It's late and this post is already ridiculously long, so I may write Part II later, but I wanted to get some of this down now.
I played a show Saturday night at my old middle school for their annual auction. Such a trip. Many of my former teachers are still there and it was cool to see them again. But, every time I go back to that school, I start out happy and end up somewhat upset, because it brings back powerful memories of more innocent times. I left the school in the middle of the auction after I finished playing and eating dinner, wanting to leave but also desperately wanting to stay. That may seem weird to some, as I often hear people talk of middle school as a time filled with angst and misery, but for me it really wasn't. I mean, sure, there was angst and misery, but that's not even close to the whole picture of the 11 years I spent at that school, from nursery school through eigth grade.
There was also discovery, wonder and imagination; trees, woodshop, camping trips, and mulch; rope swings and puddles, jungle gyms and slides; spring fairs and sing-alongs to Hotel California; water balloon fights on weekends; handball, hockey-soccer and all-school capture the flag; Ga Ga (dodgeball in an outdoor, walled octagonal court*); class parties and sleepovers; reading hours and skits; spelling bees and math video games, but no grades; the pinewoods, hohos, pillow fights, parades, student-formed bands, fist fights, swearing, first name bases, unrequited crushes, the unconscious seeds of a first love that came much later, and friends I will keep for life.
Some of these references will not make any sense to you. If you went to a normal middle school, you probably think I'm crazy right now. However, you would be missing the point. The school in which I spent nearly the entirety of my childhood represents everything hopeful and refreshing about this world. It wasn't exempt from the darker aspects of life, nor did the staff especially try to shelter us from those elements. Two of my classmates had cancer; one died. That's a horrible ordeal for any middle school class, but in a tight-knit class of 23 tops, that's a really big deal. The teachers and administrators helped us face the bad times when they came, but they also did their utmost to offer us positive opportunities and experiences to offest the trials of extracurricular life.
My school's campus was 6 acres and covered in mulch, bushes, trees and logs. Each grade had its own classroom (the lowest grades often had 2 separate classes), but the main building was a mansion, and it housed all the administrative offices, the auditorium, the library, and all the specialty activity rooms (weaving, science, art, metalworking/jewelry, Woodshop, pottery, music, math). There was an attic, which was off-limits to everybody except eigth-graders on graduation day, when they would go up and read notes that older friends and siblings had left for them when they graduated--and then leave notes of their own. It was a big deal, finding those notes, reading the advice from past graduates, and then passing it on to the younger students--a rite of responsibility. It made us feel important, and empowered us to head on to the next stage of our lives.
There was also a basement that connected the woodshop and the clay room (and also some other rooms that were off-limits, for example the boiler room), and it was no big deal going down there during school hours, but the teachers would also take the young classes down there at night for a little scare on their first class sleepover. There were definitely rumors and stories of a resident ghost that haunted the mansion, which the teachers put to good use on the trip. That may not seem important, but it demonstrates the effort that our teachers put in to make our experience at the school meaningful.
The activity rooms were available during activity period and also sometimes during lunch and free periods, and I pretty much tried everything, but spent the most hours tucked away in Woodshop, improvising on the old upright piano they had there, whenever I got a chance. Doesn't seem like an appropriate activity for Woodshop, and sometimes they kicked me out (or didn't let me in) if they had a class there, but otherwise they were cool about it. Other times my friends and I invented action-imagination games that made full use of the terrain we had at our disposal. We had a 6-acre campus to explore, lunch anywhere we wanted, and various arts rooms to explore with dedicated teachers and assistants manning every room. At my old school, our free time was ours.