Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Old School Buildings, Air Conditioning, and May 20, 1988

I was reading more of the debate on the proposed new Glen Oak school over at Polly Peoria today, and I got interested in the comments. Mr. McGee and I don't have children, so my horse in this race is that I'm concerned about education generally and children generally, not that I have a specific child of my own, or even a niece or nephew, whose specific education I'm concerned with.

Part of the discussion centers on how necessary air conditioning is for learning. As someone who becomes totally immobile and actually begins to melt when exposed to too much ambient heat, I'm totally in favor of air conditioning. (On the other hand, in the McGee house, the air conditioning is set at 76 - no lower - and frequently at 78. Eyebrows' parents raised her with a holy horror of using bought air unless absolutely necessary. The heat is kept set at 62 during the winter.) The dorm I lived in in college was un-airconditioned (and had radiator heat), and when the air got still, dead, humid, and HOT in May, it was squirmingly uncomfortable. Just in time to study for finals.

Polly contends, with others, that school buildings need A/C for students to be able to focus and study, rather than just squirm with discomfort and whine. Others contend that they studied just fine back when they were kids in 1894 without any damn air conditioning while walking uphill backwards both ways to school.

I think they both have points. As a philosophical matter, I think air conditioning is way over-used and people should suck it up and sweat now and then. The hottest, stickiest months in Illinois - July and August - school is not in session. Still, Illinois can work up some nasty-sticky weather in September and even October, and in May and June, and whiney, hot, tired kids are not the best learners. I love the old school buildings Peoria has, the beautiful old brick and stone, majestic and symmetrical, temples to learning. But they're generally full of asbestos and lacking in modern necessities, like my dorm was - the electrical was installed well after the dorm was built, and it was old electrical to boot, so someone using a newer-model blowdryer could short out a whole floor. I'm sadly sure that new buildings will be ugly-ass Cinderblock Palaces of Love -- but they'll be a lot more user-friendly. And it's cheaper to build an ugly new Cinderblock Palace of Love than it is to renovate a beautiful old building.

But what the discussion at Polly's made me remember is something that comes back to me, in bits and snatches, many times when schooling is discussed.

I went to grade school in Chicago's north suburbs. On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann went on a shooting rampage at a Winnetka grade school that left a child dead and five others wounded (including a teacher, I believe). I was in fourth grade, I believe, and it was around 11 a.m. Teachers were pulled into the hallway, one by one, and came back in shaken. I knew they were scared. Windows were lowered, closed to almost a crack. Janitors went up and down the halls slamming doors shut. And the teachers went on teaching with a forced normalcy that reeked of fear. It was the first "school shooting," and nobody knew what to do.

I remember a lot of things about that day and the days following, in bits and snatches, particularly whenever there's school violence on the news. I remember how my parents, talking with other adults, would stop talking whenever we children entered the room, and how I would overhear whispers of, "Can you imagine how horrible? In a school? What is the world coming to, is nowhere safe?" I remember receiving lectures from the adults in my life about what to do if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I knew about the Laurie Dann shooting, of course, but the whole idea was so ludicrous and remote that I barely took it seriously.

But what came back to me in a flash as I read the discussion on Polly's blog was how HOT I was that afternoon, and how pungent the mingled reek of sweat and fear. My grade school was part older building, part newer addition. The older part wasn't really intended to be air-conditioned when it was built, and while I can't firmly recall if it was air-conditioned in 1988 or not until the next year, if the A/C was there in 1988, it was rarely used. Instead, on hot days, the school would throw open all its myriad doors to allow the building lots of cooling breezes and cross-ventilation, and the teachers would open the windows wide. Lots of the rooms had those up-high transom-type windows on the other side of the room, peeking up over the hallway roof, to get even better ventilation, and fans would run on the very hottest days. It would get hot and sticky, but the breezes made it tolerable, even pleasant.

On May 20, 1988, it was hot. And once the doors were shut and the breezes were closed out, as the school tried to secure itself against a crazy woman with a gun in a nearby suburb, it got icky in the classrooms. I remember the feel of sweat on the back of my neck, and of my hair sticking to it. I remember the room smelled sweaty. I remember I wanted a breeze.

On May 20, 1988, all those doors were closed. Shortly thereafter those orange bar-locks were installed on all of them during the school day; only the door closest to the main office was unlocked during the day. Some windows were sealed shut as too dangerously accessible. The doors were never thrown open to catch the breezes again. The next year, we were well-air-conditioned.

Twenty-five years ago, schools could throw their doors open to let the spring in. Twenty-five years ago, nobody knew access had to be controlled, with metal detectors and locked doors and easily-defended access-points, like a military installation as much as a school.

I don't know if this means that students need air-conditioned buildings or not. I do know that the world has changed for today's students in ways so much more important and pervasive than technology. When we talk about our students today, we talk about technology and behavior and violence. We never talk about how we've locked spring breezes out of schools to keep our kids safe.

I don't know what it means.

But I know I missed the breeze.

6 comments:

HeartShadow said...

I think any discussion about the heat in schools does need to include our feelings about security.

I wish I knew a way we could feel secure and still feel the breeze.

Eyebrows McGee said...

A little research revealed the high on May 20, 1998 was 75*F at Chicago/O'Hare, 81*F in Aurora. I was not able to get precipitation or humidity statistics, but it rained substantially later that week, according to the NOAA and the good people at the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, who have a "librarian on call" program for all your bizarre factoid needs.

Tony said...

Eyebrows, I think you have single-handedly ended the air conditioning discussion with one less than simple post. Wow. Anyone who says no to A/C needs to read it and believe...

Anonymous said...

I hear you.
In my day - if the heat and the humidity were high in the school and you accidentally fell onto the floor during gym class, you were there until the janitor scraped you off with a putty knife.

Anon E. Mouse

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it 30 something years ago that 2 armed gunman trying to escape from a robbery downtown stormed St. Cecelias on ellis and took the whole school hostage? Was it our mayor that was led from the school with a gun to his head as Peorias finest police marksmen took aim and fired killing the bad guy? And the windows remained open for years after, not a metal detector in sight and life went on. Of course we did not have 30 cable news channels showing the incident 1000 times a day and counselors holding everyones hand and television shows dramtizing the event. Man were we ignorant back then we should have bricked the windows and barred the doors, oh well we are much smarter now.

pollypeoria said...

Anonymous - It wasn't the mayor who had the gun held to his head, it was his brother. No, not Tony, the other one. The event made the national news and it was one of the first reports of such crime at a school. We were naive. Hopeful that it was a horrible, but one time only event. Sadly, we were wrong. Turn outkids are not just innocent bystanders, but prime targets.