A masked-up man walks a waterfront path in Portland on Thursday Jan 14, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Kyle Hietala of West Bath is a 2014 graduate of Morse High School.

In Bath, a multi-generational shipbuilding community of 9,000 people, a beloved building is closing its doors forever. The brick schoolhouse, exuding vintage Americana charm, has stood since 1929 at 826 High Street. I graduated in 2014 from the old building, affectionately nicknamed “Our House.”

When the hallways were empty in the middle of a school day, you could hear almost all the happenings of Morse High School at a specific spot near the lobby office. The high-pitched whirring and grinding of machinery and tools from the vocational wing; the squeaking sneakers and stomping footsteps punctuated by whistle-blasts coming from P.E. in the gym, known as “The Pit”; the ringing office phone; the faint music of the band or choir; the authoritative voices of teachers lecturing; the distant hubbub of the cafeteria; the rehearsing actors in Montgomery Theater; the old, hissing pipes that refrigerated some rooms and boiled others.

I cherish the coziness, closeness and familiarity that was distinctly Morse at 826 High St.: the sense that we could be engaged in many different activities all under the roof of the same house, Our House, without ever being out of touch.

Soon, Morse High School will relocate to a gleaming new facility on the outskirts of the city. The sweet nostalgia I feel doesn’t change several inescapable facts: the porous, chipping bricks; ailing HVAC system; and outdated and technologically-deficient classrooms had effectively conspired to render the building dysfunctional.

With infuriating news about bungled vaccine distribution, we find ourselves preparing for at least a few more months of social isolation and lockdowns. I miss bustling places of communal gathering like my old school building. Video calls feel like a sensory desert in comparison. As we continue to hunker down, though, I hope we might broaden our understanding of what place means.

The faded blue floor tiles where I used to stand and listen to the symphony of activity throughout my school possessed no intrinsic significance, and had they been replaced with carpeting, that spot would have remained equally special, for all the sounds would have still reached my ears.

It is urgent that we work harder at listening to and hearing each other, no matter what spots we stand on. Our scientific leaders are urging us to take the vaccine and to dispel harmful myths. Our public health officials and medical workers are begging us to stay home whenever we can and to maintain social distance while wearing masks whenever we cannot. Our fellow citizens are pleading to us from ICU beds, sometimes choking back tears in confessing how they once doubted the reality of COVID-19.

My old high school will soon be an empty and silent building. And the new one will spring to life with the arrival of people. While our hearts ache to return to cherished places, let us remember that these places without people hold no psychological nor cosmic significance. Let us take precautions and make sacrifices now. Because when we can safely return to places, we do not want our first experience to be wondering, “why aren’t they here?”