The adaptability of the human mind is equal parts blessing and curse. As I walk through the annihilated ruins of the old Oxnard High School campus, after not having set foot on campus in the nearly 25 years since I attended (1984-1985), it all comes rushing back — but, in the throes of those mnemonic torrents, those memories change subtly to reflect the new reality.
The diving board from the swimming pool, fenced in and protected from the curious, lies in a crumpled blue heap, crushed by what is implied to be a healing hand as the land becomes grounds for the stated uses of “public recreation and community services.” The board lay emblematic of the gutted swimming pool beyond it.
This was the pool in which I was so indelicately urged to participate by joining the swim team during my sophomore year. This was part of the year during which my adolescence represented not a blossoming but instead the total implosion of the sense of self, an astral disaster that only the unseemly and maladjusted can understand. Unless all you alphas were just kidding about all that sex and confidence, that is.
On the wall are the swim team records, still held from my time at Oxnard — names floating by as serenely now as the girls on whom I use to crush as they turned into butterflies in one lap, and breast-strokers in another. The locker rooms — suffused with sweat and heat and shot through with odd flashes of contemporary teenage humor (“So glad we’ve almost made it / so sad that your dog ate it / everybody wants to rule the world”) — locked now for good, ruled lately only by moths and vermin.
Beyond this particular sunken world lie chunks of classrooms and buried pasts, demolished in a process that began on the morning of Monday, June 9, of this year. Auspiciously, this was the day school — the old high school — ended. Likely, if you were one of the tens of thousands of alumni through the autumn of 1995 (when the old school closed), the only thing that seemed amiss in the landmark was that now, passing by it, you could see across campus, where once there were only oceans of buildings, a Sargasso sea of entrenched and implacable academia.
It stuck to one of the remaining walls now graffitied with destruction instructions. A bloodless tick, round and dulled from years of heedless coats of industrial-strength paint, the school bell that ran my life, essentially, for all those years pulled out of the wall surprisingly easily, wires cut courtesy of a secret shiv in my friend’s boot. It was the only bell we could find. The others, presumably, lay dead beneath the weight of tons of brick, wood, concrete and steel.
I decided to give it to a friend of mine — we’ll call him John. John was one of the sainted few who decided against the high school game and spent his time there pursuing a pastime fraught with chaos and mischief. This is before middle America knew anything about punk rock or had to suffer through its charmless lack of vision; “no future” to him meant that he saw no future in the silly rasher of hoops and ladders the Oxnard High School student was expected to follow.
Everything for John was down time between escaping the campus and investigating either cars or computers, schooled, too, in the more advantageous and helpfully cynical aspects of big business through sensible, wealthy parents and a Wall Street Journal that still measured its stock prices in fractions. Those were — as the mysterious “they” often say — “the days.”
For immediate release
“June 6, 2008 — Demolition Begins at Campus Park in Oxnard — The City of Oxnard will begin demolition work at the future Oxnard Campus Park Site. It is estimated that the project will take approximately four months to complete.
On May 5, 2008, the Oxnard City Council considered a report on the Old Oxnard High School Site Demolition Project and approved the expenditure of $402,008 to demolish the dilapidated and unusable structures remaining on the site. The Campus Park Demolition Project will include the removal of all but one of the remaining one-story structures.
Asbestos and lead have already been removed from the former buildings, and two buildings have been demolished. The two-story building, the gymnasium, and the building occupied by the Police Activities League (PAL) will remain standing and accessible to the organizations who are currently occupying them.
For the safety of the community, access to the track, football field, bleachers and the south lawn will be closed temporarily as the demolition activities take place. It is expected that these will be reopened after the demolition crews have cleared the site.
The city acquired the site at 937 West Fifth Street through the State of California Education Department in February 2001 in order to retain the grounds for public recreation and community services. This site is slated for the development of park and recreation facilities to serve the growing youth population in Oxnard. When completed, it is expected to include a variety of outdoor recreational amenities.
The 35-acre site consists of various former school buildings dating back to the 1930s and was the home of Oxnard High School until the fall of 1995, when the Oxnard Union High School District declared it surplus property, subsequent to the construction of the new Oxnard High School on Gonzales Road.”
