It was the suddeness of the hypnagogic jerk that roused me from my sleep. It’s centrifugal force igniting every molecule of my brain back into consciousness. My eyes opened to the sight of the ceiling fan gently rotating above my head. Nearby, the metal vents on the floor rattled with a soothing clinking sound as cool, conditioned air made its way from the basement into the living room where I lay.
I’d been power napping on the couch for a little more than five minutes. Something I tend to do frequently on weekends these days, especially when I’m out late the night before. Although I do enjoy these afternoon breaks from reality they rarely last longer than fifteen minutes. What can I tell you, I’m old. Not “Hey you kids! Get off my f#cking lawn” old, but more of a “It’s Saturday afternoon and I feel like taking a nap” old. There’s a difference.
I gazed over at the clock and noticed the time: 2:00 p.m. I sat up quickly and pursed my lips. “There’s something I need to be doing today,” I thought to myself. “Somthing important and, if I don’t act quickly enough, something I’m going to miss.” I fished the cell phone from my pants pocket and glared at the calendar app, where I saw the overdue notification blaring on the screen:
“Walk Through.. Palmer School”
I rose from the sofa with all the energy of a grizzly bear that’d just woken from a winter hibernation. With cracking knees and slight disorientation I grabbed the keys from the kitchen counter and made my way to the car.
Palmer Elementary is part of the Easton Area School District and, if memory serves me correctly (remember, I said that I’m old), it’s the oldest one still being used under the same name. The school is unique because it’s actually two buildings in one. The original one is called The Cole building and the other attached structure, built a few years later, is referred to as The Auld building. About the only thing I remember about Palmer Elementary was its odd, sprawling shape, and the green-tiled walls and wooden stage that were now riddled with the ghosts of generations of students who’d spent kindergarten through fifth grade roaming it’s corridors from September until June each year.
The school is now scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a new, state of the art strucuture, but the district was kind enough to let people walk through its hallowed halls one final time before it’s leveled into dust. I only attended Palmer for one year, fifth grade, back in 1979. A mind boggling thought to consider forty years later.
As a fifth grader, I was confined to The Auld building and as I entered the door to that part of the school again I felt a wave of emotion rush over me. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to find the homeroom class where I’d spent most of my time. Heck, I couldn’t even remember the room number, even though I suddenly recalled it was something familiar that I could easily associate with.
As I trudged through the corridors I found myself walking in a certain direction. I passed something that was once called The All Purpose Room; a large room with filing cabinets, chairs and even a stage for talent shows. It was there that I recalled it’s significance. On June 5th, 1980 this room served as the location for Palmer’s Silent Spelling Bee where me and a bunch of my teammates came in second place.
It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me at school up to that point, because the entire Spelling Bee was being filmed live on this crazy new contraption called a video recorder. Our tiny little selves could actually watch our performances on the television screen almost instantly after it happened!
As I walked out of that room my thoughts raced back to the Second Place ribbon I’d kept from that day. One that, almost 40 years later, still resides in a curio cabniet is my office.
I exited the all-purpose room and into another winding corridor that led past the gym, where the smell of old wood and the blood, sweat and tears of youth still lingered heavily. It was then that my strides began to come more in earnest, as if I knew there was some place I needed to be. I walked past doors with signs printed on them that said “Janitor,” “Teachers” and “Boiler Room,” along with black, scuff-marked floors from decades of abuse by children’s boots and shoes. Each sign and scrape as oddly familiar as the nose on my face. Finally, I came to the beginning of a single long corridor, and my heart skipped a beat.
“It’s down here,” a youthful voice inside my head said. “Down here on the left! Take your time. It’s not the last room, but the one just before it.”
I started doubting myself. Could it be possible that I’d actually remember the exact location of my homeroom? A school that I’d only spent one year of my life in? I trudged the corridor, peeking into each room on the way down as I slowly made my way toward the end.
Finally, with my heart still racing, I came to the second to last classroom on the left. I peered at the number that hung above the door and laughed out loud. It was Room 409. The same number as that f#cking cleaning product, Formula 409. THAT was how I’d always remembered my 5th grade classroom!! I stood there, staring at those three digits for the longest time, remembering the ten year old boy who regularly walked through it’s archway and into learning. Although I was hesitant about entering nearly forty years after I’d last walked out, I nonetheless forced myself inside.
Room 409, just like all the other classrooms in the building, was completely empty, but my mind quickly filled in the blanks. I could once again see the desks that were occupied by me and my classmates. I could see my teacher, Ms. Reiersen, with her dirty-blonde bob, standing at the blackboard near her desk lecturing. I remembered looking out the window at the monkey bars and longing for recess. I recalled the hottest of days in May when the open windows did little to relieve the unbearable heat. It was in this room where I learned about reading and social studies. It was also where me and my friend Steve came up with the idea of auditioning for the school talent show by wearing paper bags over our heads and doing a skit called “Unknown Comic News.”
If you don’t know who The Unknown Comic is, look him up on YouTube.
I walked the room very slowly taking it all in, running my fingers softly along the walls and reading the memories people had scrawled on the chalk board. I pushed on the closet doors to see where my childhood coat once hung. Yes, it still took a herculean effort to open them. I thought about all the kids that went to school with me at Palmer and how forty years had passed by in a blink of an eye. That’s when it hit me that all of us will be turning 50 this year
Well, they are, I can’t possibly be THAT old.
After what seemed like a lifetime (in reality, it was) it was time to say goodbye to Room 409, Palmer School, and that long ago part of my life. I’m not afraid to admit that I looked back several times through glassy eyes to see if time would stop. Of course, it didn’t.
I’d taken a lot of pictures to remember this day but something still felt missing, and then I realized what it was. I walked back to the board, grabbed a chunk of chalk from the tray and, the same way I would’ve done forty years ago, scribbled a final message.