With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, you can go to school again.
Life has a way of changing classes, so it may not pass the eye test of the advancing years.
But there is something special about returning to a place that built you. The spirit of presence stirs the scholastic senses. You can almost hear the screeching of blackboards and the sound of footsteps racing to beat the tardy bell.
Peggy Eaton Miller took her first such sentimental journey a few years ago, when she returned to her beloved Pearl Stephens Elementary on Napier Avenue.
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She had attended school there as a child in the 1940s. Once a proud landmark, the grammar school had fallen on hard times. A decade ago, it was reincarnated as a 61-apartment senior retirement community.
Pearl Stephens Village breathed new life on the inside, and the familiar pearl-white exterior was shining again.
“My heart was rejoicing as I went through there,” she said. “And I began wishing the same thing would happen at Miller.“
Blocks away on Montpelier Avenue was another personal history, with its castle-like, three-story charm and bones of brick and cast stone.
In had been painful to watch A.L. Miller High School for Girls in its declining years. The old lady, who opened her doors in 1931, had not aged well. Once described as a “new building in a party dress,” time had not been kind to one of the most grandiose structures in the city.
Peggy would drive by, and almost have to look away.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “But I still had a yearning to go in it every time I passed by here from the day I left. I have such wonderful memories of Miller.”
She was thrilled when she learned a developer planned $16 million in renovations, transforming it into the A.L. Miller Village, with 62 affordable apartments available to anyone from college students to single parents to senior citizens.
For the past 32 years, Peggy and more than two dozen of her classmates, have met for lunch the first Tuesday of the month. The group was organized by Joan Pruett Courtney. The only requirement was members must be graduates of Miller’s Class of 1955.
Peggy sent a letter to the group to determine the level of interest for a tour of the old stomping ground. Many of the women hadn’t set foot in the school since they graduated 62 years ago.
“A few of us ‘girls’ were talking about how much fun it would be to go back inside the school as a guest, rather than as a student,” she wrote. “If only those walls could talk, we might all be in trouble.
“Who would like to live in Mrs. Carver’s chemistry lab or Miss Willie Mae Little’s algebra class? We think it would be fun to go and relive some of our memories.”
This past Tuesday, they met at the Red Lobster on Riverside Drive, then headed to “back to school” for the first time since graduation, college, marriage, careers, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
They giggled like high school girls as they filed into the auditorium, which could seat 600 people back in the day. They posed for a “class” picture for longtime local photographer Ken Hill. Class member Elaine Jones reflected on the times she had appeared on that stage, including school plays.
The ladies later gathered at the foot of the steep steps at the front of the school. They remembered when there were 213 young ladies, seated on all 22 steps and wearing dresses for the class group picture.
On Tuesday, the Class of ‘55 roamed the halls and remembered the distinguished feel of the tile and maple hardwood floors. In the back parking lot, they revived stories about the wall where the Lanier boys would sit every morning to watch them pass by on their way to school.
Sometimes, the gals knew exactly where they were. Other times, the only guided map was their memory.
“At times, we looked a little lost,” Peggy said. “The room where we had English is now a three-bedroom apartment with two baths, a living room and a big kitchen.”
If anyone had ever slept in class, could they have dreamed that classroom would one day be a bedroom?
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.