Speaking to My Past – Sacred Time and a Psychic Connection to Childhood
Originally Published in the March 2005 Issue of
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2004
There comes a moment in everyone's life when it is time to let go of childhood; abandoning the things that brought us joy and sorrow; triumph and disappointmentseparating the hope of a brighter tomorrow from past regrets, often accompanying unfulfilled dreams and alternate paths in life once forsaken.
For much of my life, I have dwelled in old memories, questioning why certain things happened to me, attempting to reconcile the past and harboring the secret wish to reverse the process. To go back to bind the wounds of boyhood and bring closure. If only I could
I am a lifelong resident of Chicago and a historian of the city. All eleven of my published books have something to do with the social and historical aspects of this great and notorious city that is in my bones. Here in Chicago I choose to remain; an aging baby boomer who moved back into the house on the Northwest Side where he grew up; a vintage, quintessential brick "Chicago bungalow" purchased on the installment plan by my Swedish grandfather during the outward expansion of the immigrant people from the central city in the 1920s.
Each of us in some way carries around a single, odd primal memory of that one place that one moment forever etched in our sub-conscious. My brush with the paranormal involves one such psychic link to the past, occurring within the somber redbrick fortress walls of William J. Onahan elementary school, where I was a student from1958-1967.
I came from a broken home, and for much of my childhood I was socially uncomfortable and ill at ease with myself, and the shame of divorce in a stratified, rigidly conservative neighborhood. By the second grade, I was singled out for ridicule and tagged with an embarrassing nickname by the schoolyard bullies that became a personal a mark of shame. In every public or private school it seems that there is always that one youngster who does not "fit in;" afraid of the world, uncomfortable, and ungainly in appearance and thus singled out and subjected to cruel and thoughtless teasing. And so it was for me.
"Slam books" were written and composed on loose-leaf notebook paper and circulated around the class for everyone to sign, then neatly deposited on the victim's desk or secreted inside a textbook. The "slam" took the form of crudely drawn caricatures, but always listing fifty reasons why they hated you. The best I could do, upon receipt of a "slam book" was to dismiss it or laugh right along with them. But at night, alone in my room as I listened to the distant rumble of the commuter trains chugging toward downtown Chicago, I prayed to God for peace and acceptance but until graduation, it went on like that, year after year. I have pondered the whys and wherefores of the matter ever since.
Time passed. I published my first book in 1978, cultivated a rich and rewarding circle of friends and acquaintances in the writing world, but the memory of my time at Onahan never receded. In the fall of 1991, I accepted an invitation from the school principal to speak to the children on "Celebrity Author" day about my career as a writer, and the importance of reading, studying, and establishing goals in life. I was to return to my alma mater for the first time in twenty-four years under very different circumstances, and it filled me with interwoven feelings of both anxiety and accomplishment.
My listeners were of mixed races and divergent ethnic backgrounds. Maybe now, I thought, these children would come of age free of class hatreds and that the reign of the playground bullies was at last over. I spoke of the writing world, the importance of academic pursuit and striving for personal excellencebut looking beyond these mostly respectful children, I felt the tug of the past, imagining yesterday's greasers; the bullies of my generation, seated in the back row of the old assembly hall as was their custom in the old days, sniggering at me and making light of once was, and always will be.
We adjourned at the end of the school day, and Principal Hastings invited me to take a self-guided tour of the classrooms, suggesting that they might conjure up some interesting, if not memorable memories. With a withered smile and misgivings, I said I'd like that, but I had not mentioned anything to him about the sadness some of those rooms were likely to evoke within me. It had been my private, inner conflict. Meanwhile, this generation of children was heading home or out to the playground. "Take your time. I have to check my messages in the office but I'll catch up with you in a few moments."
The primary grade classrooms had changed very little since the early 1960s. Rows of desks once anchored to the floor were gone; nowadays the younger children sat in a circle I was told, with the teacher leading the instruction from the middle of the room. Less impersonal, I reasoned. Otherwise, the accumulated smell of chalk and 63 school years were familiar and evocative; the battered condition of the blackboards suggested they were original, dating back to 1928. Onahan School: my living time machine.
The afternoon was quiet and an eerie stillness consumed the small and terribly confining classrooms. I wandered about, pausing here and there, connecting my past to the present wondering if I would ever find closure. I climbed the stairs to the third floor, where in my day, the upper grades convened.
I paused outside of Room 303, my former sixth grade classroom where I had endured the very worst teasing. I opened the door and stepped inside, remembering the awful moments of hazing; pelted with spitballs, pushed, shoved and taunted while the teacher's back was turned or when she was off to the office or supply room.
Room 303 was empty. I closed my eyes and visualized my sixth grade self sitting in the desk at the end of the fourth row at the back of the room, hopeless, afraid and alone; inches away from where I stood now. But now the anchored desks were gone and the boltholes were plugged.
Then I closed my eyes and recalled a small, insignificant moment from that time; a tiny morsel of memory long suppressed but a roadmap to my past. But now after all these years, it became quite vivid and real to me. Why now I wondered? What special significance could there be to it just now? It went like this. Mrs. Wendt, our sixth grade teacher, directed the class to read from a textbook while she graded papers. It was supposed to be a quiet time, but rarely 11-year-olds can rarely be counted on to keep still for prolonged periods. Nearing the end of that particular school day, I was restless, and bored, shifting uncomfortably in the hard-backed seat waiting for the bell to ring signaling the end of classes.
Then I seem to recall hearing a whispered voice, calling out my name in a tone that bordered on urgency. "Richard!" I whirled around but no one was there. A classmate seated two rows away was engrossed in his book. It could not have been him. Uneasy, I sunk back down into my seat, until finally the bell rang at 3:15 p.m. and the children dispersed. I lingered behind for a few puzzling moments, certain of what I had heard but unsure of who had spoken my name, or why. I unleashed my childhood imagination. Perhaps it was a ghost or some other strange apparition. As a child, I had an early and defining interest in the paranormal. Who was this ghost? With a sigh I packed up my things and headed out, taking the long route home that day in order to avoid a confrontation with the bullies. As for the odd occurrence in Room 303 I gave it no further thought until 1991
And now I found myself back there in Room 303; a grown man gazing up the old clock positioned next to a faded portrait of George Washington hanging in repose. As the minutes ticked away, I paused to reflect on sacred time and the Zen notion of the "eternal now;" that is, anchoring one's self in the present but recognizing the psychic continuity of time and its inter-connectedness with the past. We are eternally linked to our former selves and we must recognize that time, place and the events that shaped us occasionally collide in mysterious ways.
Afternoon shadows engulfed the room. I was lost in this concept called sacred time, and befuddled by its full meaning and what it portends for the past and the future, when the principal reappeared to remind me that the maintenance staff wanted to go home. "Mr. Lindberg?" he asked. "The custodian is going to lock down the school in a few minutes. Is there anything else you would like to see before you go?"
I smiled and shook my head no. "I'll be with you in just a moment Peter," I replied, knowing there was something more I had to do. Glimpsing his watch, he stepped out into the hallway and I said I would follow. But just before I exited Room 303 for the final time, I had the strange revelation that I was my childhood ghost. I turned quickly toward the space I occupied during the 1965 school year and in a moment of strange impulse I whispered "Richard!" in a soft but commanding tone of voice Mr. Hastings was not likely to overhear from the hallway. But I also knew that a troubled and frightened 11-year-old boy would most certainly hear it, and would one day comprehend the significance of sacred time and know that unhappy situations represent a temporary passage on the road to adulthood, and life can be a precious thing if only we allow it to be.