A secret seventh-grade history lesson

My junior high school had a scandalous “secret” that older students would melodramatically point out to incoming seventh-graders. The hallway floors in one of the buildings was edged with decorative glazed tiles in bright colors. On the first floor near the office, amid tiles depicting anchors, lions, birds, shields, and other motifs, there was a swastika!

Oh, no! Why?

The answer involved a history lesson. The swastika symbol was old, older than Nazis and World War II. Nazis didn’t invent it, they only used it. Our building was older than the Nazis, so when it was built, the ancient symbol had seemed innocent, just like the lions and anchors.

We learned a lot in those buildings. In my case, classes included Spanish, algebra, geometry, civics, literature, art, home economics, and gym. But in the hallways, thanks to that scandalous tile, we also learned a lesson about the world:

The meanings of things change over time, and the past holds surprises.

We also wondered why we were attending school in such old, decrepit buildings. This wasn’t just us kids whining, since teachers and parents had the same question. These buildings were genuine fire traps. At some point — I can’t find out exactly when — the buildings were torn down and replaced by a new middle school elsewhere in the city.

My old junior high school was so unloved that I cannot find a single photo of the buildings on the internet. All I could find were tiles (see photo) in the Men’s Gymnasium, built in 1917, at Indiana University. They seem to have come from the same set of patterns as the ones at my junior high school.

The tiled floor at my old school with the swastika has disappeared. It has become history, a memory with a lesson about history itself.

And the world keeps changing.

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