A Demolished Building Lives On

Photo from KMA Yearbook and Jim LaBate

Souvenirs Tell Stories: Part 6 — A Ticket to Graduation

“There are places I remember all my life

Though some have changed.

Some forever, not for better;

Some have gone, and some remain.

“In My Life” by John Lennon of the Beatles

During the late summer of 1977, as an eager and energetic 26-year-old English teacher, I walked into an old, brick building in an old, mill town in upstate New York. No, this particular building was not a factory; instead, it was a small, Catholic high school, and I spent the next nine years of my career working there. Though the school is now closed and though the building was demolished and the site turned into a parking lot, that school is one of the places John Lennon was writing about, one of those “places I remember all my life.”

Keveny Memorial Academy (KMA) in Cohoes, New York, was initially named St. Bernard’s Academy, and it included grades kindergarten through twelve. By the time I arrived, however, over 100 years after the building’s construction, the school offered only grades nine through twelve with roughly 50 students per grade. As a result, KMA was an ideal place to teach because the classes were small, the parents were involved and supportive, many of my fellow teachers were sisters of Saint Joseph, Sisters of Mercy, or local priests, and we all taught our classes from a Christian perspective. Though no school is ever perfect, I think most students who attended Keveny received a good education and have fond memories of their time there. As I think about the building, I remember not only the structure itself but also the individuals who helped to make that building so memorable.

Photo by Jim LaBate

My classroom was Room 202 on the southwest corner of the building with windows looking over Canvass Street and City Hall. Typically, I taught sections of English 9, 10, and 12, and a course in business writing. During my first year, I wanted to paint colorful designs and images on the walls, and the principal said I could do so, but only if I repainted the entire room, both walls and ceilings. Yes, she would provide the paint, rollers, and brushes, but I would have to provide the manpower. So when I mentioned the project to my homeroom students, five of them immediately volunteered, and on the following Saturday, they painted the walls while I played Michelangelo and painted the ceiling.

I also remember numerous literary discussions and public speaking assignments. One freshman girl was so nervous about her first speech that she alternately shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she spoke. Unfortunately, at one point, she shifted so far to the right that her ankle turned over, and she fell to the floor. Though surprised and embarrassed, she fortunately bounced right back up and kept talking without missing a phrase.

My most memorable literary discussion involved Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. After three weeks of reading the play, discussing it, and viewing the movie version, I asked one class of sophomores to summarize the main idea. A male athlete, one who didn’t often raise his hand, made everyone laugh with his reply because he used only two words, words that also served as the title of a popular song at that time: “Love Stinks.”

Photo by Jim LaBate

The big room next to my classroom overlooked Ontario Street and served as the library, and I worked one year as the librarian. How did that happen? The librarian at the time, a female teacher even younger than I, told me she was bored and said she really wanted to use her degree and teach English. “I’ll switch with you for a year,” I said immediately, and somehow, we convinced our principal to agree to the trade. Ironically, my most vivid memory from that 1980–1981 school year occurred in early December while I was sitting alone among the bookshelves, and a student rushed in to tell me that John Lennon had been shot and killed near his home in New York City.

Obviously, our small sanctuary of a school could not escape the tragedies of the world, and we experienced some losses that really rattled our normally peaceful and isolated existence. Cancer arrived one day to claim a beautiful, young student actress, and a motorcycle accident and a car accident reached out and stole two young males from our KMA community. For many of our students, these losses represented their first experience with death and tested the beliefs they learned in religion classes and the faith they practiced at First Friday masses across the street at St. Bernard’s Church.

Fortunately, the positive experiences easily outweighed the negative ones, and many of those experiences occurred in the tiny gymnasium/auditorium near the main entrance on the first floor. Normally, the whole building shook a bit when the daily trains clanked by, but on a Tuesday night during the winter of 1978, the entire foundation vibrated out of control as the Sabers won the Patroon League basketball championship in front of a packed, standing-room-only crowd that was euphoric in its enthusiasm. The thrill of victory — indeed.

In addition to basketball and volleyball games in that location, I also remember fondly the Friday-night dances, the band concerts, the theater productions, special events like roller skating and donkey basketball, and, of course, graduation. When Keveny closed at the end of the 1985–1986 school year, the principal ordered special key-chain souvenirs, souvenirs that also served as our ticket to the final graduation ceremony. Over 30 years later, I still keep that memento as a reminder of my time at Keveny and all the special people I met while working there. In many ways, I had just as much fun participating there as a teacher and coach as I had during my own years as a high-school student and athlete a decade earlier.

I could probably go on and on with stories and memories from this sacred structure, but I must conclude, so as I do so, I recall two quotations. First, the National Trust for Historic Preservation says, “When we lose an historic place, we lose a part of who we are.” That’s certainly true from an earthly perspective. God’s Word, however, offers a broader, eternal perspective.

In Ecclesiastes 3, verses 1 and 3, the Bible says, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven . . . a time to tear down and a time to build.” Although Keveny Memorial Academy has been torn down, the lesson and truths taught there, like God, will live forever.

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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