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Out with the old: Students, teachers say goodbye to Portland's Nathan Clifford School

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Out with the old: Students, teachers say goodbye to Portland's Nathan Clifford School

PORTLAND — The Lull family moved to their Pitt Street home in 2006, because it was within easy walking distance to the Nathan Clifford Elementary School, an institution that had served the neighborhood since 1907.

But last Thursday morning, Greg Lull and his 7-year-old son, Zachary, who is in the second grade, parted ways in front of the tall, heavy wooden doors on the towering three-story school for the last time.

To mark the occasion, they trudged through more than a foot of snow to pose next to the school sign for a family photo.

"I'm covered in snow," Greg Lull said to his photographer, another parent. "But it was worth it."

Feb. 17 was the last day students and teachers would fill the halls of the historic school, designed by renowned Portland architect John Calvin Stevens.

When it opened in 1907, it was hailed as the most modern in the state. The school had a water fountain on each of its three floors, telephones and new bells in all 16 classrooms, and a room "for the exclusive use of teachers."

The basement contained as mud room, where boys and girls could clean the dirt and mud of Deane Street from their shoes – in segregated areas, of course.

On Monday, Feb. 28, the more than 300 students attending Clifford will return from February vacation to the new $14 million Ocean Avenue Elementary School, also being hailed as a state-of-the-art facility.

But Thursday was Nathan Clifford's day – a day of lasts at the school, which many people in the neighborhood fought unsuccessfully to keep open.

Shortly after 9 a.m., students in Lois Allen's fourth-grade class quickly settled down to hear the morning announcements. The last lunch featured barbecued chicken fillet sandwiches, cucumbers, vegetarian beans, bananas and low-fat milk.

Then, students gathered in groups to run through the acts they would perform at the school's last assembly in the third-floor auditorium, which features large historic paintings of fishermen and farmers. In recent years, however, it has doubled, even quadrupled, as a library, computer lab and art room.

At the assembly, each class took the stage, where many had previously competed in spelling and geography bees and talent shows, to share their favorite memories.

Students talked about making friends, injuring themselves on the playground and being taught how to read.

Fifth-graders Leo Paterniti, Max Katz and Will Snyder were the penultimate act of the assembly. The budding musicians played a version of the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends," only with lyrics adapted for Clifford's closing.

"Do you neeeed any boxes?" a chorus of students sang in falsetto to the bass, drums and guitar. "I've got some packing to do. Do you neeeed any boxes? I've already packed quite a few."

For many teachers, each of whom received a carnation from students, Thursday's event was bittersweet.

Allen has taught at the school for 38 years, starting one year after graduating college. For the last 20 years, she has been in a second-floor classroom, ringed with classic green chalkboards and stacks of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1979.

Allen said she is going to miss everything about the school – the feeling she gets when she walks in, the historic architectural flourishes throughout, and the familiar sights and smells.

But most of all, Allen said she will miss the memories that present themselves, seemingly in every corner of the school, which her own two children attended.

"Everywhere I look, it's tied in," she said.

Corinne McMennamin retired from the school several years ago, but continues to volunteer. The 67-year-old has tallied 43 years at the Clifford, which was her first teaching job after college.

McMennamin's emotions overcame her when she spoke about the closing of the school.

"I love this school," she said before taking a pause to try unsuccessfully choke back the tears. "The camaraderie here was unbelievable. I don't think it was like that at any other school."

That camaraderie was not exclusive to teachers.

As students took the third-floor auditorium stage, many described their memories of making friends in the large classrooms and on the playground while their classmates attentively watched from old wooden seats.

Some students said they'd miss the ghost in the girls bathroom that makes the doors creek and water mysteriously turn on. Others said they would miss the "creepy stairs."

Principal Beverly Coursey, like many others, noted the tradition of the annual egg drop from the school's roof. Coursey said she hopes that some of the Clifford traditions will carry over to Ocean Avenue.

"There are so many things we can bring with us to the new school, but some things we'll have to leave behind," she told students. "We'll just have to decide which ones."

Unfortunately for some, what is being left behind are decades of memories that are tied to the bricks and mortar.

"This has been my life," Allen said. "It's hard to let go."

For others, like the Lulls, it's a simple convenience, as well as being connected to history.

"We're going to miss the walk," Lull said. "We can still walk to Ocean Avenue. It's just a little longer."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net