Our high school burned down this morning. My husband woke me a bit before 5AM and told me it was ablaze. I jumped out of bed, went to the window and 4 kms away seemed like next door. The flames were so high and the fire so large. At that instant your mind races through the scenarios…Is my 6 year old’s elementary school on fire too? (it was right next door) How much of the high school is gone? Has it spread to the historical Venables Auditorium? Where will the students go today to learn? Where will they go tomorrow?
Of course it goes without saying that we are blessed in Oliver in that no one was hurt in the fire. We were blessed that no one was hurt when the historic Oliver Hotel burned down last year and when the Testalinda mudslide came roaring down our Western ridge in June 2010. Yes we are blessed and I understand that.
But I have come to understand today that although we are blessed and lucky, we are also grieving–and we should be allowed to grieve for the loss of SOSS (South Okanagan Secondary School) without being made to feel like it is a silly thing to do just because it was a building.
Our high school was a building that gave many in our community a sense of pride every time they saw it. Yes we are a small town but we had a great, well-equipped high school that taught people from throughout Okanagan Falls, Oliver and Osoyoos–the entire south end of the Okanagan Valley. People in larger cities can never understand how buildings like this become our focal point and help to define us. The big rounded art deco Venables Auditorium was a meeting place for the entire community. Aside from how it was used for the high school it hosted theater plays, traveling musicians, Christmas concerts for the elementary school (two for my child), community meetings and even citizenship ceremonies (including mine on October 17, 2002).
I remember vying for a seat last December in the Auditorium for our daughter’s Christmas concert and I was thinking–wow, is everyone going to fit in here? And they all did. The balcony even filled up with anxious parents. I remember thinking “What a great building this is. I will love to watch my daughter grow up in this space”. I felt a connection with the generations of other parents who had watched their children belt out songs in the place. I was becoming a part of Oliver’s history.
I am sad tonight and damn it I am proud to be sad. I am proud to live in a community that mourns its loss of community and doesn’t just let it fade away due to budget cuts or upgrades or putting in larger parking lots. I am proud to live in a place that mourns a school that did not have graffiti covering its walls before it fell to the ground. I am proud to live in a place that feels a real sense of loss, bewilderment and genuine confusion over how 350 young adults will carve out a sense of empowerment this year–how those students will stay together to build their own sense of community in a fractured learning environment. I am proud that people in our tiny corner of the world are grieving the loss of a building that meant so much more to all of us.
I drove downtown today and could no longer see the crown jewel of Oliver sitting on the hill rising above our main street. And I am not ashamed to say, I had to pull over and cry before continuing back to the winery.