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A form of literary autobiography, the personal essay allows us to ruminate on truths from our own life experiences. Every Wednesday this month, the Irish Essayist series will see writers test the continually-expanding essay format to explore subjects as diverse as mental illness, gender, music, growing up, and more.
Ghosts on the Third Floor
by Siobhan Ryan-Bovey
Sitting in the fourth row of my secondary school auditorium, in my black jeans and shedding white fluffy scarf, I began to feel with every pluck of fluff, that my seventeen year old self would be annoyed that her six year senior would be so ungrateful to be in this position-in front of the teachers wearing her own clothes rather than the olive green school uniform. With the dimming of the lights the uniformed students walked in front of us in a coy procession to the far side of the hall. They grew taller and taller as they passed us, making our claps, those of the parents and siblings, seem like a vital catalyst in their growth. The principal later assured the left hand side of the auditorium that it was our support, the support outside of the school walls that made these students go above and beyond, gesturing to his right. I felt that this pertained to my mother more than to myself, the absentee sister of five years.
My brother, a recent graduate and now a first year nursing student at the city university, sat parallel to me in the student section. He was wearing a light blue suit; the recent graduates were told to “dress up”. I leaned forward to look over at him. He was chatting to friends I’d never seen before. They looked like elongated children in the bloated bodies and uncomfortable clothes of adults. I leaned back and plucked. The benches I had sat on five years prior, eating packed lunches with my mixed bunch of friends, had been folded down to make rows of benches for the new elite students amongst whom my brother sat: the academics, the athletes, the avid extracurricular attendees, and the spirited. Mr. McDermott, the principal, stood up to the podium at the right of the stage to welcome us all. He looked the same as he had when I had graduated and he spoke as calmly and consolingly as I remembered.
The awards given out that night were mostly named after past pupils. The award descriptions were, for the most part, not given. The teaching staff had preserved a tradition to the stage of obsoleteness; names such as the “The O’Keefe award” and “The O’Driscoll Memorial trophy” were called out and the students diligently accepted their silverware knowing that they had done something right. They were praised for preserving the memory of students they had never, and would never meet.
In the art room just down the hall from the auditorium, refreshments were served at the close of the ceremony and I walked in ahead of my mother to grab a glass of wine. I was the first person to choose alcohol over the cans of fizzy drinks but wine was what I needed and it served the valiant purpose of reminding me that I was back and the school hadn’t fallen down in my absence. I took a gulp and leaned against a counter at the back of the room by the window, leaving my mother to talk to her friends.
When my brother arrived to join the throngs, he floated in above the others and my mother took a picture of us side-by-side, after which he whispered to me that we should go upstairs to explore. We secretly put cans of coke in my handbag to take home and we wadded through the crowd, stopping to shake hands with our old math teacher who couldn’t remember my first name but pretended he was on the cusp of finding it before it was offered to him. My brother and I moved to the empty corridor.
“Want to go to Mr. Dowling’s class?” my brother asked behind me as we climbed the stairs, sticking to the left and walking in single file as we were trained to do. I agreed to his idea but demanded we make a stop on the second floor for the sake of thoroughness. “The library’s doubled in size” he commented when we arrived in the dark open space.
“No it’s not. I remember it the same” I retorted.
“No, this door was never here” he tapped its wooden frame. “Must have been done over the summer”. He was right; any renovations I could remember would be due upkeep by now, regardless. We walked out again and the double doors flipped back and forth emptily behind us. I looked back nervously.
We arrived on the third floor. That was my area. The third floor was where my locker had been for my final two years. It was where most of my classes were held, and it was where I made the friends that I had kept in touch with while abroad. The smell of teenage angst was the same but dampened; it had sunken lovingly into the walls and carpets. The thousands of students who had passed through, as I had, were a part of its infrastructure now. If there were any beams in this modern section of the building, I assumed that were made of the bones of the pupils who had awards named after them. There had to be a price for such fame.
At my French teacher’s classroom on the third floor we stopped to peer in the door window at the desks and maps of France. The same key phrases lined the walls in luminous letters. We could see through the class window to town where the cathedral clock was illuminated in front of the sea.
“On his last day they played the Marseillaise as he walked out the front doors” my brother chuckled.
“I’m sure he enjoyed that. Ever the martyr.” We kept peering in silently together for a minute.
“Ready to head back down?” He stepped back eventually. My face was still ardently pressed against the door’s window.
“Actually, you head down. I’ll catch up in a minute. Make sure mom doesn’t drink.”
He skipped back down the stairs whistling in the dark and I walked down the corridor listening to the echo of his steps downward. I moved past the meditation room to the other side of the stairs, my left hand fingers extended, grazing the lumpy wall. I sat on the top step, facing forward. To my left, the window showed the floodlights on the empty football pitch and a sliver of November moon.
I had spent four years studying in the United States and another year in Belgium for the sake of a masters that I might never use, and now I was back on my home island and felt that I had made a wrong turn at some corner and that I hadn’t noticed until now, having reached what felt like a tragic circle’s end. I put my head in the cup of my hand and looked at the light bouncing on my free fingertips as I moved them around in the lone ray of light.
