by Carrie Connel-Gripp
The tires on the school bus bumped along the road, sending the children in the back two rows of seats bouncing up and down with an occasional whoop. While most of the students jabbered excitedly, their shrill voices jarring the nerves of the bus driver, one girl sat with her nose in a book. Tracy started attending this new school at the beginning of October and had not made any friends. She tried to drown out the other kids’ voices, with her own voice in her head reading the words in her book, like she did every morning and afternoon. She wished that she lived within walking distance of the school so that she didn’t have to ride the bus. Today, though, was different as the class and their teacher Ms. Kegan were on a Grade 5 class trip. A week ago, Tracy reluctantly handed the consent form to her father.
“Why don’t you want to go?” he asked.
“Daddy, don’t you think this might be disrespectable to those who live there?”
“What do you mean ‘live’? It’s a museum. There’s nothing there but cast-offs of the past.” He placed the form on the top of his desk, reached across, and plucked a pen out of the holder. He removed the cap, signed, and dated the form. He handed the paper back to her. “I want to know all about it at dinner that night.”
No amount of pleading could get her father to change his mind. Now, here she was, on a bus with a driver who seemed determined to hit every pothole on the way. Although the road was paved, it was very much a country road. The asphalt was old, crumbling on the edges into the gravel shoulder. The center of the road was high and the sides low, easier for a plow to pass in winter time, but this meant the bus leaned severely, causing the students on the aisle to over-compensate and knock heads with those sitting at the window. Tracy sat a couple rows back from the front by the window on the right. She tried to read her copy of Anne of Green Gables but couldn’t hold it still because of the bumps. The girl beside her had turned her body so that she could talk with her friend across the aisle. The two girls were face to face banging heads with each bounce.
Tracy put her book into her backpack. She looked out the front window of the bus and saw that the branches of the trees lining the road on both sides joined in the middle, creating a canopy and shading the road. She watched as her teacher leaned forward to give instructions to the driver and he slowed. At a break in the trees, he geared down and turned onto a gravel driveway lined with mulberry trees.
A two-story red brick building rose into view, looming over the single car in the parking lot. The driver pulled up to the front and braked. Ms. Kegan stood and waited. The children eventually stopped their chatter and turned to face her.
“All right, children, listen up. The purpose of this trip is for you to complete two projects: one for History and one for Art. You’ll receive further instructions once we are inside. We are going to divide into two groups for the museum tour. The first group will come with me and the second group will be escorted by Mrs. Beaupre. I want you to sound off, starting with ‘one’ here.” She pointed at the girl in the front seat.
The counting continued until it reached “Thirty.”
Ms. Kegan said, “Even numbers are to line up on the left-hand side of the stairs. Odd numbers on the right with Mrs. Beaupre.” She turned and nodded to the driver to open the bus door.
Tracy was number twelve and she lined up with the others on the left. Ms. Kegan walked up the steps and instructed the children. Those on the left were to enter the museum in an orderly fashion. The group on the right were instructed to wait with Mrs. Beaupre until they could enter the museum. As the left-hand group began ascending the steps, Tracy looked up at the windows directly overhead. She thought she saw a dark-haired child wave at her and she raised her hand in response.
“Who’re you waving at?” asked Heather, walking just behind her.
Tracy looked again, but the child was gone. “No one, I guess,” she said, putting her head down and watching her feet walk across the concrete landing, over the threshold, and through the doorway.
The children gathered in a large room painted in the institutional green of days gone past. They stood in front of a woman and a man who were dressed in Victorian-style clothing. Once the children settled down and were quiet, the woman spoke and introduced herself.
“I am Mrs. Chalmers and this is Mr. Chalmers. We are the caretakers of this museum which was originally a public school built in 1872. The museum is home to many items donated from people in the community, some of whom even attended the school. If you will follow me, we will begin the tour on the second floor.” She led the children to the stairway, and they followed her up onto a balcony area that overlooked the main floor entrance. At the top, Tracy looked down and saw Mr. Chalmers standing there very still, waiting for Mrs. Beaupre and the other group of children now streaming into the space.
Ms. Kegan gathered the children around her on the balcony. “Tracy, pay attention.”
Tracy looked up and quickly joined the others.
“Remember, you have a two-part history project today. Choose an item and write 1) a description and an account of the history as presented, and 2) a two-page story of your own making about the history of the item, which can be about who owned it or where it was made or purchased, anything you like. And don’t forget to listen to Mrs. Chalmers. She is our hostess and is here for our benefit.”
“This way, children,” said Mrs. Chalmers, leading them into one of the classrooms.
Each room they entered had a theme – general store, post office, school – and was filled with displays of items from a bygone era. Tracy found what she wanted to write about in the last upstairs room which was marked Toys and quickly wrote down the information from the card. It was a set of items that might fit into a dollhouse: crib, dresser with mirror, chair and table, highchair, baby buggy, free-standing two-seat swing, teeter-totter. Each metal piece was painted blue except for the working wheels on the buggy which were copper-colored. She jumped when she heard a voice close to her ear say, “That is mine.” She looked around but none of the other children were near her. A thought occurred to her; she walked to the window, looked out, and saw the bus driver smoking a cigarette. She realized it was the same window in which she had seen the dark-haired child. Tracy turned back and looked around the room again. She did not sense the other child anymore.
“Children,” called Mrs. Chalmers, “if you haven’t found your item yet, there’s much more to see on the main floor. We’re going to head down now and allow the other group to come up here.”
