Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Teacher's Story by Joe Lonergan

A Teacher’s Ghost Story by Joe Lonergan

Thirty some years ago when I was teaching at St. Patrick’s High School I used to remark that the kids were gentler with each other than when I was in school. Now I feel we were all much the same over time and that not a lot has changed. One day at the end of September, I heard a commotion and stopped a group of Secondary I kids who had been chasing another one... or so I thought. I had not had a good look at whom they were chasing as I had come up on the situation quickly and just as suddenly it was over. Their quarry was long gone. It had seemed like an apprehended bullying which made me a little angry but I chose not to show this in front of the little ones. I hoped it was just a game of tag out of place. I was teaching mostly Secondary IIIs at the time. The following week when I was having lunch in my department room another teacher told me she had had a similar experience. “Where Anne?” I asked. “Down near the cafeteria” she said.

“Did you see who they were chasing?” 
 “Only a fleeting glimpse, not really,” she answered, “I was more concerned with the bunch after him; I called them up short.”

I asked the Secondary I teachers if any particular child seemed likely to be the victim but drew a blank. One teacher however was aware that six or seven kids hung around together in the cafeteria area.

“How are they?” I asked.
“Oh alright,” she said, “a little wild, you know Sec I boys, no worse than that.”
The next day heading back from the cafeteria to the teacher’s lounge I heard a commotion at the end of the hall from which I had been walking away. I turned and went down but all had returned to the normal bustle. I asked a student what had been up. 
“Dunno Sir, just Sec I kids havin’ fun!”

 “If I were to speak to a Sec I which one would you suggest Carol?” I asked a Sec I teacher. She suggested I talk to Joe Dolan as he was “a nice intelligent kid.” I asked the Director of Discipline if I could go ahead and he said sure; he had his hands full with the other four levels.

 Carol’s classroom was across the hall from mine and we could each see the front of each other’s room. Carol taught Joe during one of my few off periods. I asked her if she could send him in to see me. She agreed to send him the next day after he turned in his Math test; he always finished well before the others.
“Excuse me Sir, Miss said to come and see you.”
 “Yeah! Hi Joe. Is Mike Dolan you dad?”
 “Yes Sir,” he said smiling with the same lightly freckled face as his dad.
“I was in class with him when we were small Joe, tell him Joe Lonergan said Hello!”
 “OK, I will Sir.”
 “Joe, can you tell me who the Sec I kids have been chasing down around the cafeteria area?”

The smile on Joe’s face turned to one of looking perplexed. He shrugged and said, “Oh, wow, you know about that? I don’t know who the kid is. We all thought he was in another Sec I group but it turns out he’s not in any of them. He’s weird, we never get a real good look at him.”
 “Weird?” I asked.
“He dresses weird, old looking clothes, no body dresses like that... and he’s scrawny, he seems to be anyway, I never got close to him. He really runs fast.”
 “You chase him?” I asked.
 Joe was uncomfortable. “Yes Sir, but like, it started out we were just curious and went to see him, he looked so weird... but he took off like a scared rabbit.”
 “You still chase him?”
 “Well, yeah, we sort of want to see him up close Sir. He does not come often but if we spot him... well, like we’re curious.”
 “Do you think he’s a Sec II?” I asked
“I don’t think so, they’re in the old building like us and we never see him there, so nope, I don’t think so. And he’s too small to be Sec III, IV or V.”
 “OK, fine Joe.. Listen Joe if you see that kid just leave him be will you. He is obviously scared.”
 “OK Sir! ...Sir, talk to Jimmy McGrandle, he says he almost caught him.”
I started laughing, “Jimmy McGrandle? I was in school here with Jimmy McGrandle when I was a kid. What a village! It must be Jimmy’s boy. Jimmy was fast too,” I said, 
 Ok, thanks again Joe, I will. You had better get back to class.”