“What a waste!” snorts John from his home in Rancho Belago, inside northwestern Riverside County. “What a waste of money!” He’s already toured the ruins, a week after I’d gone there; his mind is as sandblasted in amazement as mine was.
“Most of my old classrooms are now rubble; the quad — where I ate lunch for four long years … scraped off the earth. The science class where I dissected a poor worm? Toast. All that remains is a newer two-story building (where my old locker was), and that’s pretty much it. It seemed as if the high school was like a bazillion years old, but it was located on the flight path to Oxnard International Airport (a joke of an airstrip), and the established city fathers fretted and worried for years that a plane might crash and squash the kidlets (a.k.a. future) of Oxnard — ha!
Like anything so cool could ever happen there. Of course it never did, but that didn’t stop the school district from abandoning the site and building a brand-new school elsewhere. The hilarious part is, they ran out of money and never installed a pool, or half the stuff the old one had. Typical. So for years, the campus just sat there, empty, collecting dust. When I saw it all destroyed, it was rather sad, though — I mean, as much as I hated that place, and as much as I would have loved to see it demolished when I was a student, actually seeing it destroyed was sort of distressing. It’s as if a big bulldozer just swept away many formidable memories in an instant.”
Ralph Alamillo, an official in the general services department of the City of Oxnard, reveals that the estimate for demolition was initially quoted as slightly north of $1 million. Ultimately, more than 80 percent of the refuse material was recycled by Interior Demolition in Montrose, with much of the school’s wood shipped to Mexico for use there.
“There’s some demand for soccer fields (to be created) — as well as talk of removing the existing stone bleachers (at the football field) to open up the space,” says Alamillo, “and the inside of [the] gym will be renovated — new lighting, heating, the removal of some of the bleachers, and new paint inside and out.”
When asked what the open space will be used for, Alamillo claims that for now it’ll be graded and left as open space until the Oxnard City Council comes up with funds for another public use. As for that rumor about the space becoming the Dallas Cowboys training camp, he admits, “Nothing’s set in stone, but anything’s possible.”
Freedom from want
Perhaps “demolition” is too strong a word to use in characterizing what we outcasts wanted back then. Seeing the climax of “Rock’n’Roll High School,” with the Ramones dynamiting Vince Lombardi High as the credits rolled — that was cathartic, almost downright therapeutic to see in the halcyon days of VHS and intellectual curiosity.
It would be more precise to say that we didn’t want all the hallmarks of the high school existence foisted upon us, shoved down our throats with such force that it would maim even the deftest sword swallower. It wasn’t the high school we wanted gone — it was all the trivia, all the rigmarole and pomp that was so endlessly vacant.
Back then, that’s what the high school represented. But now, the high school has been reduced to rubble and a fine powder coating the soles of my shoes. The cafeteria, standing as of this writing, exudes a beautiful wet echo if you stand at its center and clap. It’s a sonic benediction that loses itself amid the cackling of crows and the shushing rush of traffic down Fifth.
The guts of this place, where friendships were forged and lost, hang idly in the wind, the building becoming a great abstract mobile, now inviolate because it, too, has nothing more to live up to. War is over, and the pretense of high school life here is gone for good. Soon it, too, shall be plowed under, paved over like the dead fighting men at Flanders fields; and what were we fighting for, anyway? Someone to like us? A stainless permanent record that, in these days of countless second chances, was the biggest lie since the Tooth Fairy? Investing in a dead future learning languages for a culture war that cratered and failed?
Anyone who went to Oxnard High’s old campus should go and see it fade, before the final wall falls. Ultimately, what we were fighting for — what we truly and so sincerely wanted — was a comfort in our own skins. We wanted a grace of self that remained stubbornly in flux — changing, and infinitely assailable. Sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads — go see the place in which you became individual adult human beings. Where you changed.
Nostalgia and time dull the hills and valleys of past eras so that they look like gently rolling, bountiful plains from afar. Now, up close, the old campus is a wasteland. The visible destruction of Oxnard High, the thing we all thought would never truly happen — jolt from the blue or jet from the sky notwithstanding — is that one startling blast of satori (a Buddhist term for awakening) that will bring you back to that person you were when you thought absolutely nobody was looking.