The Velveteen Building: Freewater School


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The Velveteen Building is a book about a school--an old school in a relatively poor school district. It is about a building with asbestos, lead paint, poor fire escapes, and outmoded restrooms. And it's about how the very things that would seem to be disadvantages actually proved of immense value both educationally and emotionally. It is a book about the vital role that history and tradition can play in anchoring a community--and in helping newcomers to create new roots. Photos and copy by Sherry Wachter.



We came to town in the Fall, refugees from a moldy house. I had never wanted to live in Milton-Freewater, but the mold had broken me. I no longer sought my dream home, just a good roof and sound pipes. Milton-Freewater was what we could afford. I spent one day looking at houses. At the end of the day I made an offer. The house wasn't perfect, but it was good enough. And dry. Very, very dry.

The Health Department had said we had to be out of our home in three days. We couldn't get into our new house for two months. We threw away our couch, our beds, my son Patrick's stuffed animals, my paintings, most of my design portfolio. We filled a dumpster three times. And then we closed the door of our moldy home behind us and walked away. I wasn't sure where we would spend the night, but I knew the next two months were going to be very, very expensive.

We stayed in a motel for a while. Then we stayed with my mother. I felt lost between two worlds. I tried to get a post office box in Milton-Freewater so I could give an address to my clients. The Post Office made me get a note from my mother before they'd give me one. I felt obscurely shamed. Was I not responsible enough to rent a box without a co-signer? I asked where I should register Patrick for school. No one knew. "Call the bus driver," someone said. "He'll know. He knows all about that." In Milton Freewater the bus driver has a lot of pull, I thought. I tracked him down at the district. And so it was that tired, confused, angry, sick, and beaten, we finally found our way to Freewater School.

We got up early on Patrick's first day at Freewater School. Mrs. Ambler met us at the office and trotted us down a long, dark tunnel of a hallway. Peppy, I thought. That's the word for her. Peppy. I wondered if I could like a peppy person. Pipes ran along the ceiling. Student art lined the walls. The floor was dark green tile, exactly like the tile in the school where I started first grade.

Mrs. Ambler pushed open a door at the end of the hall and we stepped out into one of those odd spaces that result when buildings grow like Topsy. Eaves jutted. Posts occurred at random. Cyclone fencing covered a window on the left. Gangs, I thought. My heart sank. "This way," said peppy Mrs. Ambler. I jumped and turned--and found myself facing blue-painted double doors set deep into an old red brick building. It's a real school, I thought. I hadn't known such things still existed. Mrs. Ambler pulled open the door and we stepped into Freewater School's oldest building for the first time.

Ceilings soared. Blue-painted staircases zigzagged up into deep shadows on both sides of the wide central staircase. Children shouted on the playground outside. "The bathrooms are here," said Mrs. Ambler as she double-timed across the open central area. I sneaked a quick look as I trotted after her. They're real school bathrooms, I thought.

"Just over here," said Mrs. Ambler. "This is your new room, Patrick." She held the door open. Patrick sidled past her. Art covered the walls. A squashy sofa slumped in one corner. Two elderly IBMs sat on tables behind it. Big windows flooded the classrom with autumn sunshine. Students played tether ball and hopscotch on the paved schoolyard. A kickball game raged on the field beyond. Mrs. Ambler showed Patrick to his new desk, and then through a doorway just to the right of the door we had come in. "This is where you'll store your coat and backpack," she said.

"What backpack?" I wondered. Patrick's was in a landfill somewhere in Portland, probably incubating mold. I stuck my head around the corner. Brass coat hooks mounted on blue-painted boards lined the walls. Patrick's school had a real cloakroom. I felt like I had come home.

Real doors, real bathrooms, real cloakroom. Somehow, in all the pain and loss and craziness our lives had become, we had been given a real school, the likes of which I had thought gone forever. All through that day as I searched for a coffee shop with internet access, discovered Espresso in Motion, and worked out a deal with the owner so I could use a table as a temporary office, that thought kept me going.

Reality is a funny thing. Patrick's school in Portland was new the year he started kindergarten. Construction materials lurked in dark corners. Painter's tape still showed around door frames. At the time it seemed bright, fresh, and hygienic. I volunteered regularly. The staff and I were on good terms. And yet, we remained human shadow puppets to each other, cordial strangers who shared Patrick's days. Perhaps it was the very newness, brightness, and above all, rightness of the school that doomed us.

Patrick lived for vacations. He dragged himself around in the mornings, begging to be allowed to skip. I asked about more challenging classes or programs. "Demographics," they said. "All our money goes into "No Child Left Behind" programs. The classroom was the sacred unit; thirty demographic units, no matter what their experience, skills, or aptitudes, trudged along at a pace guaranteed to Leave No Unit Behind. My child had become a blip on a chart. Maybe in the end the school was not real to us because we were not real to it.