It happened around the time I approached my twentieth year of teaching. I found myself frustrated with the things I used to enjoy. Bored. Trapped in routine. Even though I loved teaching, even though I’d taught many different classes and levels of students, after two decades my career as an English teacher hit a plateau. So at first, I took additional graduate classes. I started teaching night classes for my local community college. I even considered a career change.
Finally, the thing that rejuvenated me came from a place I never expected. Joining others in my hometown to renovate a historic school building became a labor of love that has transformed my life in the most unexpected ways.
The “Old Otisville School” was built in 1914. Generations of families attended it, and everyone has a story to tell about it, whether it’s recalling Halloween parades that started and ended in the parking lot, sitting on the hill watching baseball games at lunch, or gathering after hours to paint cartoon characters on the hallway walls. But in 2008 it closed permanently, replaced by a bigger, newer, shinier school, and the town spent almost a decade trying to decide its fate. Knock it down and replace it with building lots? Turn it into senior housing? Sell it to a private outside organization?
Finally, after attending a few town meetings to discuss the Old School’s future, I decided to pitch in. I figured I’d join a committee for a few months, do some studies, talk to residents, and make a recommendation to the town board.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Six years later, I head up the board of directors of a nonprofit organization formed to save the Old School and turn it into a community center.
I have learned how to rebuild walls and repair roofs.
I know more about local zoning laws than I ever dreamed possible.
After teaching all day, I call roofers and electricians and answer emails from residents who want to donate old photos from the time their great-grandfather was a custodian at the Old School.
I have met with state officials. I have spoken to reporters.
I have learned to write grants, to run capital campaigns, to fundraise in the midst of a raging pandemic.
And to my surprise, I’ve discovered that my ability to wrangle a classroom of teenagers is helpful when I’m organizing volunteers for a day of painting and cleaning.
I’ve discovered that my ability to organize a unit plan serves us well when we have contracts, bills, zoning board requirements, grant deadlines, and fundraising efforts to prioritize.
Finally, I’ve discovered that my love of the written word, my ability to understand how a turn of phrase can captivate a reader, is invaluable when I’m writing grants to find money to finance this renovation.
Saving an old school building from demolition, and turning it into a place that will serve its residents, is rewarding beyond words. Each time we post an update on social media, the response from locals is the same: “I’m so glad you’re saving our Old School!” In a time when the old is often knocked down, thrown away, replaced by something new, the power in preserving the past cannot be overstated. It is humbling to be part of something so profound and so much bigger than myself.
I hope someday soon we can open our doors for good, and I’ll be planning community dinners, Friday night Bingo games, movie nights, tutoring programs and more. I hope our local athletes will have a place to practice in the winter. I hope our local musicians and artists will have a place to perform their talents. And maybe, just maybe, up on the third floor we’ll have a small library, too.
I still teach high school English. But it’s not the only thing that defines me now. It’s not the only part of my life that has value, and I think that was the biggest lesson this experience has taught me. I am not only a teacher. I am a grant writer, a gardener, a carpenter, a historian. A board member. A villager. And all of these things have made me a better, happier person.
Yes, I’ve had a part in saving the Old School. But the truth is, she has saved me as well.