The basement of Saint Columba School became the site of parish church services in 1948-49 while the old church was torn down and the new one built. My older sisters took me with them to the youth mass in the gymnasium while adults and their youngest children attended their mass in the auditorium. I presume Sunday mass took me into the building before my my first day of school which came at the end of summer in 1948, but of this gymnasium time I have only the vaguest of memories. The school was built around 1922, seven years after the first parish church. I remember people speaking of how the parish built the school in two phases, with the original facing Blair and the addition facing Hamline. Yet, to me it was always one complete school building. I saw nothing obvious to distinguish the newer from the older. Even today, from the outside the facades give no clue to identify the addition. Only as an adult with some training in architecture did it become obvious to me that this two-phase construction created my strongest memory of my first day of school: the short-dark canyon of a passage through which I had to walk to make my passage from little-kid to school-kid.
For all the lifetime I could remember I had watched my sisters leave home and walk to Saint Columba School, three blocks away. From my front porch I had also watched high-school students walk by on their way to Wilson High School, a block away. “School” was an exotic place in the unknown. It seemed like forever till I would go. Then came the day.
I was as scared as I was excited when my sister, Mary, offered to walk me to school the morning of my first day. She was the obvious person to do so because of her close relationship with the kindergarten teacher. In the four years since her kindergarten year Mary had been using free time to assist Sister Agnes. Most days Mary went to school early and helped with tasks to prepare the kindergarten for the day. This first day, too, we left a little earlier than necessary. Mary walked me to school, lead me through the front door into this exotic place, took me by the hand, and lead me toward kindergarten and Sister Agnes.
The ceilings were high, the hallways wide--wider still in the entry area. I believe Mary gave me a brief introduction to what I was seeing. She might have told me that on the left near the entrance was a fourth-grade classroom. She had been in fourth grade the year before. On the right was the principal's office and a wide stairway to the second floor where the firth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had their classrooms.
I don't know if it was that moment of entry or in the hours after that I had two ominous thoughts. I realized I had entered a place, Saint Columba, which would require almost two more of my lifetimes before allowing me to leave and go on to high school. I took no consolation in the other thought: it would take only one more lifetime to climb that stairway to fifth grade.
It must have been an exciting morning for Mary as well. I see now that after she took me to Sister Agnes, Mary would begin her daily climbs to the second floor. She entered fifth grade. I'm sure I was too self-absorbed that day to appreciate the excitement of her passage up to the big-kid-world on the second floor.
From the entry, with only a small adjustment to our path, Mary and I were lined up to enter the long hallway leading to the kindergarten which was appended off the far end. That hallway has classrooms only on its western side. Huge windows on the east side of the hallway allow morning sun to stream in. Inviting? Yes! Yet, I suddenly I found myself holding Mary's hand tightly; we had entered an intimidating, dark, canyon of a passage. We had to pass through this to enter the light beyond. The fear part of my morning's emotions swelled up. I felt even smaller than I was; had no words to describe my feelings. I waited until Mary's 80th birthday to tell her this story.
I now know that that dark, narrow passage existed because the school's planners wanted to connect the addition to the original by robbing the connecting hallway from only one classroom rather than two. After all, it was only a short distance. I'm sure the hallway was wide enough to satisfy the fire department and the lighting was adequate in the evening. However, in the morning, because it lead from a broad, bright entry to a corridor bathed in morning light, the windowless passage seemed too long, too narrow, and too dark. It took Mary only a few seconds to lead me through the passage to my new life beyond. Now, those few, anxious seconds are a pleasant memory that calls for humility.
Had it not been for the dark passage, I might not remember the next moment when I stood hand-in-hand with my big sister as she introduced me to my teacher. I remember the smile in Mary's voice and the smile on Sister Agnes' face. I felt special because of my sister's special relationship with my teacher.
That relationship got me into another space in the school—not an intimidating space, but rather a place of wonder. I don't know how closely this opportunity ties to my first morning of school. It could have been hours, days, or weeks later. Mary had a task to do for Sister Agnes that required her to work in the supply room; she took me along. The supply room was off limits to most students. It was the northern half of what remained of the classroom that had to be narrowed to create the dark hallway. This room had shelves, books, supplies, phonograph, movie projector, work table, counter, and more. It fascinated me. I believe Mary's task included having to cut up some paper. I know it is the first first time in my life I saw a paper cutter--a marvelous tool made exciting by the obvious risks one takes when using it.
Being too young to be of much help, I looked around at things I had never seen before. What I most remember is the globe sitting on a table. I remember this because of my embarrassment months (I hope not years) later when I realized how stupid was my interpretation of what I was seeing. Mary told me it was the earth where we live. I couldn't figure it out and was too proud to say so. I fully understood it was just a model of the real thing, but I assumed we lived inside such a globe, not on it. After all, our blue sky does look like the kind of dome I could image if I were inside such a globe.
In short, my education began with safe passage through a dark hallway, a warm introduction to my first teacher, and a privileged entry into the supply room from which education must spring—all of this in the safe hold of my sister's hand.
(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins