The street was quiet, except for a young mother pushing a carriage up Merrimack Street in Lowell.
I looked up at the old school, the stately stone-and-brick edifice, well preserved after 116 years. It seemed a lot bigger when I went to school here. I looked behind the school and in my mind’s eye I could see a group of kids huddled near Decatur Street, sneaking cigarettes before the first bell rung. Down the street a group of kids walking up from Sweetland Gardens on the corner of Merrimack and Cabot streets.
I could see Sister Theresa, Sister Rita and Mrs. O’Malley peering disapprovingly out of the windows in the principal’s office as we stood on the street, waving to them before taking off to the beach for Senior Skip Day.
It had been 35 years since I set foot inside St. Joseph High School. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I find the walls crumbling and decaying? Would the place in be in shambles? Would I even recognize it?
Surprisingly, or maybe not so, the old school was remarkably preserved. And so, it seems, were the ghosts of the past. Inside the lower-level gym I could see coach George Gregoire, whistle around his neck, refereeing a girls’ volleyball game or putting the guys through their paces running “the scenic route.”
The old gym had a low ceiling, about 18 feet, which meant that high-arc shots were an invitation to get clunked on the head with a chunk of ceiling plaster.
“Coach” Gregoire as we called him, carried the demeanor of an old Marine drill sergeant. He was the real authority in the school. Whatever schemes we thought we could pull over on the nuns came to an abrupt halt when “Coach” got involved.
The classrooms were all empty, but I could still hear the morning announcements on the old intercom speakers that still hung on the walls. The green slate chalkboards were still intact. A calendar hung on a classroom wall. November 1992, the last year that the school was in existence before merging with Lowell Catholic High School and relocating to Stevens Street.
The ceramic tile corridor floors were still perfect. I could almost hear the clanging of the steam radiators. Inside some of the classes were bookshelves that had been built into the walls. In the biology lab, an anatomy chart lay on the floor. Perfect.
I could see the faces of my classmates. Danny, sitting quietly in the back of the class, taking his desk apart piece by piece. When the bell rang, he walked away from a pile of wood. I could hear Thom, spelled with an “h,” as he strummed his acoustic guitar and sang James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” during assembly.
I could see the students, and some of the lay teachers, dressed in flannel shirts and torn jeans on “Grub Day.” I could smell the Dinty Moore beef stew and the Espresso pizza that was served at lunch.
For some strange reason, I started humming, “Color My World.”
I could hear Mr. McPartlin’s “case in point.”
In the typing-and-business room are long, narrow tables that once bore IBM Selectric and Smith-Corona typewriters and business machines. A dozen electrical outlet boxes still protrude from the floor. For me, typing class came right after lunch. Usually, my fingers were frozen from being outside, trying to suck that last cigarette puff into my lungs before the bell rang.
Sister Lorraine made us type to the beat of the music.
I could see the students, the boys in blazers, neckties and dress pants, the girls in uniform skirts, white blouses and blue Crusader vests. They’re all adults now, parents, grandparents by this time. Where are they? What are they doing? Did they carry out the dreams that were conjured up inside these halls? What became of them?
The building was empty now. Only ghosts roamed the halls.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.