The following week I got to speak to Jimmy. He told me his dad was in fact James McGrandle and that he had been transferred this summer to Quebec City... and yeah, his dad went to school here when he was small. I asked him about the chasings and his involvement.
“Yeah,” he said, “I thought I’d catch him ‘cause he headed for the sports supply room across from the stairwell but when I went in he wasn’t there.”
 “Where do you think he went?” I asked.
“Well there’s a door and a short stairwell that goes down from there but it was locked. I don’t know what’s down there.”
 “OK thanks Jimmy, tell your Dad I’m teaching here!”
 “OK Sir. Hey Sir, it smelled real earthy there.”
 “Earthy?” I asked “What do you mean earthy?”
 “I mean it smelled like earth, like mud when I went in there. I’m just sayin’.”
Not knowing what to make of that I again said goodbye and sent him on his way.
 I didn’t teach last period so after prepping for the next day I went and asked the Principal Mr. McKenna if I could borrow his master key. He said fine but to please get it back to him before I left that day. I headed for the place Jimmy was describing. I knew vaguely the school repairmen kept some hardware on site and had a bit of a workshop down there. I went down into the workshop and noticed a door on its south wall. Opening the door I was hit by what was indeed an earthy smell. I found a light switch within and turned it on. What lights came on were of transparent glass but the wattage was poor. There was a staircase of only four or five stairs to a lower level with an earthen floor. I explored. There was a long passage that ran south under equipment rooms off the high school gymnasium above. The passage way was about 12 feet wide with the school’s foundation to the left. To the right the earth rose up to leave a crawl space under the gym floor of about three feet. I went to the southern end of the passage that revealed great pipes and valves. Along the way there was a trap to one of the supply rooms above and a couple of boarded up windows in the foundation wall. 

I headed back from where I came, up the little flight of stairs to the workroom and back up to the first floor. I brought Mr. McKenna back the key and headed home. That night after supper and helping to get the kids to bed I decided to drop in on my mother who only lived a block away. When I got there I was soon telling her about my visit to the school’s lower regions. “Oh Joe, don’t be going down there,” she said, “It’s the old cholera cemetery down there. It’s not safe”. 
I just laughed and said, “Aw mom!”
She was right about the school having been built over the old cholera cemetery. It was part of the old graveyard that had served as the first St. Patrick’s Cemetery. My mother would have been only six when they dug the excavation for the old school. But she was 45 by the time they dug for the new school. She had heard about all the bones uncovered in 1955. The same had happened when they excavated to join the new and the old school with a wing in 1968.

I decided to go back a week later after hearing another teacher complaining about “a chase”. I went down, switching on the light and again noticed the earthy smell. I sat on an old wooden classroom chair that had ended up there and took the place in. I was thinking about the cholera epidemics that had struck Quebec as far back as 1832. They recurred five times including in 1854. Now talk about whistling in a graveyard, I had been half whistling Johnny’s Gone For a Soldier. All at once I thought I saw some slight movement in the dark area that shrank to a crawl space and the hair literally rose on my neck. The smell of earth was over-whelming and, believe it or not, I somehow saw a scrawny child in the gloom.
“Who are you?” I asked. 
 A little boy’s voice answered in a half-whisper, “Níl Béarla agam.” I knew this was Irish though I have very little Irish. It means I have no English. I was gasping.
 He repeated nil Béarla agam and added, “Siúil a Rún” or Shule Aroon, the old air behind Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier. My mind was spinning. My whistling the melody had brought him to me. He was only a wispy wraith in the gloom but the odor of earth was choking strong. I was amazed to find my teacher instinct greater than my fear. “Cad é do thrioblóid mo mhac?” I asked him. What is your trouble my son?
“Ba mhaith liom mo mháthair agus mo athair,” he answered. I want my mother and my father.
 I thought and then promised him, “Amárach.” Tomorrow.
 I knew he had to be a cholera victim. I imagined his parents had survived the epidemic. Their remains probably had been transferred to the mass grave in the new St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Sillery. I left quickly and yelled back from the top of the stairs, “Amárach, mo mhac, as grá duit,” Tomorrow my son, for love of you. 

My mother phoned that night and asked me if I was OK. She told me she had dreamt that I was a little boy again and it had frightened her.

The next day I went down with a shovel and plastic gloves to where the wraith had stood and in a little time I had uncovered the skeleton of a child and a few other bones for good measure. I put them in a plastic bag, took them out to St. Patrick’s Cemetery and buried them in the mass grave area. I made the sign of the cross and spoke it aloud in Irish.

“In ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an spioraid Naoimh. Amen.”

I have never told anyone this story before. Days after I re-buried the remains, I awoke one night from a dream. I can’t remember the dream other than hearing the air to Shule Aroon and a child saying, “ Go raibh maith agat. Tá síocháin agam anois. Mo ghrá thú.” Thank you. I have peace now. I love you.

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