Chapter 21: Sex. Drugs. Depression.
Central Middle-High School
On the way back from a trip to New Hampshire, I made a startling discovery, a revelation substantiated the day when, weeks later, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential election.
Crossing the Castleton-on-Hudson Bridge, very much under construction, I looked south, down the river towards Beeren Island. Under the gloomy February sky, I thought, “If Warren doesn’t win the nomination, it’s because this country hates, among many things, two things: critical thinking and women.”
Cut to March 5th, 2020, a real shit day because it meant that I’d never get to cast my ballot for Elizabeth Warren in the New York primary. The Bernie Bros were right, without meaning to be. The moderate Dems were also right, again, very unintentionally. Both groups filled with so-called “progressive” white men said it from the beginning:
“She’ll never win because nobody will vote for her. I mean, I would — but it’s just a wasted vote.”
— to which all of us responded furiously, “Because you won’t vote for her!”
I took a walk around a city block in Kingston, New York, had myself a nice cry, and called my mom. She let me sob into the phone and wax poetic about how Warren lost because much of the country hates women who think critically because so many feel intimidated by intelligent, driven, and articulate women. (Aka Elizabeth Warren.)
The following day, I received a notification that the tank top I ordered from ElizabethWarren.com was on its way. When I doorknocked for her in New Hampshire, I truly believed, naively, to my core, that she had a chance. Her supporters outnumbered every other candidate at the McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner (a fine example of in-party class warfare where all the rich people who donate big bucks to the DNC get to sit on the floor of the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire while the rest of the peons get to sit in the stands waving gigantic signs for the candidate of their choice.) In 2020, there were twenty+ candidates for the job — every one of them waltzed into the center of the arena on a full catwalk, strutting like rock stars to a song of their choice. Warren chose “9 to 5.”
(Side note: by the time it got to Tulsi Gabbard, the 11,775 person stadium, which mere minutes earlier, was packed to the brim, had about ninety-five people left, including arena staff, and, without flinching, Gabbard spoke to the crowd of ninety-five.)
A few weeks after Warren dropped out, the country shut down, mostly — then the whole planet, sort of.
Just over a year after that, I found myself staring up at a giant hole in the wall, on the second story of an abandoned high school, next to a farmer’s field in Painter, Virginia, which is where this story begins.
I flip a hard U-turn on Langford Highway and speed back, south, about a quarter-mile where I rip off the road and peel into the backlot of Central Middle-High School. The good news is that I saw it and immediately let my spirit take the wheel.
The bad news is that now I’m going to be late for my Airbnb reservation in Philadelphia. Oh well.
I’m glad for the break on my drive back to my home in the Hudson Valley after a week-long escape to North Carolina. It’s my first solo road trip since the summer of 2020 when I braved the virus and drove across the country to Colorado to help my mom, sister, and nephew move to Oregon in the thick of pandemic summer number one. On that trip, I was so afraid of the virus (rightfully so) that I bought six pillows and six sets of sheets to make my own bed (then abandon) at each overnight pitstop along the way. On that trip, I stayed the night in Louisville, three months after Breonna Taylor was murdered by police. On that trip, I saw America for the first time and realized that it’s not really fifty states; it’s more like fifty countries.
My foot hits the ground in front of the school, and I stand to face the vacant structure, an art deco wonderland built in 1932 with a 1935 addition funded by the Public Works Administration. Being a part of FDR’s historic legislation that pulled the country out of the depression landed the building on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2010, five years after its abandonment.
By looking at it, however, no one would know Central Middle-High School is on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks unsalvageable. I notice a large field behind me and even further in the distance, a farmhouse. I am near the eastern shore of Virginia, a 70-mile chunk of the Delmarva Peninsula that disconnects from the rest of the state via the Chesapeake Bay.
Politically, a quick glance at the numbers on Wikipedia shows a fascinating teeter-totter between a Republican and Democratic majority — an even closer look shows an increase in votes for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020 at 11,245 votes, against DJT’s 12,127 votes — versus the number of votes Hillary Clinton received in 2016, 9,995, to DJT’S 11,269. (Mathematically, that’s an increase of 858 votes for DJT from 2016 to 2020 — versus a DNC increase of 1,250 votes in the same four years.)
It’s a welcomed warm day, and I pull out my backpack to accompany me into the space, which I realize is going to be easy to enter because a back door is wide open. I peer up at the second floor and spot a giant hole in the wall. I can see right into the classroom. There’s a teacher, a phantom, preparing for another day.
“Like clockwork,” I smirk. “My imagination is already up and at ‘em.”
The bell rings. The school yard is suddenly flooded with the ghosts of former students. I somehow know, innately, that there are two classes of students: working and elite. The working class wear less expensive clothes, have thicker southern accents, and generally stick together; whereas the elites sport preppier clothes, talk without accents, and also generally, stick together.
It all makes sense to me later that night when I find the demographics of Northampton and Accomack Counties online: from what I interpret, the elite reside in Northampton, and the working folks live in Accomack. It’s typical American narrative, a symbol of our economic reality.
