Observation Platforms: Cambridge, Massachusetts/ Beatrix Gates
When I was 4, I wanted to go to school. Everyone else on the block was going, leaving their house and walking to the Peabody School on the corner of Walker and Linnaean. Why wasn’t I going? I remember deciding to go. I had a plan. I waited until everyone had left the house and the kids had made their way almost to the corner, then slipped out and followed. I entered the school door, other kids pouring in and turned right up the wide stairs. At the top of the stairs in the first room, there were kids my size. I hung my coat on a hook by the door, found a desk empty in the side row and sat down. I let myself be part of the crowd. Under the desk lid, I found a new pack of Crayolas. I set them on my desk admiring the rainbow. A few moments later, someone appeared at my side. What are you doing at my desk? I had no answer, suddenly aware that I was outside. I was not a student at my desk in the Peabody School, but an interloper.
From there, I remember little, except that my brother had to be called to walk me home and I had to bear his embarrassment. I was his sister, so my escapade rubbed off on him. They had called my mother, and I began to wonder with a twinge of dread what she would say. She was tremendously relieved to see me and had been on the verge of calling the police. She thanked my brother for doing the right thing and bringing me home; but I learned his solidarity was not always going to be there. That night at dinner, there was no anger or recrimination, but something I can now call bemusement. They seemed kind of pleased that I had thought of such a thing. It seemed clear to me that action was going to be the way to get to my goal, school. It was right down the street. We played in the schoolyard after hours, although we weren’t supposed to. Sometimes, the janitor yelled at us to get out, but on weekends, it was easy to climb the tall security fence to get to the swings and play with no one around. The playground was ours, we lived right there. Everyone else came and went.
Soon after my attempt at going to Peabody, I was enrolled in an experimental nursery school held in quanset huts left over from World War II training. The ribbed silver tubes made a glowing curved ceiling, infinite and protected. It was there I learned what a scar was—a teacher noticing a cut on my knee told me I would have a scar. What is a scar? The words stay bright, as she explained about a cut sealing up the body’s wound to protect it. I felt a prickly wonder across my skin and about the bodies around me, what we were made of. I could be marked by my actions, beginning here with this ragged cut below the knee; later, I learned we are made of the same stuff as stars.
I was a climber and the trees were my friends. I scouted new construction sites. When the new Peabody School went up, at the end of the block, it became a glorious challenge. But first, there was the wounding of the neighborhood–a gash to the block as “Eminent Domain,” a term I’d never heard, was declared. Three of my friend’s houses were taken down for the school. The neighborhood was destroyed, in undeclared war with a sudden start and fast finish and no fight between. I couldn’t understand it.
The school construction was the site of the scar on the neighborhood–the houses and yards, and all the intertwined paths in our family structures, suddenly vanished: the dug up grass and bricks removed, giggles and defiance, alliances among families with children roughly all the same age. The new school took up the old playground as well as the full footprint of the four-story Victorian school, three houses on Walker and two on Avon.
My personal revenge was to climb the cement foundation, dropping to water below, and crawl up onto the wooden planks and steel beams of the construction site with my new avid climber friend Jan, the one, new good thing after all my friends left the block. We began our climb at night during a blizzard –plastic and tarpaulins bulging in the wind as we crossed and re-crossed the open pit taking in all possible angles, our bodies, leaping across the open space. We ruled the site with our acrobatics under the single hanging lights swinging in the wind cutting through the sheeted sides. We looked out from inside the construction globe’s milky surface and the starry streetlamps. Being inside the blizzard was like being inside a snow globe, exploring this strange half-constructed world where we were not supposed to go, our smallness an asset. We made a mark on the building rising from the remaining scar of our neighborhood. Cheeks cold and blotchy, I made my way home after hours of exacting revenge. We confronted the building and came away proud by re-learning what makes a scar and what can provide healing – adventure with a friend to defy the norm, create ritual and witness.