(This is based upon my memory of real events and places and people from my childhood. I’ve changed some of the details (mainly the fact that the school and the playground have already been torn down), the chronology may be off, and his name has been changed – but Ethan and our moment were very real)
The old elementary school is abandoned now, dark and empty and silent, still formidable in its red brick. The three stories that comprise the original building still dominate the neighboring landscape, and the one story wings that over the years were added to its east and west sides center and buffer it, making it resemble a fortress. Behind its front, between the wings, the large playground, with its fading black pavement cracking from neglect and the monkey bars and jungle jims and swing sets and slides having all been removed years ago, is also empty and silent, waiting for the bell to ring and for children to emerge from behind the locked doors.
For more than 80 years, since it was erected in 1925, the old school has sat in the center of the small town, on the corner of 14th Avenue and State Street. It was where all the town’s kids prepared for high school until 1967, when, in response to growth caused by the post war baby boom, the middle school was built on the south side for sixth through eighth grades. In 2002, construction of the new elementary school, near the middle school, was completed, just in time for the old school, obsolete and in need of extensive repair, to be condemned. There’s been a lot of talk about what will happen to the property – various private investors have expressed interest in various development projects, such as an apartment complex, or a senior center – but it’s a given that whatever becomes of the property, the buildings will have to be torn down.
But the old school doesn’t know anything about any of this. It just stands there, silent and proud, patiently waiting. It waits for plastic crates filled with little chilled cardboard cartons of “white” and chocolate milk, the smell of freshly mimeographed work sheets, film strips and record players, workbooks, three ring binders and pocket folders. It waits for crayon and water color drawings to be hung on its walls, and for spring jackets and winter coats to be hung on hooks in its classrooms. It waits for someone to unfold and open up the tables that transform the gymnasium into the cafeteria. It waits for teachers and administrators and janitors. Most of all it waits for its purpose, the children, for their laughter and footsteps and voices to once again echo down its halls.
For only six of the nearly 80 years the school was open, from 1963 to 1969, I was one of the thousands of kids to pass through its halls. As I passed today on 14th Avenue, it occurred to me that any trace of me, any mark I may have made there, has long been worn away. Then I turned north on State street and I saw the fenced in little white house that stands next to the school, and for the first time in years, I remembered the tragic and mysterious Ethan Carter. It was the first time in years I had thought about him, but it wasn’t the first time I had forgotten him.
Each year, Ethan would be present during the first few days of school, long enough to make us remember him, and then he’d be gone. Born with a defective and weak heart, everyone knew that he was dying. He was thin and frail; his skin was a pale shade of gray, almost translucent. His face was gaunt and hollow and small. His nose looked out of place compared to his eyes and mouth – it was a normal nose, but it stood out, the only part of his body that wasn’t underdeveloped. He moved slowly. I don’t remember ever seeing him run. Still alive, he already looked like a ghost.
The only time I ever really interacted with him was on the playground, during recess, on a warm September day in the beginning of the fourth grade school year. I found myself with a baseball glove on my left hand, playing catch with him. He was standing with his back against the tall woven wire fence, not far from the slides. It was warm out, but he was wearing his jacket. We were standing closer together than two fourth graders normally stand to play catch. He couldn’t throw the ball very hard, or very far, and I’d softly lob it back to him, almost underhanded. He’d open his glove when the ball arrived and try and cover it up with his right hand. He missed about as many as he caught, and I’d wait patiently as he’d shuffle to the fence to retrieve the ball. I was afraid that if I threw it too hard I’d destroy him.
“I live here”, he said, pointing to the other side of the six foot tall woven wire fence that towered above him and marked the east-west boundary between his yard and the playground. The south side of his yard butted against the northern edge of the west wing of the school and was marked by a shorter woven wire fence, about three foot tall, as was the northern border of the yard. Inside the fence there was a small white house and garage, and a small back yard, with a sandbox that sat in the shade of a large maple tree. Unaccustomed to fences, the property reminded me of a prison. I remember replying something to the effect that I’d sure hate to live next door to school.
That was on a Friday. The following Monday, he wasn’t there. His desk was empty. I remember him being in school a couple of days in the two or three weeks that followed, and then he wasn’t there at all, as the fall turned into winter and winter turned into spring.
For a while, during recesses, when I’d walk by the slides, I’d think of him, and I’d glance through the woven wire fence to the empty back yard on the other side. Sometimes I’d wonder if he was inside, laying awake in his room, weak and lonely and sad, listening to the sounds of the children on the playground, and I’d feel sorry for him. Sometimes I’d think about him and that he was going to die, really die, and I’d get scared, and I’d make myself think about something else. Eventually, as time passed and the memory of our couple of minutes playing catch faded, he was forgotten.
Then one warm spring morning, a week or two before the end of the school year, he was back. He was sitting at his desk, as if he hadn’t been gone, unaware that he had been forgotten by his classmates. He looked about the same as the day early in the year when we played catch. No one made a big deal about it, he was just back. He frightened me.
He frightened me because I knew he was dying. He frightened me because he had missed the whole year, and couldn’t possibly have been caught up with us, but he sat there anyway, not having done his assignments for all that time, and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because he was dying, and even though we were small children and there was so much we didn’t understand, we understood that death was bigger than anything, bigger even than school and our teachers and bigger than our moms and dads.
He was there for a day or two before the end of the school year, and he was there for only a couple of warm days early the next fall, our fifth grade year. Early in our sixth grade year, in my classroom in the middle school on the other side of town, word came that he had finally died. It wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t even big enough news for anyone to talk about much. No one had seen him in over a year, and the sum of our total experience with him was no more than a scattering of school days over the years. Soon after, in death, as in life, he was forgotten again.
This time he’d remain forgotten, until on a whim today I decided to take a detour and drive through the town I grew up in. The site of the empty and abandoned school was powerful enough to release a flood of memories and emotions, but it took the small, fenced in white house on State Street to make me remember him again, and think about the boy I barely knew, and the brief moment we shared together in the handful of brief moments that made up his life. It occurs to me that although that moment was buried in my memory, forgotten until today, it has come into view more vibrant and real than any other memories of the school.
Today, more than 40 years later, the school still stands, proud and defiant, waiting for the children, unaware of its pending and inevitable demolition. In the quiet autumn midday, Ethan Carter emerges from the walls of the small white house next to the school. He is, as he will forever remain, still a child. Unencumbered now by illness or physical boundaries, he silently passes through the woven wire fence to the empty playground, his baseball glove ready, waiting for the children whose laughter he used to hear through his window, the children who in life he was too weak and frail to be a part of. He waits for them, and he waits for me, if only to play catch with for a couple of minutes.