As the school year recently started for my own children, I couldn’t help but to think back of my time at Memphis School. The handsome three-story brick building that once stood safely in my Old Brooklyn neighborhood. As many of you know the formidable school came tumbling down nearly three years ago. At the very spot where Memphis School once stood is what is now commonly referred to as “greenspace”. Still, fond memories linger of a school that once was.
My years at Memphis started in the Fall of 1966. Living nearby in the neighborhood, my mother walked me everyday to my kindergarten class. My very first teacher was Miss Goodnight and our classroom was located in the basement of the school. One of my earliest recollections of attending Memphis happened during kindergarten. I must have told my teacher that I was hungry and didn’t feel well. I remember Miss Goodnight handing me her sandwich then sat with me until I felt better. Another memory is a field trip to the Cleveland Zoo in Miss Roach’s second grade class. This was more of an adventure than a field trip as we actually walked to the zoo through the woods off W. 42nd Street and Pensacola Avenue. Then marching single-file down the steel staircase that's (still) attached to the wooded hillside. The class then walked down Brookside Road (now called Wildlife Way) and around the old concrete Brookside public swimming pool (now the zoo's amphitheater). My memory of this field trip made even sweeter by having my father who is now long gone coming along as a class helper. Who could forget going to the school auditorium for lunch with our steel lunchboxes, watching a puppet show, or a movie from an old movie projector. I also remember how cool Memphis looked at night when all of its classrooms were lit up for open house.
Other memories include science labs and the breathtaking experiments performed in class. I remember hearing girls whisper about the budding romance between two of our favorite teachers, Mr. Sopka and Miss Emch. Or boys talking about the notorious “Memphis Gang” and their nightly scrapes with the law. Playing dodge ball or going to an after school carnival in the gym was fun too. The safety patrol guards waving their flags on street corners. How about the wonderful old lady named Bertha, that could’ve passed for “Aunt Bea” who was our crossing guard at Memphis and W. 41st. Yes, even getting swats from Mrs. Bridges in sixth grade for not turning in my homework have also aged into great memories.
After Memphis I went on to Mooney then graduated from Rhodes in 1978. I can say that of all the memories I have from all my school years, Memphis tops them all. Memphis School was a magical place for me and attending there will always have special meaning.
Sometime around 1995, I was reacquainted with Memphis School. It was through the religious group who at the time purchased the school building. The new owner asked if I would be willing to photograph their restoration process that was underway at Memphis. As a wedding photographer, I jumped at the chance to photograph something different especially when it provided me with the opportunity of returning to my old school. When I arrived for the shoot, I had forgotten how big and beautiful Memphis School really was. The classrooms were as huge as warehouse docks. The corridors were long, tall and stately. Some of the corridor floors speckled with thick glass block. I had a blast walking through the school and checking-in on my old classrooms. Opening up dusty closets and crawling through what resembled secret passage ways. I noticed a lot of neat things about the school that I had never noticed or remembered as a student there some four decades earlier.
I had so much fun during the two-day shoot that when it was all over, I didn’t have the nerve to invoice. The person who brought me on knew I was once a student and offered some mementos in exchange for my services. I happily accepted what many people would’ve left for junk but to me seemed like treasured artifacts. In fact, some of the items were even slated to be thrown out. Among the items that were given to me were a couple wooden swings that once swayed on the school grounds, a movie projector, P.A. speakers from the auditorium, a ceiling light fixture from one of the stairwells, couple of oak stairwell banisters, a classroom blackboard, couple of electric wall clocks, old text books, a porcelain “Kindergarten” doorway nameplate and old lantern slides from the 1920’s. I even left with the small 1940’s Magic Chef Stove that was used by the teachers in their second floor lounge. Later, I was even able to retrieve the solid oak science desk with the black top that my science teacher used for his fascinating experiments. Needless to say my wife Christine didn’t share in my delight when I started to bring these antiquities home. Thankfully though she has since recovered from the newly acquired collection of old school mementos.
Shortly before Memphis’s final dance with the wrecking ball, I paid a final visit. One evening after visiting with my mother, who still lives in the neighborhood, I decided to visit Memphis one last time. It was near sundown and the wind was blowing at full speed. As I peeked and wandered inside I couldn’t help but to notice that Memphis was clearly abandoned, worn out, torched and darkened. Gone were almost 100 years of echos made by countless school children scurrying through it's corridors. There was now a steady stream of water falling from the dilapidated ceiling above. The high wind created a howling sound inside the windowless school building like no other. These hideous sounds were mixed-in with sounds of metal flapping somewhere in the basement below. It sounded as though someone was downstairs banging on a piece of sheet metal with a hammer. It felt as though I stepped into some sort of horror movie.
As I proceeded with my nocturnal visit, the near darkness inside along with the nightmarish sounds began to unravel my adventurous spirit. I couldn’t help but to ask...could the old school building now be haunted? Surprisingly, even with all of the ghostly sounds, I found myself tip-toeing up to the third floor. Just as I stepped onto the third floor corridor, I spotted what appeared to be a silhouette of someone standing in the opposite stairwell. It looked as though both of their arms were outstretched above their head like someone hanging from a chin-up bar. I immediately froze into a mannequin-like stance trying to decide if I was looking at a person or some sort of shadow.
Was it a ghost? I don't think so. Likely, someone else had the same idea of looking around as I did. However, I didn’t stick around to find out who or what "it" was so, I raced down the dark stairwell two and three steps at a time before bouncing out the side door. Sure, it sounds embarrassing now but at the time I was positive whatever I saw had already commenced in chasing me. My only thought was to get out before "it" caught up with me. I’m sure the constant banging sounds, water dripping and the howling wind precipitated my frantic escape. That my friends, was my last experience inside our old school building. The next time I visited was after the demo to collect some of the bricks that were scattered about.
Over the years I've run into both young and old Memphis alums. It's always fun to reminisce with fellow classmates no matter what year they attended. Most agree that Memphis School was a special place. Yes, the once dignified Memphis School is now gone but the memories will always remain.