Where does summer go? Even though it’s decades since I skipped away from the schoolyard in June, I still expect summer to stretch out in long, languorous days. But it doesn’t; before you know it, you catch sight of yellow buses and the first turning leaves.
So many Americans share this experience, the rhythms of life in public school. In our imagination, the schoolyard is an iconic and familiar space, whether it takes the shape of a grassy field or a concrete courtyard. And some things about it really don’t change – as I had the chance to discover while working on the soundscape for PEM’s show In Conversation, Modern African American Art., which, like summer break, comes to a close Sept. 2.
My back-to-school venture started with a fascination for Allan Rohan Crite’s painting, School’s Out. In it, dozens of students, all girls, spill from a schoolyard at the end of the day. In their yellow, blue, and white dresses, the girls and their mothers scatter like confetti across the red brick row houses.
The nostalgic scene made me think of my own grade school in the 1970s, making me think about what an enduring kind of scene this is for American kids. A mention in the catalog that Crite based the painting on Everett School in Dorchester piqued my curiosity. Was that school still in existence? What did it look like now? Would the students and teachers there recognize their school in this painting?
A little Googling showed that there was indeed an Edward Everett Elementary School in Dorchester. I picked up the phone, and was soon chatting with the warm and enthusiastic principal, Laura Miceli. I told her that we had an idea for featuring the school as part of the soundscape associated with this painting in the galleries. Could we possibly talk to some students about what their school was like today? Principal Miceli went me one better, offering a chance to talk with alumni and former teachers, some whose memories stretched back to the time of this painting’s creation in the 1930s.
I quickly planned a trip. The school put us in touch with a woman who remembered her teachers and schoolmates with great fondness and clarity. Even before I saw the school, I could tell something about it was special. I spent the morning with her, then moved on to meet students, teachers and former teachers at the school itself.
The building emanated creativity even before I entered. A fountain in front was covered with kids’ mosaics and poetry. A mural – painted by a local artist in conjunction with students – greeted me in the entry hall. A teacher gave me a quick tour, then led me outside to the playground, where recess was underway. Hula hooping, kickball, jump-rope and clapping mixed in a wonderful cacophony of kids at play. I recorded a little bit of this joyful and timeless noise for the soundscape before heading inside.
I met with several teachers – one current and two retired faculty, with a combined century, perhaps, of teaching among them. Their connection to the school and neighborhood was proud and strong. They spoke about the nature of an elementary school, the first place outside the home where children encounter a nurturing adult and learn to make progress on their own.
But one thing was amiss. Though no one wanted to disappoint me by saying it out loud, the truth came out – they didn’t think the painting in the school was Everett.
Why not? Some of it was architecture. The only row house in the neighborhood was a few blocks away. The Everett School had no annex, and no iron fence. That didn’t concern me so much; artists often manipulate reality to suit their aesthetic purpose, and it seemed to me that Crite could easily have chosen to represent the school with a different look. But the other difference was more pronounced – though the Everett School’s students and faculty are extremely diverse today, in the 1930s, they said, the neighborhood was primarily Irish Catholic, with not more than “one or two” African-American students attending the school at any one time.
Interesting! So, had the identification I read in the catalog been wrong? Had Crite misremembered? Was there another school by the same name somewhere in Dorchester or Boston? Or had Crite just painted a neighborhood as he would have liked to see it, rather than as it was? I know the answer can be found. I have yet to make the calls that will help me unravel the mystery about what school, exactly, Crite meant to depict. I still hope to track down the full story behind the inspiration for the painting, and look forward to returning to the caring people at Everett School to let them know what we learned.
At the same time, I realized that whether this is the “right” school doesn’t matter much. Crite painted a scene that is familiar to all of us, something we all want – a caring, safe community gathering in support of its vibrant, active youth as they play and learn. The kids I met at Everett School thought the painting mostly looked like it could have been made now (except for the fancy dresses, the absence of buses and the single-sex student body). Crite’s painting captured an American ideal that, though constantly challenged from all directions, survives in schools like the Everett. It also captured an enduring quality of American public education – the energetic mixing and mingling of kids from all backgrounds, learning and at play.
I suppose the buses are about to pull up in front of the Everett again and the bell will ring to start another school year. Though much in American culture and education has changed since Crite’s time – and much of it for the better, and the greater inclusion – there’s something comforting in knowing that the kind of close, neighborhood school community he depicted still carries on in some corners of our nation. Here’s to a happy and successful school year for students at the Everett – and all the schools that could just as well have been Crite’s subject.
Enjoy some sounds captured at the school and the conversations with teachers and students here: