Nine perfect years echoed in empty school halls Changes: After a bittersweet graduation, some classmates found a way to hold onto their memories.

May 30, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

MY GRADUATION from grade school in the spring of 1964 occasioned more than one celebration.

We started a few days beforehand with lunch at a restaurant in the 3900 Apartments on Charles Street, then took off for a Playhouse Theatre matinee made to order for Catholic school boys. Sidney Poitier was starring in "Lilies of the Field," a film about East German nuns building a chapel.

There was another party too -- this one a very big deal -- featuring a guest appearance by Baltimore's own Ronnie Dove, the teen singer whose records were then on the charts.

But come the big day, I grew apprehensive.

I'd spent nine happy years within the confines of the Baltimore Academy of the Visitation, a school of just 190 students where the rules were fair, comic relief was the preferred course and tedious academics were left for other children.

It was about as good as life gets.

On graduation day -- one of those classic rites of passage -- we walked down the aisle to a hail of flashbulbs and hugs from family, then celebrated with a breakfast heavy on pineapple and blueberry-filled pastries.

Amid all this, I wanted the impossible -- to forget about graduating and linger on at a place that seemed just about perfect. Reality dictated otherwise. I settled for an emotional last look, one backward glance on the day when you march bravely onward.

I figured no one would miss me for 10 minutes while I walked through every memory-filled classroom. So I slipped away from the school breakfast and tearily wandered the halls for a personal recess from reality.

This was an era when the classrooms, ever redolent of chalk, floor wax and mimeograph machine fluid, didn't change much. They looked same in 1964 as they had when I arrived in 1955.

Along the way, I paused at important places -- the top of the staircase where I'd heard the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated, the fine Victorian desk where I learned reading and arithmetic.

When I got to the last room, I turned, walked down the back steps and rejoined the breakfast. I was right. No one had missed me.

Even as a 14-year-old, I had a sense that things would never be the way they were in that Baltimore spring of 34 years ago. The rest of the 1960s proved my intuition all too correct.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King turned Baltimore inside-out. Then Bobby Kennedy was slain. His casket went through the city the day I graduated from high school. When I went off to college in 1968, it seemed as if every spring there was a fresh uproar surrounding some new cause.

All too soon that class of 1964 -- there were but 13 of us -- would feel the sting of time. Jimmy Fick was killed in a military accident during the Vietnam War. A holdup man gunned down Mike Riley as he worked in a sandwich shop. The reality of war and violence made us mature all the faster.

The change we celebrated on that graduation day in 1964 never stopped. The nuns who ran the school aged. They decided they could not keep up with the responsibility and sold the property. Today, the site flourishes as a secluded Roland Park residential subdivision.

Years later, I heard from some of my old friends who had returned to the school's darkened halls days before the developer was about to smash up the old place and dig the foundations for the new townhouses.

Before the bulldozers arrived, they left with souvenirs, the rollup map of the world left behind in an abandoned classroom and a section of slate blackboard. Later, I arranged to buy the wood cabinet where our school textbooks were stored.

Today it's a curio cabinet and holds oddments and pieces of departed Baltimore I've picked up -- an ancient Pimlico racing program, a Hutzler Brothers' spoon, a souvenir from Gwynn Oak Park. None, however, comes close to what that school cabinet means.

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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