The bell is a muted tone rather than a shrill clang, but 40 years-on, the small chaos is instantly familiar. Kids are changing classes at Roxboro Community School. They’re wearing glasses and braces and backpacks; they’re clutching water bottles and tablets. The little guys with tardy hormones mingle with — though certainly don’t speak to — the confident, cooler element with near-beards. They galumph and glide and make their way over sanded and shellacked blond wood floors, weave between dozens of original 12 foot-by-12 foot beams, ceiling skylights, and in the streaming light of also-original windows, each with 24 panes. I want to be there. Here, I mean.
“I love your shoes,” a teenage girl says to me.
Maybe high school is different now. Forty years later, I’m finally cool.
What’s definitely different is that these 700 students in grades 7 to 12 are going to school in a mill, in the old Roxboro Cotton Mill founded by J.A. Long in 1899, which, with dedication and renovation, opened as a charter school in the fall of 2006. A handsome plaque in the square, airy foyer recognizes the building’s 2009 inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Beneath my feet is the original concrete floor, slightly uneven from decades of other feet and machinery, its imperfections intact and undisguised by multiple coats of glossy Bulldog school colors.
No dust motes float in the halls of the two-story building. Pipes of every diameter, from an inch to two feet, ferrying heat and air-conditioning, water and electricity, have been left exposed. They’re silver and black and red and only enhance the high, easily 25-foot ceilings. Middle school grades and administrative offices are located on the first floor, high school principal Darkarai Bryant explains. High school classrooms and the library are granted second-floor status, which, in the academic food chain, seems only fitting.
Bryant opens a nondescript door, and a single step transports us within the original mill, the cavernous space the school plans to renovate as a gym and auditorium. “We’ve found three snakes,” he cautions. The mill smells of bricks and concrete and dust and disuse. The space is vast. Exhausted paint from brick walls — some bearing three different colors — lies in flaky piles on the floor. Here are the painted windowpanes, a practice I never understood — were mill owners trying to prevent employees from gazing outside, sliding into slackness? Or just afraid of sunlight bleaching the textiles? Here is a track of raised rails, upon which some long-gone conveyance transported goods across the expanse. Here are chunks of concrete pried from the floor, revealing boards beneath, and when we peer at light leaking through the slats, we spy the school’s band room below.
And here, too, are the support beams, the most distinctive, ever-present feature of these mills. On both floors, two corridors run parallel, bisecting the school, and I walk their length, lightly tapping each beam as I pass, counting. Forty-nine. Times four. One hundred ninety-six visible beams, and that’s only for the portion of the mill that’s been reclaimed. Standing at one end of the long, long hall, they create an optical illusion of infinity.
These huge, unclaimed spaces lacking interior walls mean that their rehabbed interiors are often sleek, modern, minimal, a wise decor decision in this place of teeming, talking adolescents. The rust and gold walls bear large, black, eye-level lettering: Early 20th century, Renaissance, Post-Impressionism, Baroque, with prints of their work by Klimt and Wyeth, Rothko and Picasso, Cézanne and van Gogh, displayed in their appropriate periods. The effect is both warming and educational. Behind the high, arched, gorgeous, and original windows of the library, at the rear of the mill, located just off Depot Street (of course), are the train tracks, which, like the structure itself, are still in use. They hark back to the intent of these mills, whether tobacco, furniture, textiles or, like Roxboro Community School’s heritage, cotton. They were money-making machines. Today, this one is making minds.