The stairs were purple. They had plastic covers with rigid lines along the edge to prevent slipping and sliding falls. The carpet had blue and purple dots in it that turned a dark maroon red when science experiments were clumsily spilled by overexcited. The stairwell was musty and full of moisture until the cooks filled it with the fumes of processed chicken and stale hamburgers. The stucco walls glistened with paint, but had the texture of adobe. The 1930’s graduates on the walls always sent shivers down my spine. Drawing me into a trance, daring me to look at them until you heard the grumpy old lady ask, “Where are you supposed to be right now young man?” and continued walking. The stairwell was always either empty or full, but never anything in between.
* * * *
Open House Night should be old news by now-- we do it every year. Believe it or not, it was enjoyable to go to school for about the first month. Students got to talk about everything you did that summer, meet your friends from last year again, and show off your new shoes and sparkling school supplies. While everyone else was doing that, I was in the stairwell looking at pictures. Anyone may have thought, “That’s Ian, observant little guy,” acting like they knew what they were talking about. Teachers were constantly trying to find where to put me. I’d get moved from group to group or get special projects to work on when, all I really wanted was to fit in with everyone else. That’s when I heard the thump, creek, thump, creek up the stairs. It sounded like a ghost creeping its way back upstairs to the closet where the rumor mill said it lived. Once a week it would come out from its dormant sleep and scare some lonesome soul in the bathroom, hallway, or stairs. It especially liked to possess lights in the stairwell. From the platform below you could hear a deep, gurgling voice bellow, “I hobbled all the way through the building, looking for one...” The hanging light above me flickered and I scuttered over to stand under the other light. The voice continued, “...only to figure out that I needed to go up to the 3rd floor...” My heart skipped a beat and I about peed my pants; this was the ghost.
I looked at the pictures on the wall trying to act like I didn’t hear whatever this thing was. It must have been obvious that I had heard it talking, because this overweight man apologized to me as he waddled past. The puny kid next to him was shaking, scared to death while he fiddled with his crutches. They continued their journey to the third floor.
* * * *
It was one of the only things I’d ever lost. Normally, I never lost anything. I needed to admit that I did though, as this was an extremely important piece of paper.
I feebly walked up to her desk and managed to stutter. “I...I... lost my paper. Do you...um.... have another?”
“What paper was it?” she questioned intently.
“The...umm...science...rubric,” I stammered.
“Stay after school for a sec and I’ll run and grab it off the printer,” she cheerfully announced.
Now everyone knows that I lost something, there goes that record, I thought as I walked back to my desk. The day went by and the bell sang its song to let everyone else out of the building. I put away my pencil, eraser, folder, and book and sauntered my way to the hall, but made the mistake of peering down the stairs before getting my backpack. There was a howling from the floors below that echoed its way up the stairs. “Why don’t we get a brand new building?” I murmured to myself. Then a creak, bang, and a howl, the exact noises that ghosts make. I forgot about my grouching and ran to snatch my backpack off of its hook, not even caring to close the locker door behind me. In the room I started to organize the crayon bin, putting them all point forward in neat, little 12x6 rows in the tub. I was still panting, watching the doorway and wondering if the stairwell had swallowed her. It’s known to do that from time to time. I was really getting worried as I finished sharpening the colored pencils when she came back in, saw me, and burst out laughing. “Here’s your printing, bud!” She choked on the words while still having a laugh attack. For the rest of the year, and to this day, I stay after school to help everyone. What a great thing that pain stricken, old printer caused.
* * * *
Being the lonesome kid that was shy and afraid of the world was not an admirable thing to be for a social life. All the boys were busy acting like two-year-olds, yelling and screaming over one missed shot during basketball at recess. All the girls were checking their hair, constantly putting on lipstick and gossipping about the way everyone tied their shoes. I was in my own little world, not consumed by sports and rambunctiousness nor appearance and judging people. My priority list was to be sophisticated, not stand out too much, and get out of elementary. It was arduous fitting in with a group, so I went with the girls because they had some time in between beauty checks where they played tag or just talked. Sara, Chandler, and Brandy were the three most accepting of them. We’d all swing in a row, playing marriage until one of us slowed down and divorced our swing partner. Sara and Chandler stayed after school and checked papers with Mrs. Netten while I reorganized the room. They skipped Live Y’ers to help after school, and I don’t think they missed it too much. The daycare group ate a snack, took attendance, and then let you play games in the cafeteria until your parents came. I always wanted to be a Live Y’ers kid. I don’t want to point fingers, but Brandy was the one that usually caused all the drama. She was the one that started the childish “I’m not your friend anymore” battles with Chandler, because Chandler played with Sara and me at recess instead of her.
