School day memories never fade

March 06, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

It was bad enough when I lost my beloved K-8 school back in the 1970s. Then I got to chatting with my old Guilford Avenue friend and Baltimore Sun colleague, Paul McCardell, who has seen every school he attended close: SS. Philip and James ( Charles Village), St. Mary's ( Govans) and Towson Catholic High School are all history. And more Catholic school closings were announced this week.

I feel for the families and students who got the news this week that their schools would be no more. I can only relate my own experience. I'd spent nine happy years within the confines of the Baltimore Academy of the Visitation, a school of just 190 students. There the rules were fair, comic relief was the preferred course and tedious academics were left for other children. For a 9-year-old, it was about as good as life gets. If you could not stomach the assigned reading list, a wise nun might suggest some Agatha Christie.

On graduation day, one of those classic rites of passage, we walked down the aisle to a hail of flashbulbs and hugs from family. 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 tearfully 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 the 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 John F. 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 graduation 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 so many years ago.

The change we celebrated on that graduation day in 1964 never stopped. The nuns who ran the school aged in the next decade. They decided they could not keep up with the responsibility. We students and our parents all loved the old Visitation Academy. There was a valiant effort to keep the place open for a year or two.

I was surprised that some of the neighboring private schools did not buy the 12 acres of golden Roland Park real estate for their expansion. Today, the site flourishes as a Roland Park residential subdivision, with one tiny street, Visitation Way, to note the former use. The chapel where the nuns assembled in choir stalls is now a condo, as is the rest of their monastery.

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 townhouses.

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

Last week, the news arrived that the surviving sister at the Roland Park Visitation Monastery in the 1970s had died. She was our art teacher, Sister Loretta Parkhurst. The memorable teachers who wore the black habits are dead. The classrooms, library, chapel and garden have disappeared. My set of highly emotional memories have not.

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