Wow! The school year has officially come to a conclusion. Back in September, when the school year had just begun, I certainly couldn’t have predicted even a fraction of this year’s adventures. Back in September, I couldn’t even guarantee that HEROES would still be around the following year. I needed to find a new home for HEROES. Our lease would expire at the end of this school year, and lease renewal wasn’t an option for a myriad of reasons. I knew that I would put every ounce of energy and willpower into finding a new home for HEROES — into finding a way to keep HEROES alive, but the uncertainty certainly kept me up at night. HEROES was — and is — my life. It’s saved me from myself more times than I can count, giving me something to focus on and work towards during the low points of my life. It gives me purpose, and I knew I had to do anything and everything I could to keep HEROES going.
I couldn’t have predicted that we’d spend almost half the year online. In fact, I never envisioned teaching online classes at all — planned or otherwise. Online classes just don’t really fit into the HEROES model. We stress the importance of face to face interaction, classroom engagement, discussions, social interactions, and the use of physical manipulatives. We want students to experience the lessons — the theories — not just read about them. Seeing my students each week is what keeps me going. It’s what I live for. I’m exhausted by the end of each weekend, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything — or so I thought. Then, COVID-19 struck, and it wasn’t up to me. For the health and safety of our students, we had to move our classes online until Governor Murphy stated otherwise.
The Search for a New Home
Back in August, we were still searching high and low for a new home for HEROES. We looked everywhere; it seemed like we were running out of buildings to look at. We’d started this search almost four years ago. Three years ago, we were certain we were going to move. So certain, that we’d informed all of the families of our upcoming move. That move fell through, and we begrudgingly renewed our lease for a two year period. We knew we’d have to find a new location during that time. We simply couldn’t survive in our current location.
Our top priority was ensuring that the location was geographically feasible for as many of our current students as possible. With students traveling from all over the state, NY, and even PA, this was quite a challenge. Aside from staying right where we were, we couldn’t keep the commute the same or shorter for everyone, but we were determined to try to make it work for as many students as possible. We wanted a decent amount of land. I wanted space to grow, a playground, and outdoor space to resume offering some of the social programs that defined HEROES origins. I have fond memories of our pool parties, with hundreds of parents and children gathering to socialize and share resources. It’s an aspect to HEROES that I’ve missed dearly over the last seven years, but we simply didn’t have the facilities to host these events.
Buying land was starting to seem like a pipe dream. We started considering places that were less than ideal. We put an offer on a building in Milltown that would be a tight fit with no room to grow. We looked at an old dollar store in downtown Jamesburg with no room to grow and some serious structural issues and a mold problem. At that point, even this seemed a bit promising. We explored an old farm-house with a detached garage polluted by the sound of the turnpike traffic. The house itself was endearing, frozen in time. It was out of our price range, and renovating the buildings to suit our needs was an idealistic dream. We were growing desperate, and some of these places wouldn’t even entertain our offers.
When the school year began, I knew it was crunch time. We’d have to renovate anything we bought, and that would take time. Parents and students knew we were planning to leave our New Brunswick location, and they needed to know where their students would be headed in September before they could even consider renewing for next year. It pained me to answer their questions. Are you moving? Where are you moving to? When? I tried to instill confidence in them, but my own confidence was waning.
If we didn’t find a new location soon, we’d be closing our doors permanently. I couldn’t tell them this. It would cause confusion and panic. Moreover, I couldn’t face this reality. Stating this possibly out loud would make it real, and I had to have faith that things would work out.
We Found It
I was losing steam, struggling to believe that I’d find a new home for HEROES. We spent hours upon hours driving around, looking at any available space we could find. I felt like Goldilocks. Too big. Too expensive. Too small. Not enough land. Too far away. Not the right zoning. Structurally unsound. I found myself trying to rationalize unsurmountable issues with different properties.
Then, in perfect time, we found the perfect home, a long-neglected building in Monroe Twp, NJ. Once upon a time, this building was a Yeshiva, but it’d been nearly a decade since the school had welcomed students through its doors. Big red squares were nailed to the exterior of the building, signs that I would soon find out indicated that the building had been condemned. The old wood facade on the front had dried up; I struggle to imagine a time at which this wood facade looked appealing. Vines were growing through where the door frames once hung. Trees grew from the roof; rooftop garden, anyone?
The listing agent wouldn’t walk past the parking lot. He was certainly surprised that anyone was even considering the property; he didn’t conceal his shock well. The lot was grossly overgrown. It was difficult to identify where the parking lot started and ended, impossible to find the u-shaped driveway that the survey would eventually reveal, and a mystery to figure out what various random fences and paved fences once marked out. Freddy Kruger’s playground hid in the back of the lot. Vines wrapped around the supports. The coating on the metal was rusting away. A soft breeze caused the swings to creak.
Abandoned or not, the interior was curious to say the least. It was hard to imagine that students had once roamed these halls. Small closet-sized rooms with whiteboards led to other closet-sized rooms which had clearly housed students at one point. Old student work still clung to the walls. Exposed wires draped across the walls, not because the ceiling walls were falling down but because this building had clearly been subjected to numerous unlicensed renovations. A large pole interrupted the bathroom; I’m still not sure what it was for. A kick to the wall easily left new holes. The smoke detectors beeped. Floor tiles had been torn up from the largest classroom as if someone had started demolition or renovations at some point. Shelves and cabinets had been permanently affixed to the walls in the oddest locations, often blocking windows and doors. It’s eerie, and it’s ugly, but it’s also perfect. It’s perfect for me. It’s perfect for us. It’s perfect for HEROES. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love.
I told my realtor to put an offer in. I’m sure he spent quite some time wondering why in the world THIs was the place that I had my heart set on. This property was perfect. It was — and is — perfect. Maybe not for everyone. I suppose it hasn’t been perfect for anyone for almost a decade, but it was perfect for me. It was a school, and it could continue to be a school. I called the zoning officer to check. He instantly knew which building I was referencing. Everyone knew this building. It was notable for its ugliness! As such, we wouldn’t need a variance. In fact, it later took us only 1 week to get our zoning permit. A zoning variance could take years with no guarantee, so this was a necessity. It was also one of the items on my checklist that had made finding a property seem impossible.
I could see the dream here, effortlessly. Like a spell had been cast over the property, I could see the abandoned haunted house look fade away, unveiling the true beauty and potential of the property. It just needed a little (ok, maybe a lot) of love. I let my mind wander. The dream came alive. The 80s style wood facade melted away, replaced with an adorable cliche red brick face and a vestibule to add some dimension. New classrooms attached themselves to the back. A playground to the side with children swinging and laughing. Seemingly randomly placed picnic tables adorned the property. Small garden statues of our favorite storybook characters nestled themselves in beautiful gardens. It came alive to me in a way that no other property did. It was on that initial visit that I knew. This would be our new home.
Read Part II