Walking up the stairwell from recess one day Brandy was taking off her gloves and holding onto the handrail at the same time when she managed to “hurt herself” and needed a band-aid. Mrs. Netten understood that in third grade culture, band-aids were a sign of honor and awe. Mrs. Netten never refused a kid a Band-aid, even if they were just trying to spruce up the most boring of days.
* * * *
The worn out scraping of shoes down the stairwell. Exuberant screams from children playing “Ghostbusters” in the gym. The repetitive marching back up the seven stairs to be re-connected with the rest of the school building. Gray brick walls. Red carpet spotted with darker shades from water infested ceiling tiles taking over the building. I couldn't stand it anymore.
He drove me crazy. It was February and he had figured out all the things that made me tick: unstraight stacking, mismatched colors, incorrect answers, and making me look stupid. I swear if he does it one more time I will freak. People say that all too often and it never happens, but at that moment he did it one more time. He did it. He stepped on me one more time. This fell under the category of making me look stupid. I couldn’t believe that he really did it. I was supposed to be the respectful line-leader, but I freaked. I yelled at him with all the rage filling my little 3rd grade body. “I’m tired of this! Stop it now!” That six seconds, those six words, seemed like an eternity. He just stared at me, looking straight into my eyes. Everyone was staring straight through him watching me, enticed by this kid who never said a word but had just flipped out. Great, I thought. Just great. I really just did that, and now everyone thinks that I’m stupid, mentally unstable, and have anger issues. These things happened all the time -- we were the lower class elementary. But this incident was an exception. It was me who did it. Everyone walked so silently and solemnly back up the stairwell. I was trying my best to act normal when I noticed that he had snuck to the back of the line. He gave up his assistant line-leader spot, I thought. Something is definitely wrong. That’s when it hit me square in the head, as if the ghost had flown out of the pictures and bumped into me floating down the stairs. Our guidance counselor had always recited to us, “Bullying hurts people. Your actions aren’t only impacting you. Hurting people on the inside is much worse than on the outside.” Guidance counselors couldn’t teach me, I had to. This incident snapped me out of my little world. Ianville was burning down rapidly inside my head. Other people really do have feelings and those feelings matter just as much as mine. Other people are bullied and teased. It’s not just me. I did something so significant to him that he gave up his line-leader spot and nobody asked what was wrong, not even Brandy.
* * * *
The assembly gave everyone a joyful ending to the school year. It was hotter inside than it was outside with 800 kids packed into a so-called gym that has no air conditioning. I never really understood how a kid hadn’t died of a heat-stroke in there. The floor echoed in the small gray gym as the rest of the kids filed in. Mrs. Cronk, our music teacher, led us in singing while Mr. Nemitz, the principal, strode to the center of the gym, surrounded by kindergarten kids trying to give him high-fives. “It has been a great year here at Waukee Elementary and we have lots to be thankful for; the students, the staff, the learning that’s still happening. Most importantly at this point in time is our wonderful, movie-making, computer teacher, Mrs. Doud!” Mr. Nemitz boomed over the raspy speakers dangling on the wall. Mrs. Doud started the slide show and music and the crowd went nuts when they turned off all the lights. There were pictures of kids posing, playing, and presenting from all year long. I sighed, relieved that no one had managed to snap a picture of me. I thought of the three friends I made, the mistakes I learned from and the lessons that changed my life. People laughed and giggled as they looked around at their friends when they saw a picture of them. Instead of staring into the past, I peered into the future. Going back to that stairwell after third grade, the sun shone brightly through two windows into a previously perpetually darkened stairwell.