20 August 2009

Where I Lived and What I Lived For

I taught for nine years at the New Hampton School, an independent boarding school in central New Hampshire (from which I also graduated as a student). During my first three years, I lived as a dorm parent in the oldest building on campus and one of the oldest in town, Randall Hall. Randall was a legendary building, having been hauled across town at the beginning of the 20th century brick by brick and rebuilt. By the time I lived in it with 30-35 junior and senior boys (mostly hockey players), it was in desperate need of repair.

During my third year in Randall, I had become, by default, the dorm head, in charge of everything having to do with the dorm. There are few things in the world I hate more than being an administrator, and so I did what I have always done with such positions: used it to get the heck out! I lived the next six years in an apartment in a house owned by the school.

Despite its historical value, Randall could not ultimately be saved. Structural engineers reported that any work was likely to collapse the building. Estimates of what it would take to refurbish it to make it safer and more efficient ran to the tens of millions of dollars, and the only promise was that the ultimate effect would be a building that remained less than ideal. So New Hampton made a very difficult decision: to tear Randall down and build a new structure in its place. And that's what they did, and beautifully so. The new Pililas Math-Science Center fits remarkably well with the three antique buildings around it, and is a massive improvement over the previous facilities. I toured it back in June, and was amazed that the building I had known so intimately had metamorphosed into this.

It was strange to stand where my apartment had been -- the space is now an airy stairwell. It was where my cats, Vanya and Masha, had sat on big windowsills and looked across at the building that housed my classroom. (One year, I was assigned to a room that looked right back at my apartment, and so I would sometimes require my students to wave to the cats.) I wrote a really bad novel in Randall one year, going downstairs to a tiny office and working on an ancient computer so I could get away from the noise of the third and fourth floors, where the students lived. Often, as a warm-up, I would write reviews on Amazon.com, which ended up being good training for this blog. (It's amusing to me now that the novel, which I thought was the important project at the time, turned out to be awful, but without having done the reviews, I might never have created this blog, which has been an important part of my life for the past six years. Oh, and we seemed to have turned 6 two days ago. Happy birthday, blog!)

I learned most of what I know about teaching at a boarding school while living in Randall, because, as anybody who's done it can tell you, there's nothing like the insanity and exhilaration of the first three years. There were many moments where I was within inches of a nervous breakdown, but they were also in many ways the best -- or, perhaps, most intense and vivid and passionate -- years of my life.

So here's to you, Randall Hall. The first thing that got demolished was the apartment I'd lived in during my second and third years. (The last person to live in that apartment was one of my fellow members of the class of '94, and one of my best friends.) Here's a video I discovered this morning of the demolition--

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