The Road Not Taken

Originally published in Northern Ohio Live, 2003

The school looks the same as I remember it, from 20 years ago. It’s a slit-faced red brick structure with tall narrow windows that don’t open, giving the place a fortress-like feel. The building folds inward, modern and stale at once, mired in 1971, a silent witness to white flight and the slow steady march of poverty, joblessness, and loss of hope.

The architect Paul Voinovich, who designed the school in the early 70’s, was the father of the soon-to-be mayor and now Senator George Voinovich. The building, with its fluorescent lighting and bright linoleum floors, is no longer half-empty as it was in 1980, when many parents of deaf children sent their youngsters to private schools to avoid the trials and tribulations of the city schools.

Today, I learn later, only some of the school is ‘deaf.’ Now there are classes for hearing children, too.

Walking upstairs in a waking dream, I weave into the main office. I half expect to see Laverne, the sassy opinionated young woman who held the place together as a secretary back in the early 80’s. Instead two other black women sit behind the high counter. One is occupied on the phone; the other looks at me with a wary expression and asks if I need some help.

“I have an unusual request,” I say, explaining my history as a young teacher in this very school and my desire to look around. “I’ll have to check with our principal. Just wait there.”

“She wants to see you,” the woman says a minute later and I am summoned toward a corner office on the other side of the secretary’s counter, trying to shake the feeling that I am in trouble, have done something bad or improper.

I’d wanted to see Mrs. Newsome, the heavy-set and honey-voiced woman who served as Assistant Principal years ago, who counseled me patiently during my first nerve-wracking year of teaching. But she’s probably long since retired, replaced by this small woman who shakes my hand without enthusiasm, a dead fish against my palm.

I’m a writer, researching a setting for a story, I explain. A writer who used to teach at this very school. A fictional story, I emphasize, about a deaf school. It’s true, I am trying to hatch a story, but I don’t share my background as an ‘op ed’ journalist for a Boston paper, or the fact I’m taking notes about her, and the few other people who populate this building on a quiet Friday afternoon, when the students have been dismissed early.

“Most of the teachers are in a meeting. But I’ll get the technology teacher. He’ll escort you around. So you’re just looking for impressions, just a feeling?”

“Exactly. The story is about a first year teacher of the deaf and his struggle to learn the ropes.” I don’t mention that my main character is gay–like me–or that the ‘story’ is nothing more than a vague impression in my mind. I don’t imagine that she cares, just so long as it’s fiction.

I thank her and a middle-aged man with a wide Slavic face and pale complexion comes in. He looks at me, scanning, rewinding files of memory, and nods in my direction. “Hi Rick,” I say, reintroducing myself as Bruce, a name I no longer use, part of my history like my memories of this school. The Principal smiles, too, for the first time. I realize she hasn’t given me her name–doesn’t want to end up as a character in my piece.

Rick was a shop teacher–with skinny white legs I remember from the student-staff volleyball game and thick coarse black hair, pasted on his head like a helmet. His hair is still thick, and he’s thickened around the waist, too, and sports a modest gut. Walking around the U-shaped second floor, he leads me to my former classroom, where I struggled to teach groups of junior-high aged deaf children about Math and Science, replacing a woman who had been at A.G. Bell for twenty-five or thirty years, who seemed older than my grandmothers.

There are no traces of me or my former students, “kids” who would be 36 or 38 today. Still, I’d recognize most of them on the street, I’m sure, their bored formerly-adolescent faces lined by life, but expressive, open, the way deaf people often are.

We walk into a resource room, stuffed with pictures of smiling kids–mostly brown and black faces. I ask him about white children–half the school’s population 20 years ago, and now, Chuck says, about 10 of 300. I look for a picture of this absent teacher I knew as a green eyed sharp-tongued woman of 30, with long reddish hair and a smile that sparkled in the school’s fluorescent light, but can’t find one. I wonder how life has touched her–gently marked her face or scratched and clawed her as experience and time often do.

The moments pass quickly–15 minutes or 30–and I feel the present calling me back, shifting plates of tectonic time, two decades sliding together and breaking apart. Chuck doesn’t say anyone has died, even Mrs. Brown, the supervising teacher who retired at the end of my first year and seemed ancient, even then. How lucky we all are.

We shake hands–I’ve taken up too much of his lunch period. Walking out through the dark glass doors I inhale and taste a hint of spring in the February air. I think of that sharp-tongued woman and Rick, and others I’ve almost forgotten, who’ve taught in this sealed box while I’ve changed careers, and hometowns, restless as the teenagers I tried to teach.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I head east, knowing I was one of a hundred transients passing through, leaving less of an impact on this building than the winter winds, which swirl past the slatted bricks and stingy windows, leaving no impression.
©2003 Judah Leblang