I enter the building to a lengthy corridor boasting rooms on either side, stretching down hundreds of feet. Kids file into classrooms, and I’m left alone to walk down the Crunchem Hall-esque hallway, admiring the architecture inside as much as I do outside. I am reminded of my own high school experience, a daily odyssey into a vat of boiling, horny teenagers where I looked far and wide for anywhere to feel safe.
I notice there’s an empty classroom up ahead and poke my head inside. As is often the case during my expeditions to these haunts, I stand at the entryway to the classroom, balance-beaming on the brink of reality and fantasy, past and present. The chamber was once a science room, and as I wander inside, the world of 2004 — the year before Central High School shut down — disappears. I find myself in the present, April 2021, inside a decaying room with chipping paint falling off the walls and empty glass cabinets and windows partly smashed from years of vandals. I ponder the Right’s slow marketing campaign against the pursuit of knowledge, a strategic effort to tarnish education and ensure that their followers feel empowered, in the name of their fundamentalist, nationalistic religion, to storm PTA meetings and ban teachers from teaching accurate American history; to flood town halls in an attempt to ban all kinds of literature from public libraries; to hold rallies in an outcry to dismantle the public access of knowledge, a Scopes Monkey Trial 2.0.
They know how dangerous information can be to their cause.
I open one of the glass cabinets and run my finger along the bottom shelf, collecting dust. The sound of beakers on flames comes through loud and clear, the explosion of “ews” and “yucks” on pig dissection day.
I leave the classroom and begin to explore while the school day rages on. I go inside the auditorium where I discover a gorgeous theater, a red carpet down the center of the sweeping room. Backstage, there’s a vending machine that almost looks like it’s still in use until I realize it’s been jammed open, and I hear the whispers of students in the middle of a production of Godspell. “It was the only musical the drama department could get approved by the school board, or could afford to produce with a dwindling arts budget,” a student whispers.
When ghostly applause erupts from the audience, I step on stage and join the cast in the finale, a reprise of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Students and staff and administration and conservative parents leap to their feet. I bow and exit the theater to the hallway where I head up to the second floor. Every step I take, the fantasy disappears around me until I find myself in the classroom with the giant hole in the wall, overlooking the pasture out back. It’s mid-afternoon, and at first I attribute the silence to the end of the school day, but reality sets in as soon as I see that gaping hole in the wall. I wonder what happened when they shut the school down. Where did the students relocate for classes? Have I entered an education desert, which, much like a food desert, bars basic access to public necessity? What about all the kids who can’t afford to travel to another county? Where are they supposed to go?
Hours later, when I land in Philadelphia, I look at the district’s rating on publicschoolreview.com. Three out of ten. I look at all of the data for Central Middle-High School just before it closed in 2005. It served 291 students, and of that student body, 68% were minorities, 14% higher than the Virginia State average. 63% of the student population was eligible for free lunch. These numbers add to my bafflement and confusion. Why did they close the school? I can’t find any information about that.
As I step into the second-floor classroom, my hand presses against the chalkboard, and I can feel the sorrow in the Painter community at the closure of a bonafide community hub. It sits here wasting away. Nobody is trying to save it. I’m confused at its appearance on the National Historic Registry. How is it legal that this Art Deco Messiah has fallen into such a state of disrepair?
In a flash, my thoughts vanish as I reach the hole in the wall where the floor underneath me suddenly gives way. I plummet, fast, and I barely catch myself on support boards holding up what’s left of the hole I just created in the floor. I sit there startled, my hands propping me up, my feet dangling over what I later discover is a bathroom below. My breath is caught in my chest from the panic in my body, as though I had the wind knocked out of me, and after a moment suspended between two floors by nothing but my limited arm strength, I hoist myself out of the death hole, covered in soot and mud, and I quickly leave the second floor.
This is the day when I create a new rule for my All-American Ruins adventures: No more second stories unless at least one other person is there. It’s the first time anything like this has happened, and shaken, I quickly exit the building before getting to see the rest of it. As I round to the backlot, I notice my shoes are completely ruined, soaked in a murky black substance that I choose not to think about. Just as I’m about to kick them off my feet, I turn up at the hole in the side of the building and realize that I missed a somber message that’s been painted on the back.
Sex. Drugs. Depression.
I stare at it as I remove my shirt, also soiled from the crash through the floorboards. It’s a warm spring day, and the sun feels good on my skin. I approach the graffiti message with caution. The message echoes in my mind, a looming warning from the past about the consequences of the shutdown. Central Middle-High School. It’s the first time visiting these spaces — a practice I’ve been at for about a year — where a palpable sorrow sets in and accompanies me as I pack up to head north. I see a small metal folding chair, leaning up against the side of the school and unfold it. The moment I do, all 291 students and all fourteen teachers reappear one last time, hustling and bustling at the end of the school day. I watch them go about their business and know that not a single one of them is aware that next year, the school will close for good.
I leave my ruined shoes on the steps of the building. It is my offering to a phenomenal, complicated history, a candle for the continued hope that education will win out in the end.
“A good education is a foundation for a better future,” a sentiment from Elizabeth Warren rings out in my ears as I climb into my car and leave Central Middle-High School behind until it disappears out of sight in my rear view mirror.