The two groups passed on the stairs, boys high-fiving and girls waving at friends. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, Tracy looked up to the balcony and saw the dark-haired child looking down. Their eyes met for a brief moment, but Tracy accidentally stepped on the heel of the boy in front of her, who pushed her in retaliation. She fell to the floor on her side to the snickers of those around her. She got up in time to see Ms. Kegan giving her a dark look. When Tracy looked back to the balcony, the child was gone.
The downstairs displays included farming, transportation, and housewares which Tracy had no interest in. She found an out-of-the-way place to sit down on the floor and begin writing her story about the little blue playset. She imagined the dark-haired child sitting on a deep burgundy rug in front of a large dollhouse and placing the table, chair, and highchair in the kitchen and the crib and dresser in one of the bedrooms. The swing was placed on the front porch with the baby buggy and the teeter-totter just off it. She stopped to think what the child’s name should be and ‘Ada’ floated into her mind. Yes, that was the girl she had seen.
The children were called to order. “We’re going to go out through this door to the back of the building,” said Ms. Kegan. “This is the second part of the exercise today. Please take one sheet of paper and one stick of charcoal. Your Art project is to find a stone of interest to you and make a rubbing of it. You place the sheet of paper against the stone and then rub the charcoal stick on the paper until you have a clear representation. If you rub too much, you may make it hard to read, so be careful. Okay, let’s go.”
This was the part of the trip that Tracy did not want to participate in, and she wondered if her father had understood where she was actually going today. Tracy got behind the last of the children, took her sheet of paper and charcoal and followed the others out the door. Her teacher was behind her. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, Tracy turned and asked, “Ms. Kegan, why is there a cemetery behind a public school?”
Mrs. Chalmers spoke up from the top of the stairs. “The properties are actually separate. There was once a church beside the school, over in that green space.” She pointed to the right. “It burned down in the 1950s but the cemetery is still here and still being used.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chalmers,” said Ms. Kegan. She turned to Tracy. “All right. Go on and do your project.”
“Ms. Kegan,” said Tracy. “I’m uncomfortable with going into the cemetery.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“I think it’s disrespectful.”
“Well, your father gave his permission. If you don’t complete the project, you will lose ten percent of your Art mark.”
Tracy watched Ms. Kegan, carrying her own sheet of paper, walk towards the cemetery. Tracy followed along until she reached the fence, which was not really a fence at all but a waist-high metal bar that ran around the outside of the property. There was no gate on this side and Ms. Kegan and the children had to duck down under it or climb over it. Tracy watched her classmates running to and fro, shouting and screaming. The longer she watched, the worse Tracy felt. It was as if the children did not realize they were traipsing through consecrated ground, that there were bodies in caskets beneath their feet. Tracy walked to the right, her left hand on the metal bar. She stopped opposite a maple tree that was only a few feet from the fence and she remembered being in this cemetery once before, legitimately, when her grandfather was buried. She never told her father that she saw Grandpa standing beside him that day or that he sometimes visited her just before she left the house for school in the mornings. Beneath this tree were also the graves of her great-grandparents, two great-aunts and a great-uncle. She thought briefly that she could slip in here, do the rubbing quickly and get out again; surely her relatives, especially Grandpa, wouldn’t hold it against her. But she made no move to duck under the bar.
She kept walking until she tripped on a flat stone laying on the ground. She caught herself and looked down to see that the stone had broken from its base which sat just inside the fence line. She bent down and wiped away the dead leaves. The name on the white stone was Ada Warkentin.
“That is mine,” said the same voice from the Toy room in the museum.
Tracy looked around. This time, she could see the outline of a child standing at the head of the stone. Dark hair and a dress that reminded Tracy of something ‘Anne with an ‘e’ might wear – a black ankle-length dress with a white pinafore over top.
“I’m sorry I tripped on it,” said Tracy. “Would you mind if I took a rubbing of it? I won’t damage it; I just put the paper on top and then rub with this piece of charcoal.”
“You will remember me,” said Ada, solidifying.
“I’ll never forget you.”
“I give you permission.” Ada leaned down to watch as Tracy laid the paper out and began rubbing. The sheet of paper was large enough to cover the entire engraving:
- May 28, 1864
- February 6, 1876
Beloved daughter and sister
Tracy stood up. “Thank you.” She saw Ada nod once and then disappear. Tracy turned and walked back toward the building where some of the students were gathering. The second group of children were now in the cemetery running around and making their rubbings.
When she reached the group by the school, Mrs. Beaupre, who had not gone into the cemetery, held out the box for the charcoal and Tracy put her piece into it. Ms. Kegan instructed the students to write their names in ink on the back of the sheet of paper and put it into the large black artist’s portfolio she held. Once Tracy had done so, she walked around the school and boarded the bus. She took her book out of her backpack and started reading.
That night at dinner, her father was discussing something distressing that had happened to him at work while her mother tried to calm him and offer advice. He was so distracted that he did not ask Tracy about her day, and she did not volunteer to tell him about it. She went to her room after dinner to finish her story about Ada’s playset. After a while, Tracy got ready for bed, said good night to her parents, and lay down, pulling the covers up to her chin. Before she closed her eyes and fell asleep, she saw her grandfather smiling at her from the end of her bed. Tracy slept well.
Across the street, the trip chaperone, Mrs. Beaupre, was having a good sleep until her daughter Heather screamed in the night. In houses around the neighborhood, twenty-eight other children tossed and turned, and they repeatedly looked under their beds. Overwhelming feelings of being watched kept lights on. Closet doors that might normally be left open were shut tight. Cats stared into corners. Dogs refused to stay in the bedrooms of those they should protect. Child after child begged to be allowed to climb into their parents’ bed. And Ms. Kegan, well, she had it worst of all.