As is true for many outdoor sports enthusiasts, the snow, ice and chill of Ohio’s winter has forced me indoors for my morning runs and walks. Running round and round on the local rec track isn’t my preferred way to get in my miles, but I do love running in shorts and a tee shirt. To vary the scenery, I sometimes do my walk days at the elementary school where the halls are long and turns are less frequent than the track.
In the early morning hours before teachers and students have begun their day, the silence of the building is broken only by the squeak of my shoes on the polished floor or a greeting from another walker. But I never feel alone on those walks — the ghosts of my past filter in and out of walls and doorways as I make my way from one end of the building to the other.
The first section of the building was opened in 1956, the year I was born. Five years later, kindergarten and my introduction to formal education beckoned. It wasn’t a good year — I hated being away from my mother, hated having to take naps on a stupid rug on a hard floor, listening to the teacher read some stupid book.
As I approach what in 1961 served as the kindergarten room, I can hear the sharp voice of a teacher I didn’t care for, as she singled me out for talking — which I probably deserved although it was usually to respond to a question from another classmate — who, of course, was never caught.
Through an open door, I catch a glimpse of the coatroom just inside the door. That spurs a memory of the horrible day Miss G made me sit in the corner and released me just seconds before the end of the day. Through a window in the coatroom, I can see my dad riding up on his bike to pick me up. I never told him.
Just around a corner is today’s computer room, which back then was a first grade classroom (not mine) but standing at the door is the ghost of the intimidating principal, Miss S, who also taught first grade. Lucky me. I didn’t have her. As I approach the next room, I feel sick to my stomach. My first grade classroom. Another not-so-memorable year of wishing I were anywhere but that room.
A few feet down the hall, my heart begins to lighten as I reach the door of my second grade classroom. There, standing by the open door, is Becky Winkler, my friend. Each morning, she waited for me and took my hand, somehow instinctively knowing that I would cry when my mom left. I never understood that feeling because I so loved Mrs. Bixel. Oddly, the smell of freshly baked bread lingers in that room today, reminding me of the day she taught us to bake bread and make butter.
I take another turn, and the ghosts suddenly change. My classmates and teachers are replaced by those of my children. I’ve entered the wing added long after I moved on to middle school at Beaverdam, where no doubt more ghosts exist — surely one in the shape of Chrome Dome himself.
I see Dave (Mr.) Sycks as he cajoles his young band students to work a little harder, play a bit louder. Passing the cafetorium, the smells are those of the foods of my daughters’ childhoods. It is not my cafeteria — these smells are of walking tacos and pizza.
Down the hall and I’m back to my old stomping ground. This time it is the ghost of Miss Hilty (third grade) as she discovers a few of us testing her chair with wheels. She is not particularly happy with us, but even now I can glimpse a slight lift to her mouth as she tries to keep from laughing. About halfway through this year, I began to like school and worried less about leaving my mom at home.
That was also the year of JFK’s assassination, and as I glance in the door, I see me and my classmates, staring, stunned, at the brown speaker on the front wall. Understanding begins to dawn as the voice of the principal informs us of the president’s death and our early release from school.
As I mull over that sad memory, I reach the old cafeteria — one of my favorite places. Ghostly food smells waft through the cracks of the closed doors, but the memories of chocolate milk (something we never got at home) and tomato soup and peanut butter sandwiches make me hungry.
The cafeteria was also the location of gym class and I hear the sound of kickballs as they smack against the wall. I imagine little girls trying to run in dresses and wishing they could wear pants like the boys did.
As my footsteps echo in the empty hallway, I sense rows of children marching past me, snickering and poking each other, in anticipation of some assembly about to take place. There is Miss Hilty in her black tie shoes, shaking her finger at some misbehaving child.
Farther down the hall and a turn to the left. This is my favorite place. I can almost hear my fourth grade teacher as she cheerfully jokes and greets each of us as we enter the room. This Mrs. Hostetler (not Marty, as I came to know her later in life when we managed a store together), a wonderful apparition as I approach the end of my walk. It is she who taught me to relax in the classroom, to laugh at my mistakes, and to enjoy the process of learning.
There beside her is our student teacher, Sarah Steiner. There is a classroom of giggling fourth graders preparing to surprise Miss Steiner with a fruit roll — a concept that is as dated as my memories. I hear the surprise in her laughter as she sees oranges, grapefruit and apples hurtling down the aisles toward her. If they were bruised, she never said a word.
By this time, my hour is up and it is time to return to reality. Life does move on, but as long I walk the halls of my childhood, the memories of ghosts will follow me.