For one hundred years, boys have made their way along 84th street to the dark wooden doors. It’s always been this way. Perfect days, snowy days and insufferably hot days, they come to the six-floor edifice that sits mid-block. The tan building is understated in its elegance; its spirit complemented by St. Ignatius Loyola Church across the street. Taller buildings stand sentry around the school. One might walk right past the place without taking notice. Those that bother to stop may spend minutes noticing its detail. The boys are so young when they arrive for the first time. The classes of 1914, 1956, 1972. Ours was no different. Down the street we came, one foot still in childhood, as unsure as any class before us. The front doors were heavy to us, a struggle to pull open. The place simply waited for us, to open its warm embrace and foster us with its challenging, complicated love.
I desperately needed to hang my general nervousness on something. The noticeably warm temperature inside the building would do – I worried that it would be too warm in the classrooms to concentrate. The black stone steps from the lobby to the classrooms had been worn down the middle by years of boys making the same climb and descent, up and down, scurrying feet slowly eroding the surface. The ghosts of classes past had made their way through this place, and this gave me hope that I could too. I cluelessly looked for my advisement classroom. “It’s over there,” I heard. A smiling boy with tussled brown hair pointed to a door. “I’m Charlie,” he said. I smiled back, said nothing and went into the room.
Even as a skinny freshman it took a gymnastic approach to get into my small seat attached to the tiny desk. The chalk board dominated the front of the room. Foggy white, over green, faint shadows of written words from the last class of last year still there under the chalk-dust haze. A tall, thin man appeared in front of the chalkboard. The name complicated, he went by Mr. L. He was kind, but had a hint of someone who was just passing through. Soft-spoken, his words seemed generic and competed with distant sirens and honking horns outside the window. It was a beautiful day just beyond that glass. Smears of blue and white weightlessly dangled above the rooftop of the building across the street. Sunlight reflected off the windshields of cars in traffic below. A ray of light coming through the window hit the desk of another boy, Jack. There, it highlighted an odd-shaped, purplish ink stain and was mesmerizing. I got lost in it for some time. When I did finally look up, Jack was staring at me. He looked the part of someone that should be sitting in this school. His stare was laser sharp and he simply looked ready. Everybody in the room looked like they belonged – engaged, enthusiastic and focused. For weeks, my desk seemed a bad fit.
A dark place, the basement lunchroom became a source of illumination. Within its grey walls and subterranean shadows, we came together. At first, we spoke in a kind of code. Hidden in discussions about sports, morning commutes and workload were indirect revelations to one another about our doubts we could handle the school or live up to parents’ and our own expectations. The cold winter crept in, and the lunchroom grew darker. Some celebrated the relative absence of light and seized on its nature to nap with head on table. As the cold air and freezing rain pelted the building during the winter weeks, our conversations became warmer; they were more direct, more honest. It was now acceptable to share fear or disappointment, as well as triumph and epiphany. Our growing bond did nothing to stem the tide of work, however. On a snowy day, we sat and lamented our current fate. Charlie, who I hadn’t seen for weeks, suddenly walked by and said, “we’ll get through it.” He slapped both hands down on the table for emphasis and beamed the warmest smile I had ever seen. He walked away. I believed what he said.
As freshman year went on, the building grew smaller, the spaces tighter. It was imperative to find nooks you could call your own. A place to grab a few minutes to read a chapter before class. A spot to sit, stare into space and let your mind turn off. A hideout to meet up with friends. The blue balconies of the auditorium, looking over the school’s small stage, were always good. Voices carried from there, so murmured conversation and muffled giggles were the order of the day. Spring was taking its time arriving, and the morning commute seemed to take longer and longer. A few of us sat on the stage in the quiet, nearly empty auditorium. Tim was letting us know that he had just about had it. I recounted another night of little sleep. Just then, Charlie walked across the auditorium and greeted us with a slight nod. “Sophomore year is easier,” he simply stated. He pointed at us with both hands, gave his typical Charlie grin and walked out the side door of the auditorium. Danny turned to me and said, “He’s… such… a… dick.” We all argued about Charlie for the next ten minutes, throwing out evidence that alternatively proved he was great or a pain in the ass. “He’s always nice.” “He’s hard to get to know.” “He thinks he’s special.” “He thinks everyone is special.”
Sophomore year came. It got easier. We knew what to expect and what was expected. During the summer after freshman year, the basement lunchroom had received a coat of bright white paint and some new flooring. It remained underground. A month in, as a group of us sat on the shiny new seats, and someone asked about Charlie. No one had seen him since last year. After some back and forth, we realized that none of us had him in our freshman advisement. Between bites of a sandwich, without lifting his eyes from a book, our friend Cole said he heard Charlie left school. We dropped the subject, each to reflect upon Charlie in our own time, and started worrying about an upcoming chemistry test.
Once, during freshman year, Charlie told me the four years would fly by. He said we should all enjoy them. He was right. And, of course, he smiled when he told me this. At a small alumni event at the school, I met someone from the Class of 1971. Though now older, he had the same focus I saw in the faces of all the freshman boys. We talked about the school, its demands and its rewards. We got onto the subject of freshman year. I recounted a couple of stories about a boy with tussled brown hair and a great smile who always seemed to be on the move but was always encouraging. The alumni from ‘71 looked at me, nodded and simply said “Charlie.”
Evening had come. The street lamps bathed the building in yellow light, revealing crevices and cracks in the façade. I did take a moment to stop and look at the place, to notice it. While the journey to get there was short for some, long for others, we all travelled together here, and over time, very far.
Thanks Charlie – may you smile for another 100 years.