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Lonely Schools

Built-in lonely

A school without students can be a very desolate island

Schools are built for people. Students go there to learn, while adults go there to teach, maintain, and administer. When you stop to think of all the people on a campus on any given day it can be mind-boggling. There are teachers, assistant teachers, student teachers, coaches, nurses, secretaries, counselors, principals and assistant principals, cooks, cleaners, maintenance workers, security staff, and volunteer parents to name a few. Finally, there are the students who are, after all, the purpose for everyone else being there. And since schools are people-oriented, schools without people are strange, eerie places indeed.

Recently I visited a virtually empty campus. The only people there were a couple of grounds workers. While there I noticed how very strange everything seemed. It was too quiet, too serene, too peaceful. In other words, it was just bizarre. This place needed people, cried out for people, begged for people. Dry drinking fountains, basketball hoops hanging still, and hallways echoing with steps of a single individual – me. The classroom doors were closed, and every dark window tends make a school fairly cry with loneliness.

A school office without secretaries and teachers bustling in and out headed for the prep room is just plain weird. Schools aren’t supposed to echo, they’re supposed to blast sound from every corner. A dry office coffee-maker is just too, well, odd. Remember the noise from your own school? What did the playgrounds, the hallways before and after classes, and the cafeteria sound like?

Schools are created for use. They are designed and built to handle hallways crowded with the shuffling of hundreds or thousands of feet, long lines of hungry students in cafeterias during lunch, playgrounds teeming with children and adolescents during breaks. Architects and planners sit behind computers and drawing boards to insure that the largest number of individuals are moved, routed and accommodated with the greatest possible ease, safety, and efficiency.

Without students a school is just a warehouse for desks

People are a school’s entire purpose. Without people around a school is no more than a silent, cavernous shell echoing with ghosts - the ghosts of kids and staff long gone, of laughter, quiet sniffles, whistles of warning, and the sound of backpacks thrown every direction imaginable. Empty schools are lonely places. In fact, an empty school may be one of the loneliest places on earth. Even the wind sounds different in an empty school. Open schools have breezes, empty schools have sighing winds.

There are, certainly, other lonely places. A desert or mountaintop can be lonely as can the middle of the ocean. But these are natural places. While you may be riding in a small boat on top of the waves, underneath the ocean’s surface all manner of creatures are going about their lives. The desert and mountains abound with everything from cactus to pines, lizards to woodpeckers, tumbleweeds to flowers.

No, it’s not the natural places which are lonely; it’s the places we humans have built that seem to get the loneliest. We build in the possibility of our own loneliness while we create the great and marvelous things that help give us our humanity. We have created schools for a purpose singularly unique, the education of others beyond ourselves and our families. Animals teach their young to find food, build nests, and become hunters. So do we, but we not only do it for our own young, we do it for everyone’s children. We teach the children of people we will never know, the children of people we might loathe if we met, the children of people who couldn’t help us, wouldn’t help us. And we like to do it, get pleasure in doing it, feel more humane for doing it and most wouldn’t think of doing anything else.

A school’s critical purpose

We strive to teach human beings to be better, smarter, kinder human beings. This is the purpose we have given schools, the critical purpose, the only purpose. And during those breaks when students are playing and working, and employees are playing and planning, schools are just too silent. Even with all of the maintenance, all of the cleaning, all of the upgrading, all of the “catching-up” schools are accomplishing during those quiet days or weeks, they still seem a melancholy place.

Think about your own school years – do you first remember the buildings or the people? Picture their faces, their voices, their laughter, their smiles and their frowns. See the kids running in the halls, pushing each other on the swings, fighting over the mundane and arguing over the trivial. That’s what we remember, and that is what’s important.

Schools, without the sound of human laughter, human arguments, human learning, and human interaction are not places one should spend much time. Schools need people because schools are people. Visit one during the next open house and revel in the spirit, the energy and the optimism. You’ll be amazed at what an alive place it is.
© 2008 MPB