Christopher Columbus High School has closed its doors. My alma mater as it was will cease to exist, having been overtaken by several charter schools. This is surprisingly difficult for me. I’m not the girl who blossomed as a teenager and lived out my glory days in the four years within those walls. I tend towards the belief that I continue to blossom and re-blossom, or that I have only just blossomed. So why this difficulty? Oh…just because my entire life changed in the days I went to that school and in many ways because of that school, its staff and its students.
I entered Columbus in a complicated state. My previous school had been an awful disaster, rife with three years of varied and inventive bullying. My home life was…unreliable, and I was facing the beginning of the crushes/dating journey. By the end of freshman year, my life was a mess. I had zero confidence, my parents were in the midst of a divorce, and all of my existing relationships were on shaky ground.
In Sophomore year, I didn’t care. About anything. I didn’t know it then, but this was when my now diagnosed clinical depression first reared its head. I went to school with a chip on my shoulder when I bothered to show. I suffered through every class but one. Music History. I tried hard to act like I didn’t care. It should have been easy. The teacher was a neurotic bossy pain who told corny music jokes and snipped at you if you walked into the class a second after the late bell. Still, every lesson was met with grudging fascination. And that pain of a teacher KNEW it.
One day, he slapped a flyer down on the empty chair next to me before I could kick my feet up onto it (a habit I had developed for the sole purpose of annoying him), said “Audition”, then walked away. It was for the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
Having always enjoyed singing, I thought, what the hell? I auditioned and got a small part. Once rehearsals began, I was swept away. I met the girl who is still my best friend while learning choreography for that show. She managed to drop change on my face while doing a difficult to explain piece of choreography. She apologized, then introduced herself with the words, “My name’s Leonore, but nobody calls me that.” Then she flitted off to some other call. It took days of talking to her to actually get the answer to the obvious question. (People call her Joy.)
I met other good friends in those remaining years and opened up to others who had been around in the year and a half before I’d found my way. Though many of the people I knew in those four years float in and out of the main stream of my life, they all hold special places in my heart.
There’s a reason I was able to feel that way. Music and performing opened me up, dragged me out of my depression and reminded me that life, no matter how dreary it can be, is beautiful, that people can create beautiful things. Working with the musical cast and crew, the Girl’s Ensemble group, and the Concert Choir, woke me up. I began to learn the principles of what it takes to be an artist.
I learned in room 301, where competition got fiercely intense between people who never should have competed with each other. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good either. Where the Soprano v. Alto v. Tenor v. Bass wars were strong, and where I learned to sing notes so high I thought my brains were going to come out of my ears and still managed to nail them. Where we fiddled with the piano and randomly sang songs in between class periods. Where I learned to sing Jump Jive and Wail by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Anything You Can Do from Annie Get Your Gun, the majority of Handel’s Messiah, and Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco. And pretty much everything in between.
I learned in the Auditorium, where I nearly broke my ankle (and at least sprained it) during our first performance of Zombie Prom and performed five more times over the next two weeks as a character that jumped up and down…a lot. Where I covered for Joy so she could sneak a kiss with the older boy from the lighting room. Later, she would run the stage crew with a patch over her eye after an accident while building a set (her eye recovered), and Doc (as we affectionately called Dr. Dzik) would panic over the fact that she couldn’t make it because she was hospitalized and then, after a Hail Mary run from the hospital, complain that she was there because he was worried about her. Where my husband used to pick me up at the end of a rehearsal day when he was just a boyfriend. Where Dr. Dzik dragged me to perform the “Star Spangled Banner” to open an assembly without warning because the person who was supposed to do it was out sick and I was in the hall cutting so I “wasn’t doing anything better anyway, was I?”
Columbus. Where I learned passion and drive and loyalty. Where I learned to think on my feet when props were forgotten, sound effect were ill timed, signs fell, and Cinderella’s glass slipper was accidentally flung out into the audience. Where I learned disappointment that was followed directly by getting back up and doing the damn thing again. And where I learned all of your basic subjects as well, because I walked out of that place with a 95 average and an actual work ethic.
Not bad for a High School with metal detectors, in Bronx, NY.
On Wednesday, July 18th, the many years worth of alumni of the Concert Choir gathered in the Columbus High School Auditorium to say goodbye. As I had a million times before, I walked in with Joy. The first thing she noticed was that they had walled over the lighting room. We were informed that area was now occupied by classrooms. The stage manager in Joy grumbled. Later while talking to our beloved Doc, he told us that room 301 was split into two classrooms, neither of which taught music. I rolled my eyes and said, “Of course.” He nodded and gave my shoulder a little squeeze. We sang the songs that the collection of 40 or so alumni, spanned over a couple of decades of graduating classes, all knew. The few songs that were staples in our repertoire. Throughout the process, Doc was as bossy and neurotic as ever, but a bit more emotional. When Doc told us to take five, Joy and I sat in the back of the auditorium, looking at the stage that was at once our salvation and our source of grief for years.
“You’re my son’s aunt, and we never would have met if it hadn’t been for this place and 301,” I said, looking out at the closed curtains we had once hid behind before the start of a show. We sat there hands clasped together for a minute before Doc yelled at us to go outside. Some things never change.
We sang the school’s alma mater on the stairs of the school, our voices reaching out into the neighborhood, reminding them that they were losing something precious, even if they didn’t realize it.
And then, we said our goodbyes, and went back off into our regular lives, continuing to utilize the things we learned. I went back to writing. At Columbus I learned responsibility, drive, hard work, relentlessness and perseverance, created in a moment by a pain teacher who became someone I grew to care deeply about because he cared about what happened to my spirit.
The art may have changed, but the artist remained, and she was crafted in that building.
“Here’s a toast to Columbus High School, alma mater hail to thee.” ~ Christopher Columbus Alma Mater