The room down the hall

When I saw the wrecking crew had demolished one of my boyhood homes to make room for a junior college athletic field, and that red-faced striplings were jogging through what had been my mother's peony bed, I was indifferent. It was just an old house. The real home had been the spirit within the walls, and I had taken that with me years before.

But wiping Fairplain Elementary School from Ohio Avenue was a different matter. That did hurt.

Old schools have a strictly resident essence: the odor of chalk dust and floor cleaner, faded copies of ''Washington Crossing the Delaware'' and Rosa Bonheur's ''Horse Fair'' hanging on bleak walls, dimmed faces and a babble of voices that grow fainter with the years. When the building goes, everything goes.

When Fairplain disappeared, so did Miss Chaumeau, my sixth grade teacher.

Some say elementary schoolteachers are short-order cooks. They have so many weenies to fry each year, sometimes with a little mustard, and they just keep shoveling these little stuffed epidermises off the grill whether they're done or not.

Not Miss Chaumeau. She fried to a different sizzle. She routinely seasoned and buttered and basted. She roasted, she grilled, she tested. She wrinkled her nose and considered. Finally she smiled her satisfaction with you because she knew you were done right, and so did you. How could I forget her?

She became for me the symbol of all my teachers of those early years, those shadowy figures whose features and names are now too distant for me to recognize but to whom (I have long since realized) my debt is present and real. If they didn't make a sure-enough hot dog out of me, they didn't push me aside for the garbage pickup, either.

It pleased me to believe that Miss Chaumeau, empowered by my remembrance of and respect for her, could express my thanks to all of them. I wasn't sure just how this could happen, but I retained a bit of my childish faith in her.

One by one the drab old schools I had attended -- there were five of them -- were demolished. Finally only Fairplain remained, my sole tangible link with those sheltered and learning years.

Just to drive past the building on one of my infrequent visits back to my hometown reaffirmed my notion that Miss Chaumeau was in her room down the hall off the main entrance. There was something about her that would not go away: she was in touch with the teachers I could not reach.

My faith in this hypothesis was strengthened after I stopped in Fairplain one afternoon instead of driving past. A bronze plaque was mounted on the wall next to the door of Miss Chaumeau's old room. It was a tribute to her dedication and guidance. It did bring a lump. As I turned away, a teacher came to her door down the corridor and looked at me suspiciously, a stranger. When she learned I had been one of Miss Chaumeau's pupils, her manner changed.

''You've come back to your old school!'' she exclaimed, beaming. You might think her empathy would have moved me to select her as my deputy, replacing Miss Chaumeau, but she was the stranger at Fairplain, not I, and besides she was a couple of generations too late. She was not at all qualified.

Miss Chaumeau prevailed as my spokesman, twice secured: in the school where my childhood fixed her, in the plaque that kept her identity on the premises.

The next time I looked, Fairplain was gone. The site was a landscaped city park. I pulled off into a side street and tried to replace the building and playground. The picnic area with the softball backstop was the school, the clump of firs bordered by flaming impatiens was the giant swing with its clanking chains. I couldn't help wondering if the plaque to Miss Chaumeau had been lost in the rubble or surreptitiously acquired by a workman and sold for whatever scrap value it had.

The loss of illusions can be distressing, even when we know how artificial they are. I felt the destruction of this illusion keenly. The demolition of the school was disappointment enough: the disappearance of the plaque was the monkey wrench in the apparatus I had conjured up for my sleight of mind. Miss Chaumeau was gone, completely out of touch.

Somebody owed me an explanation: it was my life, I felt, that had been torn up and kicked around. I wrote to the Board of Education. I didn't expect an answer, but I had to try.

I did get a reply, and promptly. Miss Chaumeau had not been cast aside. The plaque was under lock and key along with other property in the school system warehouse. As if anticipating a follow-up question, the writer informed me the plaque was not for sale.

The owner who will not sell one of his possessions will certainly take good care of it. I got the feeling the plaque would be safeguarded indefinitely.

I should have known. There is indeed something about Miss Chaumeau that does not go away. The room down the hall may not be there, but she is. Miss Chaumeau is still in touch.

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