Sunday, October 13, 2013


“And in my mind I still need a place to go, All my changes were there.” –Neil Young “The next time we go to Vancouver,” I said to David, “I want to go to Jericho Hill School.” “We already went there once,” he said reasonably. There was no denying the truth of it. For him, once had apparently been enough. We did go there once, back in 1974, when I was nearly 21 and the school was almost closed and the principal, smiling and gracious in a manner that seemed totally foreign to my memories of her, sized up david, glanced at my wedding ring and said to me, “Well, it seems that things have turned out rather well for you.” With that cogent summary, she ushered us off the property. Unspoken by David was the question: “Why would we bother going there again?” For this I had no real answer, only that I wanted to go. Our encounter with the principal was my last memory of the school, and this was a thing I regretted. For I had felt like a stranger in her commanding presence, a guest, unwelcome to explore the rooms I had known so well, or to speak unsensored of my experiences. A part of my life was closed off to me. I wanted to go back, to wander in the time before the principal tied my life into a neat bow. In my mind’s ear, Neil Young sang one possible explanation for my wanting: “All my changes were there.” I was a tearful, homesick 11-year-old Alberta farm child when I first went there in the fall of 1965. She was not the principal at that time. Mine had been the world of curling rinks and grain elevators, of chicken coops and hay lofts, of spring seeding and fall harvesting. I’d had never ventured beyond the safe shelter of loving parents. The house I had always known clearly remembered the days of kerosene lighting and outdoor bathrooms. In 1965 it still did not have a telephone. Vancouver BC was an unimaginable place. It might have been Wonderland, or the Land of Oz, for all I knew of cities. But Vancouver had a school for blind children. So that is where I was destined to spend my first few teen-age years. The Jericho Hill School for the Deaf and the Blind was not a single building, but rather a hodgepodge of structures, old and new, terraced and strewn on a steep hill leading up from the ocean at 4100 West 4th Avenue. At the bottom of the hill were the dining hall—half condemned and smelling eternally of cabbage boiled too long with ancient Brussells Sprouts, the office where we collected our allowance on Friday afternoons—three quarters condemned and creaking under every footfall, and the gymn—one ancient freestanding room, not condemned, though possibly soon to be. Part way up the hill stood the bowling alley where I learned to bowl badly, the swimming pool where I learned to swim sort of, and the Braille Building which housed the school for the blind, along with the dormitories for the junior blind girls, the senior blind girrls and the senior deaf girls. Over to the west was the building that housed the infirmary where the nurses soaked my boils, the auditorium where we put on plays, the residence for the junior deaf kids and the junior school for the deaf. Further up the hill were two buildings that housed the senior school for the deaf, and the home economics and industrial arts classrooms for the blind. Up even further stood the dorm for the senior blind boys and deaf boys. In the three years I spent trudging up and down that hill, I never climbed up to that level. The boys’ dorm was strictly off limits for us girls. In 2013 I was determined to go back there, to climb that hill again, even though I had heard that the condemned structures were gone and the Braille Building had been demolished. “I just want to walk on the grounds,” I said to David. So we boarded a bus sporting a sign that said #4 UBC and got off at Jericho Beach Park. The hill I remember has not changed. For some strange reason, no buildings have taken the places of the old. The swimming pool stands where it always stood and the sunken garden that separated it from the Braille Building remains as it was when I first knew it, nearly 50 years ago. I could face north and conjure up the mournful cries of the foghorns that were ever present when I woke on winter mornings. I could face south into the bush that backed our classrooms. David and I could descend the paths I trod in the rain to breakfast, lunch and dinner. We could take the path behind the pool and climb the 70 steps to the home ec room, now used for other purposes. We could even ascend those last two flights to the boys’ dorm. When we got to the top and surveyed the scene below, a gentleman asked if we needed directions—a reminder that this area might still be beyond limits for me. I left that place in the spring of 1968. My condition was much as it had been on the day I left home—tearful, not really wanting to leave. I was the strange inhabitant of two worlds that did not touch, except through me. Each world was separate and complete unto itself. Both of them were home to me, yet I could not dwell simultaneously in both. Three years is an eternity in the life of an 11-year-old. During that three years I had given up my Barbie dolls. I had expanded my body into bras and compressed it in panty gurdles. I had been kissed and learn go-go dancing. I had been confirmed in the Anglican church. I had visited the home of people wealthy enough to have a private swimming pool. I had slept in the same house as a drug addict. I had sold Girl Guide Cookies door-to-door. I had learned to read braille music. I knew jokes I could not tell my family. I had read To Kill A Mockingbird. I had sat upon a rock until my clothes were soaked by a rogue wave of the incoming tide. I had seen the Supremes perform at the Cave. I had eaten octapus at the Seven Seas buffet. I had drunk Shirley Temples. I had learned to iron. I could spell words in sign language. I had been lonely. I had been loved. I had been adopted by the families of friends I still cherish to this day—friends who could not possibly imagine themselves in the life of an alberta farm girl. It did not matter that the buildings were gone. A thousand insignificant details flooded my mind as we wandered up and down the hill. I recalled how the chairs were arranged in the dining hall, the shape of the pitchers that held the morning hot chocolate and the hooks where we hung our dripping coats. My ears heard the music room with its seven pianos, all playing discordantly from their corners during morning practice. My feet approached the library wall and my fingers touched the 144 enormous braille volumes that comprised the World Book Encyclopedia, 1960 Edition. I remembered throwing crooked pots on a pottery wheel and debunking horror stories about how hard it was for blind children to cope in public schools. (I had coped in public schools for the first six grades. That made me an expert.) I could hear Miss Darwood entering each room in the hallway calling: “Good morning girls.” (what she meant was, “Get up girls.”) I could feel the tension of waiting for her to get to our room. I would shut my eyes one second before she arrived and pretend to be asleep. I could hear the thunk of feet kicking the pop machine that stood steadfast at the swimming pool entrance, sometimes stealing money, other times delivering root beer, Coke or orange. The entrance is still there, but the machine is gone. David said he could see the stain on the wall where a machine had once stood. You can visit the past, but you can’t stay there. David and I left the grounds when I had kept him there as long as I dared. The paths through the forest and along the beach were beckoning us. But as we left, I opened the door a crack, lest he should think we would never go back. “I might,” I said, “want to come here some day and sit on the lawn that slopes down from the place where the Braille Building used to be. I might want to sit there and write.”

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