—The Friend, Sigrid Nunez
A sense of place comes not from bricks and mortar or from the dulcet “you-have-arrived-at-your-destination” GPS message. A sense of place comes from what happens in the spaces, from the feel, from the sounds, the smells. It is palpable, but not concrete; it is the everyday breathing of the daily moments, and it is the stuff of memories and legacy. You can’t grab it, box it up or hold it, but you can know it. It is as poet Alastair Reid writes, “past and present in one,” and it holds purpose beyond any strategic plan, capital campaign or program. A sense of place is everything you need to understand the difference between house and home and institution and community.
It is the every morning of the every day. The parting of parents and daughters at the door: pats on the back, hugs, the handing off of birthday cupcakes. And the nod, the smile, the salute, the few words of welcome by the people who keep us safe as we pass through our doors and into our world. All’s right, and so our day begins.
It is when we gather at Brick Church for our All School Assembly. A sea of waving hands, and the looking backward and forward, looking to find former teachers, real or assigned little sisters as we sit in our new rows, ever moving backward the older we get, until perched on that coveted spot in the balcony as a senior. An optical yardstick to measure growing up. I used to sit there, and now I sit here.
It’s orchestra practice very early in the morning on the 7th floor, the hallways still dark. No voices, no classroom noise, only the beginning chords of Nutcracker. Just the music, cadences of the upcoming concert.
It is the Lower School Lobby, our every-morning town square: busy, loud, welcoming…D.H. Lawrence’s “wonderment organizing itself.”
The many feet smoothing the winding stairwells of our buildings. Up and down, up and down. From my back window, I see the Middle Schoolers zigzagging down, ready for lunch, squeaky shoes, excited voices echoing.
They are moving fast, hungry. I can hear them talking long after they have disappeared.
It is Clara Spence’s bust at the base of the stairs, watching the generations come and go. It’s the daughter, now student, of the alumnus standing on a chair to see her mother’s graduation picture, pressing a finger to the image, imagining her mother in the very hallways she now walks.
Over and over again, I watch parents watch their children as they act, defend the goal, dance alone on the stage, dribble the ball down to the hoop. Parent passion: singular, ever-present, ever-lasting. Sometimes they know the lines of the play and mouth them quietly. At the second-grade performance, they wave to their child as if at a rally. Some of them stand up to be seen. The child waves back, sometimes quietly, sometimes equally hard: the power of being seen.
It’s the newly returned first-grader who poked my shoulder until I turned. She was taller, missing a front tooth, donning a big smile. “Remember me?” she asks.
Circles. Lots of circles. Lower School morning greetings, tables of Upper School students in the Atrium, tables in the Library, early morning breakfasts, Harkness tables, faculty meetings. Face to face, every day.
The elevator: conveyer of both traffic and mission. The door opens up on the 6th floor and the couch holds a bundle of students sharing notes, heads in a huddle, or it opens to a teacher and a student and a good idea: the cast in a play called “Learning.” On the first floor the door opens up to a Middle Schooler holding a bag of ice on her elbow, three friends—elevator helpers—each carrying one of her books, all with huge smiles, possessors of the golden elevator pass.
A sense of place is watching the soon-to-leave senior finding a moment to stand alone on the black and white checkered floor of the lobby, turning around slowly. When she sees me, she smiles and says, “This is where I grew up.”
A sense of place means having something important in common: a shared experience and responsibility. We spend most of our waking hours at 22 East 91st and 56 East 93rd, and it is, for each of us, students, faculty, staff and alumnae alike, something beyond an address. It is the home of the everyday legacy of life and learning. It is both the through line and the magical metamorphoses of what happens from age 5 to “who’s-counting.” And it belongs to everyone, no matter the generation, no matter the era.