It was getting late and just about time to head home. I drove east on Fifth Street and considered driving home on old Foothill through Glendora. I turned left on Pasadena Ave and was preparing to turn onto Foothill, but at the last minute decided to continue north on Pasadena and take Sierra Madre home. I can’t explain why, but as I passed St Frances Church I got the overwhelming urge to turn into the parking lot and did so. I drove around the auditorium, (home of some great CYO dances and a mother’s day show I will never forget), and pulled into the schoolyard. It too was like driving into the past. Everything looked the same. The buildings color had changed, but otherwise the school was much the same.
While I sat there taking it all in, I was reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode where this guy goes back to his old hometown of Willowsby after thirty years and finds that it hasn’t changed a bit. St. Frances was my Willowsby. Just then one of the doors opened. Three girls of about eleven stepped outside, followed moments later by a group of eight or nine boys and girls and a nun. They began walking toward the church. As I watched them I realized two things. The first was that they were probably public school students here for a Saturday religious education class, and the second was that they had come out of my old eighth grade classroom! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Here was a chance to actually visit my old classroom, a room I hadn’t seen in nearly forty years. I got out of my Explorer and eagerly walked towards the classroom.
Unlike the outside of the school, My old, eighth grade classroom had undergone major change. I was a little disappointed to find that the blackboards and wooden desks that I remembered were gone, and had been replaced by whiteboards and aluminum legged, plastic molded tables. Gone too were the odd spiral shaped light assemblies that had hung precariously over our heads. In there place was a white dropped ceiling and eight rows of recessed lights that turned what I remembered as a drab dimly lit room, into a bright and cheerful classroom. It was all so different, yet oddly the same.
As I entered the room, the memories of all that had taken place in this room all those years ago came alive. Names, faces, voices and events flooded my senses, so real, so detailed, as if they’d happened yesterday instead of all those years ago. There, at the front of the room stood Sister Simplicia, squinting and blinking, rolling back her shoulders, calling us “Jellyfish,” and telling us we had “no backbone.” In the back Cathy Vargas and Theresa Rodriguez passing notes. Pete Smith sucking on a full sheet of loose-leaf paper, the ultimate spit wad. Paul McCully catching flies, pulling off their wings, then putting the flies inside his cartridge pen. Just another day at the office. It all seemed so real, so fresh, could it really have been that long ago.
I stood there completely lost in the memories. I could clearly see Sister Simplicia walking back and forth between the rows of desks, going on about something or other, spitwads clinging to the back of her habit. Paul McCully silently mimicking her. Across the room Larry Coleman, red hair and freckles, mouthing the words to some Stones song with his fountain pen microphone, doing his best Mick Jagger. If Paul was our class clown, then Larry was the village idiot. He was the butt of all jokes and pranks. He may as well have been wearing a target on his ass. Most of us felt sorry for Larry and all the abuse he received, but were secretly thankful that it was happening to him and not to us. I wondered about Larry. I had heard that the abuse continued throughout high school. Had he survived? I could only conclude that he was either dead or locked away in some high tech mental facility. Or perhaps all those years of abuse had toughened him up and he was now the CEO of some large corporation. I didn’t really think so.
It was then that I noticed two young boys seated quietly near the back of the room. I hadn’t noticed them at first, because they were bent over the table working intently on a project. I watched the closer of the two working quietly for a minute or so, then walked over and sat down next to him. He was working on a drawing of a crucifix. After a minute or so he finally looked up from his work and said hello. I asked him about his drawing and he explained that they were drawing the crucifixion and began telling me about it.
As we talked, I saw the monsignor with two altar boys in the parking lot near the church. I asked the young boy if he were an altar boy. “No way,” he said, “ I ain’t no altar baby.” Surprised I asked him why and he just shrugged. “I was an altar boy,” I told him, “ one of the best.” Suddenly images of altar boy drollery filled my mind. We were an irreverent bunch, and oh what a time we had! feasting on unblessed hosts and altar wine, locking each other in the cassock closets, leaving large, candle smoke stains on the low, white, acoustic ceiling, then blaming poor Larry Coleman, yeah being an altar boy was one good time!
I remember on mornings when there was to be a funeral we would sit in class anxiously waiting for Father Rodin to come in, hoping to be among the seven boys he would select to serve in the funeral ceremony, so that we could get out of class. At the funerals it was all fun and games, we had a total lack of respect for the dead or their survivors. While in the procession we would try to blow out each others candles or make each other laugh. I can still see some of those crazy Paul McCully faces, what a crack up. We were always trying to trip each other by stepping on the back of the cassocks, It was all we could do to keep from busting up. Yeah, those were the good old days.
Suddenly it was all too much. Memory overload. I was desperately fighting to hold back tears. “Hey mister, are you going to cry?” I looked down and found the boy looking at me. He looked concerned. I shook my head no. “I’m okay,” I lied. “You sure?” He asked uncertainly. “Yeah I’m sure.” He watched me for a few moments longer, smiled and went back to work on his drawing. I just sat there watching him.
In those moments all the memories, the joy, the pain, the unforgettable, had come alive. I looked down at the two young boys and saw myself, my friends, the innocence of our youth. The boy turned towards me again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked again. “You look kind of strange, like you saw a ghost or something.” I gave him a sort of half smile and told him that I was fine. I rubbed the top of his head, turned and walked out the door. It was time to go home. Funny, but the young boy didn’t know how close to the truth he had come. My entire day had lent itself to this end.
Truly I had seen a ghost.
The ghost of my life past.
The ghost of childhood lost…