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art theplaceThe temperature was 20 degrees below zero with a howling wind.

As I listened to the online stream of my hometown police scanner, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Way up yonder, on the Canadian border, in the tiny town of Champlain, New York, my elementary school was burning to the ground last Friday evening. Over 100 years old, the enormous stone structure was ablaze, with massive flames reaching up into the frozen winter sky of the North Country.

Voices of firefighters and dispatchers echoed out of the scanner, with last names and accents I knew all too well. French Canadian surnames and other town fire departments chipping in to help that rekindled memories deep in my mind like a match being struck. It was surreal to hear it all as my field of vision was overcome with faces not thought of in years. The scanner voices stated street locations to set up a perimeter to tame the fire. I remembered those streets. I remembered playing on them, walking along the sidewalks, talking with cronies I haven’t seen in over a decade, or at least since high school graduation.

Saint Mary’s Academy was an institution. Not just in the literal sense, but also in matters of the community at large, and of the heart. It was the first place I really knew besides my childhood home. I mean, when you start being cognizant of the world around you it usually occurs during those early years in elementary school. A Catholic school, it was overseen by nuns and the parish priest. It was a place not only did my sister and I attend, but also my mother, aunts and uncles.

I first encountered the building when I entered pre-school. I remember how looming the building appeared from the outside. It was old stone and brick, and had this very intimidating feel to it. The stairwells creaked and the well-worn doors squeaked. It was cold and drafty in the winter, hot and humid in the summer months. You could hear the radiators groan on in the mornings and footsteps echo down long, silent corridors.

But what filled the air was a sense of purpose — an atmosphere of love and nurturing experienced day in and day out. I remember a lot of laughter, an array of incredible teachers, and the whole world at my fingertips, right outside the window near my desk. 

There was the shenanigans of recess, field trips to apple orchards and pumpkin patches, trial and error attempts at answering a question correctly at the blackboard, deafening cafeteria lunches, basketball games and square dancing in the dusty gymnasium, weekly masses to reflect on the daily life of being a youngster, and the dreaded “see me after class” when one got ahead of themselves in the eyes of the teacher. 

And then there was the friends, the people I met when my age was in the single digits. Those folks, though we may only cross paths every so often, will always hold a special place in my heart. They knew me before I even knew who I was. They were the ones conspiring with me about how to make a tree fort, how many ice cream sandwiches we could get if we pooled our lunch money together, and who of us could make the shot from half-court when handed the basketball at a moment’s notice.

Nothing was ever the same for me when I left the St. Mary’s. We took off for public school following sixth grade. We were now middle school students, meeting new people, having new experiences, and moving on with our lives. But something always remained, something that was exchanged in glances with St. Mary’s chums in the middle school hallways, at the prom, amid college parties, and in conversation at our 10-year high school reunion. That something was our past and what connected us all — St. Mary’s.

It was heartbreaking seeing all of these photos of the school burning down being posted on Facebook, some by neighbors, other by friends who live nearby. And yet, following the fire, the memories and sentiments started flowing in. Folks who attended the school in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and until it closed in 2012 all shared their old photos and memories. Former students reconnected and reopened the doors on friendships long placed on the quiet shelf of life. 

All of these people, who are scattered across every corner of the world, coming together because no matter how far away they are or have traveled or will wander, one thing remains the same — where the starting point was.  


Hot picks

1 The Get Right Band (funk/soul) will perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 at BearWaters Brewing in Waynesville.

2 The “Robert Burns Dinner” will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 24 in the Tartan Hall at the Franklin Presbyterian Church.

3 Mangus Colorado (bluegrass/Americana) will perform at 9 p.m. Jan. 24 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.

4 Darren & The Buttered Toast (funk/soul) will perform at 9 p.m. Jan. 24 at Mad Batter Food & Film in Sylva.

5 Haywood County Arts Council’s annual meeting/reception will be at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at Gallery 86 in Waynesville.

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