As we caught up, the years seemed to slip away.
Michael Czop brought his first-grade, black-and-white composition book to our reunion last month at McNally’s Tavern. His name is barely legible on the faded cover. The inside pages are lined with simple addition problems and words like church, joy and Holy Ghost written in pencil.
Other members of our class, who graduated in 1967 from Our Mother of Consolation School, brought memories of classmates, football games and an all-girl band. For some, like Czop, it had been 56 years since they’d last seen their elementary school classmates. During a year when many members of our class are turning 70, it took more than a few minutes to recognize some of the faces at McNally’s.
But as we caught up, the years seemed to slip away.
Once again, we were in eighth grade, gathered on the lawn of OMC and dressed in caps and gowns for our graduation photo on a June morning. The day was sunny. The girls wore white gloves and white pumps. Before us lay our lives, full of promise, but as yet undetermined.
We came together again at McNally’s to raise money for the OMC community, which is planning to renovate the school, devastated by a three-alarm fire last March that caused the roof to collapse. The day of the fire, it was difficult to watch videos that showed flames and smoke pouring from the roof of the three-story granite and limestone building on East Chestnut Hill Avenue. The building has housed the school since 1916, long before we ever stepped through its doors as kindergarten students.
We weren’t alone in our efforts to support OMC, says Shane Sprandio, advancement director for the school. Of the more than $500,000 raised so far for OMC’s fire recovery efforts, $35,000 has been donated by alums across the U.S.
“The day of the fire, the response from our alums was almost immediate,” says Sprandio. “Before the fire was even out, we were hearing from alums locally and across the country who emailed wishing us a speedy recovery and offering support and donations.”
Sprandio attributes the dedication of OMC alums to “the strength of the memories they share.” He recently attended another reunion, where alums talked about their teachers as though they had been in class together just the day before.
At our reunion, conversations centered on memories of the days we spent in the classrooms and on the playground at OMC. McNally’s was abuzz with chatter about the football and cheerleading teams and the Sisters of Saint Joseph who taught us. For several days following the reunion, our email chain reverberated with even more memories as those who couldn’t attend the event chimed in.
All my OMC classmates grew up in Chestnut Hill, some on the east side of Germantown Avenue, others on the west side. Because we all grew up in the same neighborhood, we share many of the same memories of experiences outside of school – hiking in the Wissahickon, skating on the pond at Pastorius Park, and attending games and dances at the Water Tower.
As we chatted at McNally’s, we shared the pieces of our lives beyond OMC, filling in gaps and learning how the past 56 years have played out for our class.
We’ve raised our children and lost our parents. Many of us are grandparents. Some have divorced and remarried. A few are living with serious illnesses. A number of classmates have died.
Experts say that memories from our childhood can affect our self-identity, the choices we make, and how we interact with others. For Stewart Dougherty, a classmate who left OMC after fourth grade, the memories are still strong.
Dougherty was out of the country when the reunion took place. But he emailed afterward and said that reading about it had “stoked many positive memories.” He mentioned a couple of teachers who instilled in him a confidence that has stayed with him his entire life. “The vital importance of transformational teachers who inspire and help us can never, ever be overstated,” he wrote.
“I also have always had fond memories of you, my classmates,” he added. “We all just seemed to get along, with great conviviality. So much of our world has been turned upside down, but not the friendship and goodwill of our OMC class.”
I’ve lived in different cities since I left OMC. Two years ago, I had the good fortune of moving back to Chestnut Hill. I live in a house whose front facade is covered with Wissahickon schist – the bedrock of Fairmount Park’s Wissahickon gorge that dates back millions of years.
I have an affinity for rocks. I’ve placed them in the gardens of the houses where I've lived. I think it stems from my childhood in Chestnut Hill, where many of the houses and older buildings in the area are made with Wissahickon schist. While OMC isn’t built from the same stone, it evokes in me the same feeling of solidity and steadfastness.
Though not as old as Wissahickon schist, OMC has a long history in Chestnut Hill, where it has educated generations of families and helped to foster bonds among classmates that are still strong, even after 56 years.