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With Regina Barreca

Remembering an
Unlikely Sanctuary

The bathrooms of my grade school appear quite often in my dreams.

Before you phone my therapist, please allow me to explain.

(Actually, feel free to call my therapist -- shes terrific -- but I should warn you that my school-bathroom fixation is not the kind of topic I usually address during my 50-minute sessions, not with my-fear-of-flying and all those writers-block issues needing immediate attention.)

But I honestly believe that elementary-school bathrooms are worth our attention. They loom large in ones imagination, not only when youre a kid and using them, but also when youre an adult and recalling them. As Ive discovered by employing the underhanded and seditious research method of asking other people directly, most adults have distinct memories of the boys and girls rooms of their youth.

Im not kidding. Okay, so you might not want to toss the question to a new partner on a first date, but ask a friend: more than likely, youll hear a story.

When Ive asked for these particular reminiscences, Im offered details. This is not necessarily the case when I ask about grade-school gymnasiums, or music rooms, or auditoriums. When asked about those places, listeners nod their heads and narrow their eyes, ransacking their memories for scenes.

One thing Ive also noticed is that everybody shuts their eyes when I ask them to recall details about the facilities in their earliest schools. And I dont believe that this is only because theyre fed up with my constant questioning.

The eye-shutting doesnt seem deliberate; it seems, in contrast, unconscious and instinctive. Without even realizing it, theyre shutting down their other senses in order to recall a smell. As every reader of Proust knows, scent conjures up, and is irrevocably connected to, childhood; Ive discovered, however, that even the evocation of the memory of a smell can have the same effect.

No doubt theres a scientist working on the neurology behind this connection -- I can only vouch for the fact of it.

And Im not talking only bad smells here: this is not like talking about skeevy portable toilets at 2 a.m. at free rock concerts, a sensory-experience inextricably connected to later stages of youthful developmental-processes.

What I remember from my elementary-school bathrooms is a mix of scents of disinfectant, bleach, hand-soap, and not-quite-dry mops. In the winter, youd add wet wool to the general aroma. I can close my eyes and smell new paint as well, although I cant imagine that the bathrooms were painted more than once a year, if that. But the hint-of-new-paint remains, perhaps a testament to my belief that the bathrooms in my elementary school were clean, safe, and could be regarded as a refuge.

Actually, its the refuge angle that makes the bathrooms of Oceanside Elementary School #3 (known more fondly as Oak School #3 by those inspired by its motto Small Acorns Grow Into Mighty Oaks) appear regularly in my dreams. In many of them, I am walking the wide staircases of the 1920s-era brick building, looking down at the grooves in the stone (granite, perhaps?) and thinking about how many kids feet have trodden the same pathway up to the big girls bathroom on the top floor. I am wearing Buster Browns or black-and-white saddle shoes.

In these staircase dreams, I am always moving up -- even when waking life hasnt been moving in the same direction.

The big girls bathroom was reserved exclusively for lofty, ethereal sixth graders, those remarkable creatures who had left behind the days of wide-lined paper and over-sized crayons. It was a yellow-and-white-tiled haven. There was a casement window looking out into treetops, but fresh air was only one of the rooms myriad attractions.

What I liked was the serenity of the place, although I probably had yet to learn the word serenity.

Whereas our little kids toilets were noisy and splashy, with puddles under the sinks and toilet seats that wobbled and skid, the fancy bathroom for the grown-up girls seemed pristine and elegant. There were fewer stalls. Quiet. It was almost always empty except between classes.

Which meant, of course, that I had to figure out how to get there during actual classroom time in order to have the sanctuary all to myself. But since I was one of those kids who careened through her work and then spent the rest of the time doodling rather than double-checking the pages, I could ask for bathroom passes without being eyed for either truancy or cheating. Id secure a pass and then sneak around the staircase in order to case the joint (I might not have known the word serene but because I had watched detective movies since my infancy, I packed a sophisticated cops-and-robbers vocabulary not often associated with second-grade girls).

Id make sure nobody was watching (no school guards in those days -- only the occasional hall-monitor) and run furtively up those stone steps.

It was probably the only time in my life that I breathed deeply when entering a public restroom, but I would put my back to the door and stand there in the calm silence as I caught my breath. Then Id look out the window. I would be by myself, in a silent place, where nobody was looking at me or telling me what to do, or asking me why I wasnt playing kickball, or sitting next to somebody at lunch, or standing next to somebody else on line. (On line also had a different meaning in those days -- and no bona fide New Yorker has ever stood in line.)

Dont get me wrong: I liked school. Some days, some years, I really loved school. But although sociable and friendly by nature, I also felt that to go for hours and hours every day with absolutely no time alone was weird and nervous-making. It certainly made me anxious. I needed to have a plan for escape, however brief.

Even a couple of minutes by myself supplied what I needed in terms of -- okay, laugh, but its true -- solitude. Alone-time, I guess it would now be called, although this wasnt about privacy as much as it was about sanctuary.

It wasnt an ivory tower, but a yellow-tiled one.

And so I still believe the word solitude is right.

After a minute or two, Id head back down to my real life on a lower floor and settle back into my rightful place. Understanding that Id somehow managed to finagle a privilege, I was aware of the need not to overdo it, not to make my teachers worry or wonder about my whereabouts. Id look at the tree branches outside the lower window and remember how they looked from their tops.

All this from a trip to the toilet, you say? Yep.

In tacky movies, school bathrooms are where nerdy kids get pelted by paper-towels or have their heads swished in the commode, but in actual life, the people to whom Ive spoken seem to have found a certain odd comfort in these comfort stations. So, even if it wasnt exactly your favorite place, and even if you dont dream about it, Ill bet that you remember your schools smallest room. And I suggest that you offer that pass to the kid who asks for it, even if she isnt jiggling up and down on one foot; you might not quite understand that shes looking for a room of her own.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
Copyright© 2007 Education World

11/07/2007