Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What your novel requires of you: reflections on junior high school architecture

As I've said before, writing my second novel has so far been much easier. One reason is that I've set it in the suburbs of Cleveland, in a thinly disguised version of my hometown, which makes it just a hell of a lot faster to locate objects and events in space. I spend almost no time wondering about what someone's living room, or a street, or an afternoon sky might look like--it's just there in my mind. Even better, it's in the form of memory, so I get plenty of layers of emotional varnish for free. (Well, not for free. I paid for it.)

Another reason is that I've come to expect that the novel will make unexpected demands of me. I've learned to welcome (for the most part) these surprises, rather than fear them. I no longer assume that I'm going off the rails; instead I'm following a trail of clues that the story, from the future, is leaving for me in the present. Or something like that.

So anyway, today I found myself reflecting at length on the architecture of my old junior high school. I actually don't even know what has happened to that building in the intervening years, since the "junior high" concept has been superseded almost everywhere by that of "middle school." The difference in philosophy is almost entirely contained in the names. Junior high is a stepping stone, a "junior" version of high school. Middle school is meant to recognize these ages as a unique developmental period in themselves, both/and and neither/nor. Junior high is two grades and middle school three, and all the fundamental differences between twoness and threeness apply here.

The architecture of my junior high really embodied the stepping-stone philosophy. The design reflected two (of course!) basic concepts: aspiration and revelation. Aspiration in the high ceilings that tended to draw the eye upward (toward high school, your future career, or the eighth graders' floor if you were a lowly seventh-grader) and revelation--in that what you saw in those high ceilings was, as I recall anyway, a tangle of exposed, brightly colored pipes. You see? What was once hidden--plumbing--was now revealed. By education.

I wonder what has happened to that building. It can't have survived in the above form; it would be such a relic of the seventies, outmoded in both design and educational philosophy. I do know the middle school is now housed in one of the really old elementary schools, which I hope has been refurbished inside. Because before aspiration/revelation, we had the school-as-factory concept. And boy, did they look (and feel) the part.

No comments: