‘Excuse me. May I help you?’

January 25, 2013

Unlike Maple Crest, where I started my school career as a very blonde and very skinny boy, the middle school I attended, Burleigh Hill, is still standing.

During the two years I attended Burleigh Hill, I would go from my house along roads like Townline and Rowntree, past the Stop and Go corner store to Mountain Road, which, when on a bike, could really help you fly down to class.

Returning home and going up it in winters, Mountain Road was also a fine patch of snow-covered asphalt that was quite suitable for what we called ‘bumper-hopping,’ that somewhat dangerous but deeply enjoyable practice of grabbing onto the back bumper of a car and letting it pull you all the way up the hill.

You had to grab the moving vehicle at just the right moment and you then had to duck low enough fast enough so that the driver wasn’t aware of you, their extra passenger.

I suppose this isn’t much different from what I tried many years after leaving Burleigh Hill. At the end of one school day, when piles of children were grabbing their book-bags and jackets and things and running out the door, I strolled inside the school for a little visit.

I hadn’t been in those halls and classrooms for a couple of decades and thought it was an innocent enough move to simply return, even briefly, to look and smell and touch my way into some memories.

As I casually sauntered down the hallways and peered into this classroom and that one, everything was smaller than I remembered, including the gym where, once inside and finished with my mental note-taking, I stood for a long moment to look through the crack in the doors for just the right moment to exit without anyone noticing

That went fine and then it wasn’t far to walk down the hallway to the school’s exit, and I was almost there when I heard from somewhere behind me, ‘Excuse me, may I help you?’

I kept walking, just a few feet from the building’s exit, but the voice – it was a woman’s and more shrill and desperate this time – said again, ‘Excuse me, may I help you?’

I spent the next what-seemed-like-forever talking to this teacher, who had by then called over the principal. I explained and apologized and pulled out my business card and noted that I was not only from out-of-town, but from out-of-country for most of the year, and I didn’t have these sorts of opportunities very often, and yes, of course, I should have reported to the office as the sign, somewhere nearby, instructed all visitors to do.

They finally let me go with a gently reassuring look on their faces when somehow Mr. Brandon’s name came into the conversation. Mr. Brandon was a science teacher and I recall his name, I guess, because he was far more cool and hip than any other teacher in Burleigh Hill’s history.

I suspect that neither the teacher nor principal I met that day, both of whom were younger than myself, had the foggiest idea of who Mr. Brandon was. In either case, when it was discovered that I knew Mr. Brandon, all was now somehow forgiven and believable.

I don’t know how my own children will do it. The school they started at, behind a club in Kampala, is now just a pile of dirt with bulldozers clearing the way for the development of more rooms and conference space and things that will all but bury whatever early playground memories they have.

The site is in plain view of where I take the kids swimming, and in this sense it’s not far from their conscience. And their current Ugandan school – an international school that has a sort of student representation like the United Nations – is just five minutes away from this.

But short of getting on a plane sometime around 2045 and flying to Africa for a visit, my three kids will have a harder time returning to the halls of this hallowed part of their soul. Somehow they will have to find other places to go. I hope they’re still as satisfying.

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January 25, 2013 • Posted in
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