Recently Oak Park Elementary celebrated its 120th year, which would have meant it was built around 1893. However, some suspect the school is even older since the existing records do not date farther back. Perhaps the anniversary is why this story feels the need to be told.
Back in 1979, I was the district's first female janitor. The building, not counting its basement, is three stories high, and I had to clean every blessed room and restroom, lugging 32 gallon trash barrels up and down the stairs. The building has changed a lot over the years, but despite added wings, externally it reminds me of an old orphanage. In the original rooms fireplaces still stand, mosaics decorate the floors, and even the wall that spans over the stairwells. The lowest floor's windows are almost below ground level, and have what they call window wells around them.
When I was given the keys for the alarm and doors, I was given this bit of advice, "Clean the bottom floor first. You don't want to be on that floor after dark." Well, that's pretty cryptic, but no one would give me details.
The first few weeks, nothing really happened, and I grew accustomed to working in a 'dead' building; the foot steps following me were the echo of my own steps, that weird gurgling sound - air in the pipes, things of that nature. I would arrive shortly before 3 pm and make my rounds testing that all the doors were locked, no kids lurking in the stairwells, and that 'empty' classrooms were indeed empty. I would then fetch a trash barrel and carry it up to the third floor and begin emptying waste bins. Since the building had twin stair cases at either ends of the halls, I would come up one, then go to the lower floor via the other, double checking the supposed locked doors on the way.
I'm not a tall person and the barrel is waist high on me. You can imagine how much fun it was to lug it up and down stairs, especially when full it could weigh between 70 - 80 pounds. I developed a type of 'bumping' it up and down the stairs, in order for it not to pull me down them. The echo from THAT sure took some getting use to! I would collect the filled barrels on the ground floor in the gym, which also served as the lunchroom for the kids. (How it was ever thought I could avoid the floor after dark is beyond me.)
One day, I had this brain storm that I would carry the barrel up and not only empty the waste bins, but clean the rooms as well. Just work my way to the bottom. It made total sense to me. Of course, I would still need to make another round in order to clean both stairwells, but that was no biggie, and it would reduce the number of times I had to climb all the way up. I was making great time, and when I reached the second floor, having completed the 3rd, I nipped into the teacher's lounge for a quick break. So now the barrel is with me on the 2nd floor, and I take the 2nd floor's dust mop up the back stairwell sweeping as I go. Then I swept down the long 3rd floor hall and back down the front stairs to the second floor. I repeated this down to the 1st floor. By now it's around 8 pm (I work until 11), twilight is getting dark fairly fast. I stopped for lunch, and went back to cleaning.
I was in one of the older rooms with a large fireplace, and the floor was decorated with a large old fashioned compass design. One entire wall was a slate black board. The opposing wall had four windows, each with one of those window wells I spoke of earlier. Although the room was as cheerful as a classroom can be made, I felt an acute sadness. I had moved one of the small chairs into the doorway so that I could stand on it to clean the edge above the door. I turned to pick up my dusting rag, and when I turned back the chair was not there but 2 feet or so to the left. I thought it odd, but shrugged it off, moved the chair back and climbed up.
That's when it started. The sound of small children crying, along with bangings on the windows. I jumped down and, fighting my fright, walked over to the windows to see if I could see if someone was hiding down in the window wells. As soon as I approached the windows, the sound stopped. I listened intently for muffled laughter or anything else to give the prankster a way. Nothing. I sighed heavily, and went out to check the window wells from outside. Not that I wanted to, mind you. But this was part of my job, to check things like this out.
I stepped out to see a squad car parked near the building. This wasn't unusual. Once word had gotten around that a lone female was working, the cops made it their business to be around as much as possible. Seeing me, they got out of the cruiser (our cops generally come in pairs) and asked me what was up. "Oh, I thought I heard some kids playing in the window wells," is all I said. But I was grateful, they came with me. We found nothing, and I convinced myself I had just given into a case of the heebie-jeebies. Nothing more happened that night. But almost every night after that I would grow sad in that room, things would get moved, and I'd hear the banging on the windows.
I talked to my mom, the only person I knew wouldn't think me daft about it. She looked at me and said, "Try talking to it/them. Ask if there is something you can do." Meanwhile, summer vacation had begun, and I was now on days. We did a lot of yard work and outside maintenance at the school, as well as stripping and waxing floors inside.
This particular day, the group of guys I was working with put me on weed patrol. Which is exactly what it sounds like... Look for weeds and pull them. As I was wandering about, the two old ladies who lived kiddy-corner the school came over with a glass of lemonaide for me. They were very sweet relics of a time goneby. I would guess them to be in their late 70s, early 80s. They introduced themselves as Emma and Amelia. They told me how much the school had changed since they went there. I took a leap of faith and asked them if anything 'bad' had happened there. "Oh, my! Yes!" came the reply. This is what they told me, and try as I have I cannot confirm it, but it makes sense.
Their family had lived there for generations, in fact their father had gone to school there back in the early 1800's. Reportedly he's the one who told them the story. It seems, the teacher had to leave the room for some reason. Rumor had it she had a dalliance with a male teacher. But to ensure her young charges stayed put she had wedged a chair under the doorknob. While she was gone an ember from the fireplace set the room ablaze and the youngsters, unable to get out, perished. "He said that the windows had to be replaced because they had beaten on the glass so hard, that it was stained with their blood, and it wouldn't wash off!" This was repeated to me with great sincerity, so I believe that they were actually told this story. Emma finished the story with, "And that woman - their teacher? Never seen or heard from again!" Amelia was uttering something like, "Oh those poor sweet lambs!" Suddenly she turned to me, "Have you heard them?" I stared at her. "The children I mean. Have you heard them?" Just then one of the guys yelled at me to quit goofing off and get back to work. "Gotta go," I said, "Thanks so much for the lemonaid".
I became friends with the two women and was saddened when Emma passed on that summer, and family placed Amelia in a nursing home.
Fall came and once again I was back to nights. I took my Mom's advice and, based on the assumption that the story I heard was true, I began talking out loud when cleaning that classroom. Sometimes I told children's stories, or sang songs. I never could keep a chair in the doorway long, and closing the door was out of the question. I am not claustrophobic, but closing that door made me feel panicky. I told the kids that I was sure their parents were waiting for them, and they were free to go. The noise lessened considerably, and I think some did.
But there was one night, I was on the second floor, about to go into one of the rooms when an odd noise came from over head. A kind of squeaking. I looked up and saw nothing. As I stepped over the threshold I heard a very loud child's voice yell, "No!" and was shoved hard backwards. I actually ended up on my tush, when it sounded like all hell broke loose in that room. The overhead fixtures had given way and laid on the floor. Some hanging at weird angles propped by chairs and tables. The plaster ceiling was mere debris covering everything. My mouth fell open as I viewed the mess. One or two steps more... I started shaking a bit. I remember thinking, "Thank God school wasn't in session!" and I felt a small pair of arms circle my waist and hug me. I whispered, "Thank you," then ran for the phone to report the fallen ceiling.
Other things happened while I worked there too, but this is the most significant thing.