It didn't take much to convince my mom that getting hyperactive and moderately destructive 10 year old me out of the house. She applied in my behalf, and I was accepted. It was not, as you might be envisioning, the sort of snug boarding school from "Tom Brown's School Days" or any Dickensian vision. (That's irony, by the way.) Nor was it a mystical and fascinating place like Hogwarts. In fact, it was a Greek Revival grey marble fortress in North Philly, in the heart of one of the worst neighborhoods in the country - just blocks away from a street corner that was the stabbing capitol of the country for many years running. Once within its walls, though, Girard was neatly ordered, and architecturally fascinating. I was run through getting my hair cut, uniforms issued, a medical examination including booster vaccine shots...(and not the last time I'd go through this, either!) and dumped amongst a "pod" of other orphaned (or at least fatherless) lads. I was one of two white kids in my grade, and the other one and I took an immediate disliking to each other. Still, I made a few friends, but was generally not happy. Fucking miserable might be closer to the mark, really - I was constantly getting in fights, missed home terribly, and had trouble sleeping in an open dormitory. I didn't mind the ritual of meals, which were always formal and involved standing en masse behind our chairs, hands behind our backs until the school's pastor said a prayer. I didn't even mind the uniforms - scratchy wool pants, dress shirts and ties, v-neck sweaters and grey or blue wool blazers. Free time was spent in a group living pod, with one tv, a long table, and a smattering of puzzles and games.
From time to time, though - I do have a vivid and happy memory of Girard. Once a week we were trouped into the library - a grey marble edifice like a Greek temple, but with tall windows of many panes. The interior cieling was immense, with the second level open to the first, and a walkway around the otherwise un-interrupted bookshelves. It was quite old, built in the 1800's, and had that particular dusty, joyous smell that only a truly old library can have. We were seated on a broad blue carpet with yellow stars, surrounded by a darker blue border. The librarian, a thin and elderly lady with white hair and wire-frame glasses, would draw over a wooden chair, and read to us. Of course, I could have read faster to myself, but at least for a little while, there was peace amongst the stacks. I remember her reading a chapter from a book each week, and the book was something about a "moon ball" some creature from space that a boy found. I wish I could remember the title of the book. There are times, even now, when I'll be reading a book, and some glimpse of a sunbeam with dust particles drifting through it, the scent of an old book, some indefinable thing - and I'll remember it. I get a fleeting sensation of being seated on the carpet, surrounded by books, the scent of dust, paper, binding.