rolling up the bedspreads and creating the magic of a large roomful of kids and parents each with a lit candle. Until one time, a teacher’s hair briefly caught fire and we decided that perhaps we should shelve that tradition.

We then walked through each of the five classrooms and the various teachers who had taught there told more stories, ending with a sanctified ring of a Tibetan bowl to ceremoniously say goodbye to each space. Last stop was the music room, my own corner of heaven that I helped save from demolition and will be one of the last recognizable spaces of the original building. We entered to the 15 kids from the class of 2010 all playing the instruments in a joyful collective chaos as they tried to remember all the pieces they had played. This a matter for another posting, their hunger to keep playing music like this that is not high school band, choir or orchestra. They then joined us in a final circle as we sang “Que SerĂ¡,” rang the gong yet once more—and off I rushed to the airport for the next chapter (starting in Finland) of my “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher” life.

But in my closing remarks I asked, “Where does the Soul reside?” In each of those spaces, the stories affirmed that “A Great Miracle Happened Here,” moments worthy of reverence and remembrance. What happens when the actual space that housed it all is gone? Does a piece of it die when the bricks and mortar meet the wrecking ball? I know that when I return to a place that I cherish in my memory and find it more or less as it was, a great warmth spreads over my body and a conversation that started long ago between myself and that place resumes. Conversely, when I returned to my high school that had moved to an entirely new site and saw the old pictures on the wall in a new setting, it just felt weird.

We live life forwards and remember it backwards and sometimes the two are aligned and sometimes not. Having lived through all the transitions that I have in my 37 years at school, I know first hand that I’ve survived every change, every loss and kept moving forward and often happily so. And it is partly the attention to these transition moments, the ritual acknowledgment of the bitter and the sweet, the ringing of gongs and eating of Mud Pies and playing again on the old Orff instruments and standing in circles singing the old songs and the casual conversations before and after the formalities, that help us through these changes and keep the Soul housed and well-fed.

When we sang “Que SerĂ¡,” a 36-year old alum who I remember vividly as a serene Buddhist ball of light when I first met her as a 3-year old, was singing with her 6-month old baby. While I was playing piano, the baby made eye contact with me and with a knowing eye-twinkle and wise smile, assured me that the magic would continue beyond any mere change of building. And I believe it will.

So farewell to The San Francisco School Elementary Classrooms—thanks for all the years and see you in The Community Center.

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