What IS a School? Reflections on the Power of Place

In August of 2017, the school building that I previously called home exploded and collapsed as a result of a gas leak, leaving two dead, many more injured and a building in ruin. The destruction also left the institution itself in need of a temporary home; rebuilding will take years, considering that a month later mere entrance into the still-standing portions of the building is limited primarily to federal and local investigators.  Many people were affected by this tragedy. The families of those killed will begin the school year with a significant and awfully difficult void in their lives. The walking wounded face new realities and are just starting the process of adjusting to a new normal. The faculty have worked tirelessly in seeking a building in which they can being the year, not to mention the tremendous effort undertaken to make that building feel welcoming. Finally, students and parents are coming to terms with the fact that the long-term consequence of this change is still unpredictable.

As a former teacher at Minnehaha Academy, I am part of a group of people for whom the place was all we had left. No longer being involved in the day-to-day operations and interactions with students, and no longer engaging in the planning and execution of the school’s mission (in any substantive way), has left me with a keen sense of loss. My old classroom has been reduced to rubble. Gone, too, are any artifacts or tangible remnants of my time there. Of course the memories remain, but memories can be tricky things. When unsubstantiated by empirical evidence, they can fade quickly. And so I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the power of place and recognizing that when it comes to a schools identify, place matters.

In the wake of the explosion and building collapse, I heard a number of people say, “It’s just a building. Buildings can be rebuilt.” I respect this sentiment. I also suspect that it is a common way to cope with tragedies like this - a way of lifting a burden to provide relief and hasten the healing. With that said, I also disagree. To me, my classroom was not just a room, and that school was not just a building. The power of a place is that it acts as a trigger, for better or worse. As just one of many possible examples, consider the way a person might feel when walking into their childhood home after a long time away – you could imagine someone saying, “It all came back.” Emotions and memories and even routines and customs can all be tied to place. Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it is horrible, but it is hard to deny the truth of it all. As a high school teacher, I experienced it often.  Long after specific teachers had moved on, students would often return to poke their head into rooms and other places to experience the trigger that doing so engenders. Place has the power to unearth. In terms of a school, then, the place itself can unearth inspiration, provide renewed motivation, generate reflection, and even move us to reconnect with people. In that sense, everything that was lost in the collapse of my old school in August is hard to capture and put into words – and rebuilding cannot, and will not, have the same effect. Perhaps this is why former students have been flocking to the site of the explosion in recent weeks –not just to pay tribute to the people who lost their lives, but also to see the place itself one last time before it is razed.

It is possible that someone reading this might say, “It’s not the building, it’s the people in the building that make a school” And I get that. Faculty, staff and students play the most significant role in all of this. But I would encourage us to recognize the “both/and” nature of any discussion centered on school identity. We cannot underestimate the power of place.  And in this moment, for the Minnehaha Academy community, that place itself meant quite a bit.