This Used To Be My High School
The Madonna song “This Used to be My Playground” has been stuck in my head since I attended a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy. The building this new school is housed in used to be my high school – Aurora Central Catholic High School.
I graduated from ACC (as we called it) in May of 1988. For those of you counting, it’s been 25 years.
I loved attending high school in this building. It was old and small and some parts of it were a little spooky, but it was ours. Being a small, private high school enabled me to know everyone in my class. And most of the other classes as well. Some of my closest friends were made during those four years, and they are still friends to this day. Because all of the Catholic grammer schools funneled in to one of three Catholic high schools (ACC was co-ed, Rosary was all girls, and Marmion was all boys), most of us went to school with at least 20-25 members of our high school class from kindergarten through senior year. It’s great when we get together because there’s a language that we have; a shorthand speak of the Catholic school kids from Aurora during that time. ”Where are you from? St. Nick’s? OLGC? Oh then you must know the so-and-so’s.” It’s just how we grew up.
My sweetheart and I actually went to high school together and were part of the same class. While we didn’t date or hang out in the same groups, we knew each other because of our class size. Everyone knew everything about everyone. I still tease him for who he dated our sophomore year! It would be 20 years before we would reconnect right before our previous reunion, and we’ve been friends, and then sweethearts, ever since. We share a history together, not only of the town we grew up in but of our high school years. While our individual memories of friends and parties and activities were different, we share a common bond of the core years and the teachers and classes that made up the four years of our high school experience.
Our building was as much at part of that experience as the students we attended with. From the giant M1-M2 classroom, separated into two with an air wall, to the lockers in the coveted “music wing” our junior and senior year, to the catwalks on either side of the gymnasium that used to connect the main school building to an ancillary building behind it where the nuns lived. There were ”up only” and “down only” stairwells, hidden storage rooms and janitors closets where the rebel kids would hang out in the mornings before school, and a great mystery of what the curtain behind the statue of the Virgin Mary on the first floor was REALLY hiding (was it a closet? was it an elevator? was it nothing?). I can still close my eyes and remember where my locker was every year and hear the sound of the class bell ringing.
A few years ago, my sweetie and I had a chance to wander through some of the building while it was a community center. It stopped being ACC when a new facility was built in the mid-late 90s that could house a school and athletic fields on one campus (we had to lease space from another facility several miles away because our campus had no athletic facilities). The City of Aurora owned the building since the school moved out and there were changes – classrooms and doorways were walled off and enclosed, the M1-M2 configuration that prevented the use of the gymnasium for anything other than school assemblies and theater productions was torn down, the catwalks removed, and the building was made into a stand alone structure. As we wandered around trying to figure out whose classroom was where, remembering teachers and places and times, we laughed and smiled at our joint history. We marveled at the doors and woodwork and iron railings in the stairwell that were the same. We ran up and down the stairs, slower than we did in twenty plus years ago, but at a rhythm that was familiar. The muscle memory knowing exactly how many steps there were before we needed to swing-turn around the railing to go down the next flight. A dozen times a day for four years gave that to us. It felt like home. We took a picture while we were there, and another one this week in the same stairwell.
Heading back this week, after our class had celebrated 25 years since graduation, I was filled with a sense of pride that this building I loved, that had been a part of so much joy in my life, was being returned to a place of education within the community. It’s demographic is different now; instead of being a high school it will be filled with 450 of the best and brightest 3rd through 8th grade students from the public school district who have qualified to participate in a Magnet Academy that is the first of it’s kind in the area. The army of people that have renovated the building and made it ready for the start of school next week are to be congratulated – it looks incredible. The classrooms are filled with the latest and greatest gadgets and equipment to begin an entirely new educational model in this school district. It’s different and yet the same. It still feels like ACC to me. The flooring is the same. The cafeteria is in the same place, but slightly reconfigured. Where they could, the architects tried to preserve the history of the building. In order to meet the new codes for schools, glass in the doors and windows needs to be tempered. Instead of tearing out all of the solid, wood doors and replacing them with the doors that included the correct glass, they instead replaced every single pane of glass within the building to preserve as much of the old woodwork as possible. The core configuration is the same – long hallways with stairwells on either end and classrooms scattered in between. The “music wing” that housed my locker as an upper classroom was removed several years ago – all that is left is a outline on the side of the building where the brick work was replaced. The statues in the front of the building that were there for my class picture are no longer. The massive front lawn has been replaced with a horseshoe drive and the stairs have been narrowed and railings have been added.
And while the name carved in stone in the arches over the front door still says “Madonna Catholic High School” (the building’s first school, it was there for 50 years as an all-girls school before it merged with the all-boys school to form ACC. And see how Madonna ended up back in the post?), there are parts of the building that will always remain only ACC. For those of you in theater, you’ll remember the tunnel from the stage to the outer hallway. Through all of the different times the building has been renovated since it stopped being ACC, the tunnel has been left alone (except to be closed off on the stage end) as a time capsule to the generations of ACC kids that left their mark (literally) on those walls. It stands now behind a door labeled “Janitors Closet”, but I’ll rest easy to knowing there is a part of us that is permanently inside that building. Encouraging the next generation to be great. To have fun. To laugh. And to dream.
Good luck to the students of the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy. May they love 501 College Avenue as much as I do.