I wondered what it was that struck me most about returning to my secondary school alma mater. I decided that it wasn’t a simple case of nostalgia; in the traditional sense there was no one thing, person or moment that I missed overwhelmingly. Rather, I felt that my sadness came from the fact that the affirmation of a horrifying truth had silently been tucked it into my back pocket by some specter when I had entered the school’s front door, and I was only now reading the message. Time had passed. It had passed, somehow shockingly, without my consent. The stinging feeling that pricked my skin was not a result of the cheap wine; it was a manifestation of my discomfort at not having control over an aspect of my life that had apparently been under my charge until now. I simply couldn’t believe that my hometown had moved on, as I had abroad. I had selfishly expected it to stagnate while I lived elsewhere.
After having let the truth roll through me in different guises for a few minutes self-pityingly, I stood and leaned on the windowsill. I breathed and fogged up the glass, then scribbled out my blur and left my empty glass there. I strolled back down the corridor to the open area of classrooms. The shadows of hundreds of students jostled around me. I saw them laughing next to their lockers, running back for books forgotten, holding hands, I saw a shock of dyed hair, a glimpse of a shaved head, ripped pockets, the embarrassed exchanging of eye contact between crushes, teachers dashing for tea and those same teachers slamming closed classroom doors a minute after the bell had rung. I was alone.
I moved over to my Irish teacher’s classroom. Although it wasn’t hers anymore. I wasn’t sure whose it was. I looked in her window and saw her room light up with the excitement of the discussions she prompted with her awful Irish accent. I saw myself sitting by the window next to my best friend, the facing the sea. I saw us sitting there on a nearly summer’s day in 6th year, and Mrs. Farrell standing in front of us (the half of the class who had decided to show up despite the good weather) and asking without answer: “Does anyone know where the others are?” I saw her glancing up as her at the top of the class. “Sometimes I wonder if students want to come to class at all? You know, I really want the best for you all, I really do, and it is sometimes sad for us teachers when you all don’t want to hear what we have to say. Because all of this is for you” I saw her waving at the class walls.
She couldn’t convince us of our school having any semblance of grandeur but we sat up a little straighter. She went on with her class, raising her spirits selflessly. I felt terrible, and I felt that she was right so I offered answers enthusiastically for the rest of the fifty minutes. In the aftermath of her declaration I felt that she was right in a way that I couldn’t understand in the moment but knew I would eventually, such was the weight of her tone. When I heard that Mrs. Farrell had passed away I was in the first few months of my freshman year of university in California. I didn’t anticipate that I would cry, but I did.
She passed away while I was abroad and I couldn’t bring myself to bring her flowers when I came home briefly the following summer. My beloved, eccentric French teacher had retired with my brothers graduating class, and my old math teacher who had been riddled with serious illnesses when I had know him, had made a seemingly miraculous recover and somehow had another child. Downstairs he followed me in being the second wine drinker in the room. It seemed he too was aware of his luck.
At home, the night of my brother’s awards ceremony, sitting up rigidly in bed in the dark I thought about going back to my alma mater. Abroad, the same shocks had come, the same unfairness’s had been dealt and yet they hadn’t felt so real, despite my being physically present. The difference, I resolved, was my investment in the place in which I was living. On this island I had memories on every street and the simple act of walking by the sea pushed me back to late night walks with my friends, planning our escape from the very place that we now all returned to at intervals to reminisce about. Now my friends and I took the same walks late at night by the sea, where we had parked up with boys as teenagers. When my friends and I collide now we plan our jobs, or plan where we should move next, and we muse at how naïve we had been just a few years ago. We agree that sneaking into local pubs at seventeen had somehow been to be much more exhilarating than it was to walk in legally at twenty-three in somewhat longer skirts. We didn’t agree on what exactly made the difference- what beyond the thrill other than our now presumed maturity. As soon as we were accepted in the town, we rejected it amongst ourselves because we thought we knew complacency to be the most deadly of sins. Now, I wondered if it hadn’t been contentedness that we had misread as laziness.
The idea of it being difficult to find a home away from home, and of finding a self that isn’t integrally tied to where we come from, is not new one, especially in Ireland. I’ve been told, and have just cause to believe that desire to create one’s own life is an integral part of growing older no matter where you were born and raised. However, often it seems the various warning we are given as children: “enjoy it while it lasts,” are as veiled in mystery as the names of awards that were given out on stage that night at my old secondary school.
It is in the most unexpected of places that lessons become clear. That is as it always has been and rightly so, because no two lives are the same. What makes us unique is how we interpret what happens to us and how we choose to adapt. As I a stumble towards bonafide adulthood, and leave again in the near future, I do not doubt that there are scores of others who are leaving home behind to make their own place in the world. That I pass them in the streets and sit next to them on the bus silently is inevitable. I do not doubt that their confrontations with their pasts are much the same as my own. Only the ghosts differ.