Nightmare #212 – An Old School Tragedy

“…I see something small hanging on a chain in the opening, dark against the sky…”

(Male, 30’s) It is the end-of-the-day school assembly, a routine gathering of students in the gym bleachers. Here we chat and laugh and have the energy of a group of young people who’ve been told to be patient. We are gathered in self imposed groups; athletes, clowns, the ill-tempered. I’m well liked, others are turned toward me, wanting to talk, tell me a joke, listen to mine, or look at drawings I’ve made in the spiral notebook, where biology notes should be. Over the PA system, music is heard. The song is Bernadette by the Four Tops. I can’t seem to find one of my classmates.

A bell rings, and we all stand as in church and wait until the row of kids before us files out before us. The way out of the gymnasium, and out of the school altogether, is a ladder made of mud and sticks, a kind of crude hillside with steps carved into it. You climb up and out through a small hole, a burrowing animal would make. I get to the ladder and begin my climb, I see something small hanging on a chain in the opening, dark against the sky. It’s been quickly, hung there, it’s a book, taped open to a certain page, so you must see it, even read it before leaving the school. I see outside on the lawn, a splitting of the student body- with boys going off right, the girls stepping left and waiting in a long line. I move in line with the girls to see what they’re doing, but no one speaks. It is the 18th Century. The girls do not speak. All are dressed in drab, homespun dresses, with green felt scarves, a kind of puritan school uniform. We are all in a line that leads to the doors to the tower. It is a severe structure, dark, mottled with years of weather, with tin gray shutters at the top and a long spiked steeple, but otherwise featureless. There is no church connected to it. We enter and ascend a long ladder to climb to the top, up and out one of the open windows, a look out perch, where one can see miles of spring green trees and the harbor beyond. I’m suddenly next in line. The wind up here is strong. In front of me is a girl I know. She’s pretty, about 8, much younger and is greeted by a sobbing woman who is at the top. The woman is a servant of mealtimes at the school. She is horrified to see her daughter is next in line for this moment. It is known that we are forbidden to speak during such trials. The girl quietly takes the rope and a short wooden sled that’s given to her. She ties it around her waist. How is it that such young hands are to affix a thick rope in a safe manner, secure enough to allow her to climb down outside the steeple in such a wind? The knot she makes is absurd, like a pretzel. She pulls back from the reaching hands and sobbing face of her mother safe within the tower’s shadow. The girl climbs over a short railing and begins her spider like descent. The knot immediately fails and the girl and the board both fall from the great height to the church yard below. There is no scream. Just the rope dangling in the wind. I pull it back in, crying and hand it back to the woman who numbly readies it for the next girl in line.

What happened was this; a young student, angered by something said to him during the day by a girl, hung the book of verses in the doorway, open to a certain passage; a challenge, a proverbial task designed to prove one is under, and worthy of the hand of Grace. In our time, in our world any open page from this book, must be read, understood and acted upon immediately.

It is the 18th Century’s version of the Columbine massacre.

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