It was an impulse to share the earliest photograph of Coral Way Elementary School that I’ve yet come across, that prompted me to write this post. Here it is.
Of course, I wound up getting carried away as usual, so here we are! It jumped out at me from within the pages of the 1940 publication below, so my guess for the image would be 1939, but it could be anytime between 1937, the year of its construction, and publication date.
It’s a wonderful old building, built in a “bridge” architectural style incorporating in its design elements of both “Old Spanish”/ Mediterranean Revival” and classic Art Deco (or “Moderne”). The school is among the relative handful of historic buildings in Miami that have (probably through simple oversight) thus far been spared the wrecking ball.
A couple of years back, while I was researching a blog post about Miami’s WPA, or Depression-era “New Deal” art, I joined my parents at the family home in “the Roads” for their nightly cocktail hour. In the course of the conversation, I asked my father Jerry if he happened to remember the year that Coral Way was built. At that moment he was busily engaged, so I took a sip of my icy Martini, bemused, and waited. He was focused on holding over to Mom his Martini glass, allowing her to spear the olives and take them, something of a ritual within the private world they’ve now shared for some 61 years. And rituals must be observed! That taken care of, he looked my way and quickly retorted, “Of COURSE I do; I was there! 1937.”
I got a huge kick out of that, and just laughed. “I only wish I had such confidence in my memory about what happened last week!”, I confessed.
In the Depression-era Miami of the late 1930‘s there wasn’t much construction going on, or for that matter much else requiring the infusion of cash, and so the community as a whole took great pride in the fine new building taking shape there on SW 13th Avenue, and saw in it reason for Hope. The timing of the school’s construction was also fortuitous in the sense that the “New Deal” public art program was reaching one of its zeniths, and schools were exactly the kind of public buildings upon which the WPA (“Works Progress Administration”) stood ready to unleash its considerable stable of waiting (unemployed) artistic talent. Consequently, the school is about as loaded with striking WPA art, of all kinds, as any building of its middling size possibly could be.
Best of all, as per the policy of the WPA, nearly all of the work celebrates “local” themes, meaning in this case idealized visions of a fantastical Florida. There are the pelicans and other soaring birds of the sea, a sea turtle perched quizzically under the palms, bountifully fruit-laden orange trees at harvest-time, rolling blue seas filled with life below even as, just above, a sailboat slices forward on its path toward the great horizon. It is just too much!
When I wandered into the school for the first time since childhood five or six years ago, along the way of a casual stroll, I found myself stunned, momentarily frozen in place, upon seeing the art again! I stepped through one of the school’s arched side doorways into a hall filled with lengthening shadow, and saw just before me one of the whimsical and colorful tile illustrations inset above each of the four vintage water fountains placed in each corner of the “U” shaped building enclosing a lush, open courtyard, both upstairs and down.
A huge chill passed through me, as I realized “There is never a time that I DON’T remember living with this artwork!” And because that was so, the whimsical patches of deep color set into the wall here and there had always been in a sense invisible to me, even as they had colored my world. The experience felt very much like running most unexpectedly into dear old friends, somehow lost in life’s shuffle, or becoming aware in a flash of insight that the mythical treasure for which I’d long hungered had been given me long ago, buried (most cleverly) in the one place in all of the world that I would have never thought to search: inside of my heart.)
Yet it is more than the building, or even its artwork installations, that gives the place special personal meaning. It is family ties, throughout three generations. My siblings and I had all gone to school there, at a time when it was the first and only elementary school in the United States to have in place an innovative bilingual education program. We learned Spanish not just as a separate subject, but as the sole language in which maybe 40% of the daily curriculum was taught. All of the subjects were in turn taught in Spanish and English, with the specific lessons rotating fairly regularly.
I remember quite clearly, in the afternoon of my exciting first day at school, starting to learn the colors in Spanish. The teacher wrote in neat cursive script on the chalk board, and had us repeat after her: “Rojo.”(”RRRO-ho”) “Azul.” Verrr-de.” “Amarrr-i-llo,” and so forth. I thought it was great. Children take lessons as they come, not having yet learned to perceive threat in knowledge. I had no idea that outside the school’s doors, a fiery controversy raged as to whether the program was innovative blessing, or insidious cultural threat.
Many years before, both my father and his mother had started with the Fifth Grade at Coral Way on the same day, he as a student and she a teacher. It had finally worked out that the family had bought their home in the Roads, and my grandmother (blessedly) been granted a transfer from her prior position teaching high school, at Miami Edison. My father had come and gone within a couple of years, moving on to Shenandoah Jr. High and the waiting path of his destiny.
My grandmother, however, stayed for over 25 years, teaching generations in Miami before her eventual retirement in the early 1960’s.
During the extraordinary experience of my first “accidental” visit back, described above, I grasped something that I had always known, yet never fully *realized.* I had taken a few minutes to slowly walk the school’s hallways, as if somehow fallen deep into a dream. Or might it have been a previous lifetime? I couldn’t be certain, but the place was hauntingly familiar. I finally made my way back to the front hallway and walked up to the doors at the main entrance, and stood for a moment gazing through the glass at the darkening twilight. This thought occurred to me: “How rare a thing is it to be able to casually walk to your elementary school, from your home? And how much rarer still might it be that the school would also have been your father’s? On top of all that, what are the odds that the school might also be the very one where your grandmother had spent most of her career, teaching?”
“Wow! Especially in Miami,” I realized, “that has GOT to be an unusual thing. Different enough that I am going to have to write about it.” I suppose the time has finally come.