This weekend, we went to our 15th high school reunion. We visit the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy frequently, living only one town away, so the physical nostalgia did not press in on us as it did on those coming back for the first time in more than a decade. Still, there are the small things: the window I would sit under on warm nights listening to the mysterious music coming from the Afro-Latino Exonian Society’s room; the corners and alcoves that seemed to my hormone-addled teenage mind more than secluded enough for making out, but which are revealed, in the stark light of adulthood, to be as public as a mall food court.
Twice over the course of the weekend, I found myself alone with my kids in the cage. The cage is a decrepit, dim, earthen floored indoor track with a high glass ceiling and dirt caked brick walls. The cage has a creaking, wooden, elevated deck for runners looking to keep out of the fray of whatever is happening on the ground floor. It has a concrete floored bathroom with a single toilet, a barred and cracked window, and a grime streaked towel for drying your hands. The cage is the underbelly of Exeter, as far as one can get from the life-sized whale skeleton hung in the sunny atrium of the new science building, or the bright airy spaces of the new student center. Fifteen minutes in the cage leaves a film of gray dirt on your teeth and blackened snot in your nose. I ran in the cage almost every day of every winter of the four years I was on the track team. I know the cage’s days are numbered, and I will mourn it when it’s gone. Or renovated, and bright and airy, which is as good as gone.
I came to Exeter from Amesbury, a town 10 miles south. I was a day student, dropped off every morning and fetched every evening by my father. I had no experience with privilege, wealth, foreign travel, and had previously met perhaps four people who were not white. I was mute in every class, taken unawares by the school’s Harkness system, a small group discussion format that paralyzed me with an anxiety that did not abate in the four years I was a student. I was bewildered, and intimidated, and very definitely in the wrong math class.
I was also a somewhat feckless member of the track team. A naturally quick sprinter, fast out of the blocks, I was nonetheless a bane to my tirelessly enthusiastic coach. I had little interest in actually training. I failed to reach my “potential” by a fair distance. Despite that, the cage was my refuge, and my freedom. Before practice, I would arrive early and lie flat on my back on the pole vault mats in my second-hand running shoes and stare up at the slant winter light filtering through the dust-gray glass roof, thinking about math class, or my boyfriend, or whatever fresh horror had befallen me in class that day. Then I would rise with my teammates and plod around the track for training laps, waiting for the command to open it up and sprint. I could fly around the dark, banked corners of that track, and best people who were smarter, and richer, and much, much savvier about just about everything in the world.
My sons ran with me in the cage this weekend, and I taught them long jump in the same pit where I learned, and where I competed until a false step sheared my pelvis just a little ways from my spine and that was that, as far as jumping went.
When the cage is gone, the physical memory will go too. I will have the memory itself, but the ghosts will go, having nowhere left to haunt. I’m not against progress; I have progress to thank for Exeter in the first place, since girls weren’t admitted until 1970. And there have been decades of other good, though often slow, changes. But I’m not against tradition either, or the austere past, the scooped depressions worn into the Academy Building’s marble steps by generations of WASP boys, then Catholic and Jewish boys, black ones, then girls too, then all in every color and creed, from every quarter. The place itself has a long memory.
I have a picture of myself from the school newspaper hurtling into that same long jump pit, with my owlish glasses and frizzy pouf of hair. The walls bear the wooden, hand-lettered plaques with the names of hall of fame runners in the 40 yard dash, the 300 yard, all the races before things became modern, and metric. In the cage this weekend, I could almost see myself there as that girl again, racing down the runway to plant her toe on the board. I could almost touch her in the rush of air as my own son ran and leapt, over and over, through my own cold shade, the dust rising from his heels.