At the end of my first day of high school, more than two-and-a-half years after I left Century P.S., I decided to return to my old elementary school for a visit.
Halfway through the sixth grade, my family had moved from Nepean to Chelsea, across the Ottawa River, on the Québec side. I didn't get to finish my last year at my old school, which was a shame: my teacher, Mr. Townsend, was perhaps my favourite teacher of them all. He focused on our writing skills, encouraged us in our creative writing, and had the greatest influence over my decision to become a writer.
Just as I was beginning to flourish in what he said came naturally to me, we moved away.
My second-half of grade six was a challenge. Everybody in the class knew each other, had grown up together. I was the new kid. No one, for the longest time, wanted to welcome me into the fold. Many students in that class, and even the teacher, never fully accepted me.
French was also a challenge for me, as the lessons in Québec were far more advanced than the level taught to me by Monsieur Leflock. To me, everyone in my new class was fully bilingual, except for me. I had a steep learning curve to ascend and never quite reached it.
My family moved back to Ottawa shortly before I entered grade nine, and I was looking forward to seeing my old friends, hoping that most—if not all—would be going to the same school as me.
My first day back was the most depressing day of my young life. Some of my old friends weren't at the school, had gone to another one, a short distance away. Other friends remembered me but had formed bonds with other kids in middle school. I was a recognized face but they had moved on.
I had been replaced.
At the end of the day, feeling dejected, I needed something familiar, and so I took a detour on the way home and returned to my old elementary school.
All of the students were gone for the day, but the brown metal doors were still unlocked. I walked past the principal's office, but the name on the door was new: Mr. Gordon was gone. There was no one around, so I was unable to ask where my old principal had gone.
Walking past the vice-principal's office, I saw another strange face behind the desk, talking on the phone. Mr. Gouge, too, had been replaced.
Up to the second floor, I went to the one place where, in my six-and-a-half years, I had spent the most time.
The lights were still on but as I rounded the corner, I didn't see anyone. Seconds later, though, I heard a voice from the far end.
It was the librarian, Mrs. Redmond. She was crouched low, placing books on a bottom bookshelf. Tidying up at the end of the day.
My heart lifted. I had been remembered by one of my favourite people in the school, by a person who, even more than Mr. Townsend, had had a huge influence on me.
"What are you doing here? I thought your family had moved away." Yes, I had been remembered.
"We've moved back. I'm going to J.S. Woodsworth, now."
"Welcome back. How was your first day?"
I told her about how I had felt like I had been forgotten, how all of my old friends had treated me like a stranger. I told her that I returned to Century because I needed to be around something familiar. I let her know that I was glad to see her and even more glad that she remembered me.
"You haven't changed much, except you've grown taller. I could never forget you."
Mrs. Redmond was the best storyteller. From kindergarten until I was old enough to pick out my own books to read, she would sit in a large chair in the back corner of the library, her voice animated and varying as she read book after book. I would sit with my peers, cross-legged on the floor around her, and be mesmerized.
In later years, whenever the weather was too poor to be outside, during recess, or when I was on a lunch break, I would come to the library to pick out books to read to myself or look through the latest puzzles in the Highlights magazines. Whenever I was looking for something new to read, Mrs. Redmond would be there to show me the books that she thought I would like.
I always liked them.
We talked for a while about the past couple of years, about my time in the Québec school system. She told me about the changes at the school, the new principal, and some of the teachers that were still around from when I was a pupil: Mr. Fulcher, Mr. Meredith, and Mr. Townsend were still there, among others.
Mrs. Redmond looked at her watch and told me that she needed to leave, but that I could come back any time I wanted. I left the library and headed toward Mr. Townsend's classroom, but when I got there, it was empty.
I saw him a couple of times, a few years later, when I worked at a camera shop in the Merivale Mall. He still remembered me, but I never told him how he had inspired me to continue writing.
I never returned to Century Public School. Not until last weekend, as the classrooms were being packed up for the last time. The school board has decided to close its doors for good, citing low attendance.
When I walked into the library, this last time, it had changed. The rows of bookshelves were gone; whatever books remained were packed away in labelled boxes. In the back half of the room, a partition separated the reading tables from rows of computers on desks. We didn't have computers in my day.
Where the big reading chair had sat, where Mrs. Redmond had read countless stories to me and my classmates, was a desk with a monitor and keyboard. Did the librarian still read to the kids?
I almost expected Mrs. Redmond to be there, tucking books away, looking up, and recognizing me, all these years later. I would have loved to hear her voice, in recognition, one last time.
There's nothing like being out at night, on a deserted road, out of sight, under an overpass, alone, vulnerable, that makes the tiny hai...