A Cape Cod Notebook 10/30/07

listenOld School Pictures

By Robert Finch

When my son was young, his monthly Cub Scout meetings were held in the basement gymnasium of the old Brewster elementary school. Since then the old school has become the town hall, and the gymnasium has been cut up into offices and meeting rooms. There's only one thing that I miss about the gymnasium, and I'd very much like to know what's become of it.

Along one side of its pine-paneled walls there hung a long row of old school pictures, some dating back to the late 1800s. Sometimes, during the meetings, I would amuse myself by drifting over to these pictures and examining them, taking each one down in its funny, old-fashioned frame, and the carefully replacing it on its nail.

My favorite picture was the oldest one, dated 1888, of "District School No. 5," located in South Brewster. It showed a small, simple, wood frame, gable-fronted building standing in the middle of a flat, tree less plain. In front of the building a group of perhaps fifteen children were lined up with their teache r. Their heights varied from barely three feet to over five feet. They all looked uncomfortable, in clothes either too big or too small for them. The girls wore heavy calico dresses, the boys tight-fitting pants and jackets buttoned to the neck. The littlest child of all was a tiny thing on the left end. Her name w as listed as Bernice Small and her features were shadowed by a large sunbonnet ? like the old, faceless Dutch Cleanser girl.

The teacher, only slightly taller than the tallest boy, was identified as a Miss Palmer. She looked young and was fairly handsome, and was staring firmly off to one side. Virtually all of the names inked u nder the picture were old Brewster families: Ellis, Howe, Baker, Small. There were others, equally old - Maker, Briggs, Bearse - which have not survived so well down to the present day, except in some of t he newer subdivision and street names.

These old pictures grabbed me so, I could not account for it. It was not just the quaintness of dre ss and the radically different landscape. These little figures looked so vulnerable, so fragile out on that barren windswept plain, with only the firm jaw of their teacher to sustain them. Today we are apt to think of our relationship to this planet in terms of a technological and industrial death grip, but these children suggested the real isolation of the human spirit in the cosmos and made me feel that no advantage they might have managed to scrape up against the universe would have seemed unfair. I loved them, among other things, for their total, incomprehensible unawareness of me.

I think I valued these pictures not just as symbols of a lost past, but as a perspective on the pres ent. The children in them have become invisible, covered up like the timbers in old houses that have pass ed into strange hands and been remodeled. In recent decades a pattern of new names (mine among them) have pasted themselves across the face of the town. Yet in time, I know, the glue of our opportunis m will loosen and we will peel off like cheap wallpaper.

But in these pictures, whose whereabouts I no longer know, the small children remain like kingposts. Today we still travel their roads, walk their beaches, and endure their seasons. We have supposedly "conquered" space and mistake it for time, but in their guileless, unguarded faces I read the intent to strike roots deep into the void.