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Uprooting to a new school building is bittersweet

I walk the hallways for the last time. The blue linoleum floor that was waxed to a shine last summer is now dusty and scuffed after countless feet have passed. The paint has been gently smudged by adolescent hands.

All other student work has been carefully removed from bulletin boards. Teachers’ names have been stripped from doors. Rooms that once held hundreds of souls each day are empty.

With the new year, my school, Harrison Prep in Lakewood, moves to a brand new building.

In 2008, HP – which had shared Oakwood Elementary – moved into an ancient, mothballed school. It looked post-apocalyptic: furniture piled up, bulletin boards covered in fading butcher paper, musty smells lingering. Now once again, it sits quiet, hibernating.

I shouldn’t get sentimental about a building, but that is the building that most HP students and staff know.

I will miss the murals that students painted and the comfy feeling, like worn-in jeans that you know can get dirty. I’ll miss the echoes of long-gone students. The kindergarten wing had pint-sized toilets and drinking fountains with hooks and cubbies in the rooms, a constant reminder of the past. Our principal was one of those kindergartners.

In contrast, the new building is … new. No students have walked its halls, used its restrooms, bled on its floors. The white boards are pristine, without ghostly equations and lecture notes layering the margins.

What I won’t miss? The staff lounge. The refrigerator leaked, and the breaker tripped every time someone used both microwaves and the toaster oven. The tell-tale click would alert us lunch had stalled. Someone would calmly flip the breaker, explaining to any new staff members why their meals weren’t hot.

The new staff lounge has up-to-date appliances, including an oven, dishwasher and enough room to seat our whole staff comfortably without squeezing by cast-off furniture. In a word, luxury.

I won’t miss the lack of technology and electrical capacity. When we first arrived in the old place, IT had to figure out how to install Internet connections and more than 60 desktops in a building created in the 1890s. Even the more “up-to-date” areas of the school were not built to accommodate modern electrical usage. No classroom had more than two or three outlets.

Like the NASA engineers who saved Apollo 13, our IT staff members had magical problem-solving skills that were only slightly less life-saving. We made it work.

The new building’s rooms have state-of-the-art technology with surround sound, interactive white boards and Wi-Fi. Welcome to 2015.

I won’t miss being cramped. Because we reached capacity a couple years ago, almost every teacher shared a planning period with another “cart teacher” who was classroom-less. Our two PE teachers not only shared the gym with the cafeteria/auditorium, they also traveled to the Lake City Community Church’s gym twice a week and held PE classes in a music and history room. All of our teachers have room to breathe in the new building.

There are more stories – student stories. For seven years, tales were spun about 17-year-olds on swing sets during recess, and sixth-through-12th graders playing ultimate Frisbee together on Pumapalooza, our field day. Mini dramas played out regularly. Sixth-grade girls – enough said. But these dramas are real. Students experience heartache, heartbreak, crushes, triumphs and failures in our school. And they will still have all those experiences, just in a new location.

As a gardener, I know that transferring plants is vital. Without room, the plant’s root system slowly withers from lack of nourishment. But repotting is tricky; careful attention must be paid to living growth, or the whole plant fails to thrive.

What comforts me is knowing our roots will transfer because we’ve survived trials. I know what really matters: My teammates are each dedicated to their students and to each other.

I know I don’t need much more than the confidence that in the new building, as in the old, we are people who care about each other. And that should be enough to feed our roots for years to come.

Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at caseyjosilbaugh@gmail.com.

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