School daze

By Kris Ferrazza | Sep 07, 2018

My father’s car was whizzing along a tree-lined street in Rhode Island when it happened. A red blur flashed before my eyes and my heart skipped a beat. It was a quaint schoolhouse with white trim, two front doors and two separate sets of stairs.

Stop the car!” I yelled from the back seat.

Normally such a cry would go ignored, drowned out by the enthusiastic chatter of the rest of my extended Italian family. We were packed into the Honda like sardines, and headed to dinner, so needless to say, excitement was running high.

But somehow, at that very moment, there was a break in the usual racket, and my request actually was heard by the driver.

“Why?” my brother-in-law asked. “What’s the problem?”

Was that my school?!” I demanded. There was silence.

My father, at 89, was riding shotgun in the front seat. He looked confused and scratched his head. My brother-in-law just kept driving, anxious to beat the dinner crowd. It was after 4 p.m., after all.

“What school?” my dad asked.

“My school from kindergarten!” I said. “Remember? The one-room schoolhouse?”

He shook his head and said he couldn’t remember what he’d had for lunch (cold cuts), let alone where I had attended school in the early 1970s.

But I persisted.

“Don’t you remember?” I said. “We were on the evening news because it was Rhode Island’s last one-room schoolhouse? We stood outside and the teacher rang the bell for the last time and it was on TV?”

“Uhhh, yeah,” my father said, clearly humoring me. “I think I do remember something like that.”

“I think that was it!” I said. “Is this North Smithfield?”

“I think so,” someone said. Murmurs of disagreement ensued.

“The sign on the school said Forestdale,” someone else said, putting the matter to rest. “What’s everybody having? I’m having chicken.”

Don’t ask me why, but the second I saw that school flash before my eyes, I knew it was my old school. I felt I had been there, played in that schoolyard, sunlight slanting through the trees. I could hear the happy chatter of children playing, and felt like my carefree 5-year-old self for a fleeting moment. It was like watching 10 seconds of a sepia-toned Super 8 home movie of my early life before it flickered out of sight.

Trying to hold onto the memory, my 50-year-old self was a little annoyed. This family story that I had attended a one-room schoolhouse was legendary. I’d heard a zillion times about how we were on the evening news when the school closed. The teacher rang the bell, and the kids all gathered around, and the TV stations were there. Blah, blah, blah. Now that I had spotted the school, and my memory was jogged, I actually cared about the story, and nobody remembered.

As soon as I got back to Maine, I typed “Forestdale School” into Google and, lo and behold, it had been a one-room schoolhouse that closed in 1974. Bingo! According to my online research, the students had been transferred to the Kendall Dean School, which is where I had gone the next year. And even though the sign said Forestdale School, it was in North Smithfield. The Forestdale Manufacturing Co. had donated the land for the building in 1877, hence the name.

News articles about the historic building’s renovation had generated online comments from former students. One recalled memories of the backyard of the school being filled with caterpillars and butterflies, which also seemed to be a fond and familiar memory for me. Another schoolmate had written asking to see pictures of our teacher, Ms. Sharkey. That was a name I certainly remembered.

By searching the Internet, I was able to find great photographs, new and old, that showed the front of the building I now knew was my school. It had a rooftop cupola, ornately trimmed windows and two front doors. These were separate entrances: one for the girls and one for the boys. It truly had been a one-room schoolhouse where dozens of children of various ages were taught together in just 1,408 square feet of space.

From what I read, the North Smithfield Heritage Association took over the building for $1. Serving as the local historical society, it has maintained the building for decades. Inside there is a collection of artifacts, including desks, clothing, maps, books, photographs and more. Volunteers have been cataloging the names of children who attended the school, and creating a small reference library. They hope to install modern bathrooms, as it currently has just an old-fashioned water closet, one article said. Interestingly, I have no memories of the bathroom facilities.

Staring hard at a photo of the interior of the school, I tried to think back and remember what it was like to sit in those wooden chairs. Nothing came to me. But I certainly plan to go in person and relive the experience.

Last year marked the 140th anniversary of the schoolhouse and it was commemorated with a holiday ornament in gold filigree that features the exterior of the school. Funds raised by the sale of the ornaments will help pay for ongoing preservation of “The Little Red Schoolhouse.”

Needless to say, I will be buying an ornament and looking forward to a visit in the spring, when the building is open to the public for tours. It will be fun to walk through those doors again, stroll through the fenced schoolyard looking for bugs, and maybe even sit at my old desk.

And the beat goes on.

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