I took a walk through my old elementary school in Attawapiskat recently. The J.R. Nakogee Elementary School is a hard place to miss in a small community. The large, grey-coloured, one-story building sits right in the heart of town. It is a sprawling structure extending from east to west in a series of classrooms, offices and storage rooms with a smaller hallway branching to the south. In the middle is a large box-shaped bulge that is the gymnasium.
I took a walk through the now-abandoned building with my cousin Ron Kataquapit. It was a sad place to visit. The lights were out and the interior looked post-apocalyptic. The building was being used mostly as a storage facility for the elementary school portables and the high school. Old furniture, filing cabinets, student desks, discarded childrens’ art, test papers, lesson plans and desks lined the hallways, along with construction equipment, lumber and building material. It was almost spooky to peer into the darkened classrooms where glints of light streamed through gaps in shutters to faintly illuminate the few remaining desks. The halls were silent and pitch dark.
I walked into the kindergarten section, at the end of a short hallway. We turned on some lights and strode through the remains of a classroom. The rug which had covered the floor for many years had been removed to reveal a white tiled floor with a red circle at the center. The red circle reminded me of my first day of school. I recall walking into a classroom full of other local children and I couldn’t take my eyes off the red circle. Mom was there with me to walk me into the room and hand me off to my new teacher. I felt at home as most of the students were my cousins, second cousins and distant relations. I remember through my child eyes that the school seemed enormous. However, as I stood in the disintegrating ghost of a school it seemed much smaller to me now.
The school was a very important and familiar place for everyone in the community. My older siblings remember having no school in the community and attending their studies inside makeshift structures. It was a big deal when construction started on the new building in the mid-1970s. Running water came to Attawapiskat in the early 1990s and before that there were only a few places in town where this luxury was enjoyed. The school was one. It felt good to know that we could count on running water and flush toilets when we were at school. I remember thinking it was great to be able to use one of the two water fountains to have a drink in the school hallways. There were even showers beside the gymnasium which we could use at least once a week. The fact that we could enjoy modern facilities when we had none at home was a great incentive for us to stay in school.
As I continued my sad tour of my former school with my cousin we walked into the gymnasium. My deceased brother’s name is etched in large black letters over the stage at one end of the gym. It was very strange for me to look up and see “The Philip Marius Kataquapit Gym.” The gym was named in memory of my brother who tragically passed away at the age of 16 in 1990. The gymnasium was used as a meeting place, election centre, banquet hall, dance hall, conference centre, reception hall, town hall and at times even a place to hold funerals. It brought a smile to my face as I recalled the infamous monster bingos that were held in the gym. It was the only place in town at the time that could accommodate 500 enthusiastic bingo players.
It upset me to see the hardwood floor-tiles upturned in places from lack of upkeep and maintenance. Dilapidated gym equipment along with lumber and other construction equipment were strewn here and there. The stage was dusty and in disarray. My mind slipped back to the day of graduation. For an instant I could see my brother Philip standing proud and tall with his Grade 8 classmates in their gowns and caps. He was wearing his big friendly smile and I thought at the time how wonderful his future was going to be.
I felt angry that somehow fuel had contaminated my old school and that it had been making the children ill. I also felt a little bitter that it had taken so long for the government of Canada to finally commit to rebuilding the school. Mostly, I felt a little lost standing at the front of the stage and wishing I could just sit for a minute and chat with Philip. Some things just can’t be reconstructed.