Jeff writes to tell me about the old school in his hometown in North Carolina. Whereas Jeff attended high school in a relatively new building built in the 1970s, his parents had gone to the old Ninth Street School.
Built in the 1920s and condemned fifty years later, the Ninth Street School was cramped, leaky, beat-up, and according to Jeff and his friends, haunted. “There were all sorts of stories about it,” Jeff tells me. “Some of them were real wild.”
Whatever the stories, the Ninth Street School projected an air of imposing gloom, squatting at the dead-end of a street where the lights had long-ago gone out. “When you passed by and looked down the street,” Jeff recalls, “it looked like a building made out of a shadow.”
One night when Jeff was a teenager, his younger brother came to him with another wild story about the Ninth Street School. It seems that the brother and a friend had been poking around the abandoned building in the clear sunshine that afternoon.
Not brave enough to enter its shadowy confines, the boys stuck to the school’s grounds, peering in the building’s windows and jiggling the doorknobs. As their courage grew, they lingered at the strangely darkened windows.
“There was one story about the school, about one particular window,” Jeff tells me. “The story is that if you get up close to the window and listen, you can hear breathing, and the breathing is supposed to be some dead kid.”
Jeff’s brother and his friend were crouched at a wide window that looked upon a basement classroom. Through the window, the room was barely discernible in the shadows of the lower level. The two boys got closer, straining their vision in an attempt to make out the dark features.
“Then they heard the breathing,” Jeff remembers, “and they ran screaming all the way home.”
Being the older and more responsible sibling, Jeff consoled his younger brother by teasing him for being such a crybaby the rest of the night. In the morning, however, Jeff called up his friend, Eric, and later that day, the two rode their bikes to the Ninth Street School.
The day had started out like the day before, clear and bright, but by the afternoon, the sky had clouded over and darkened. Before the husk of the old school, Jeff and Eric sat on their bikes for a few moments discussing their plan in hushed tones.
The teenagers left their bikes at the sidewalk and made their way through the overgrown bushes and weeds that covered the school grounds. They circled the school, looking in vain for the basement window that Jeff’s brother had unluckily found.
As the afternoon grew darker and colder, the boys were about to give up and ride home. “We finally found it,” Jeff recalls, “on our third pass around the school.” Somehow the mysterious window had eluded the intrepid probing of the boys.
Jeff and Eric approached the window: it looked like any other window on the school, large and wide with little adornment. Unlike the others, however, this window was set at ground level.
The boys knelt down in the wild grass before the dark rectangular blank of the basement window. “The inside was completely dark, real hard to see anything,” Jeff remembers, “like the window was painted black.”
But as the light of the afternoon faded, the scene inside the window resolved itself into a picture of institutional despair: caked in a thick layer of gray dust and sprinkled with feathers and animal droppings, old desks and chairs stood in almost neat, little rows while among them piles of unidentifiable debris and supplies lay abandoned.
“I kinda lied to my friend, Eric,” Jeff confesses to me. “Well, not really lied, but I didn’t tell him the whole story.” It seems that the night before, after Jeff’s brother told him his fantastic tale, Jeff related the story to their father. His father listened silently as Jeff laughingly told him about the breathing window.
“My dad was always cracking up or yelling,” Jeff tells me, “but he got real quiet when I told him about it.” After some prodding, Jeff’s father revealed that he had heard the story before, and that night, Jeff’s father told him the real story of the Ninth Street School.
It seems that the Ninth Street School was a bustling and cheerful place in its heyday. When Jeff’s father attended in the 1960s, however, a pall had already been cast over the little school.
While overcrowding and disrepair were a constant problem, the school board’s decision to begin plans to construct a new school was rumored to be motivated by an altogether different reason.
The story Jeff’s father told him goes like this: in the 1930s, before Jeff’s father was born, the school was humming and everything was shiny and new. The state had even sent a new teacher for a new gifted class to the Ninth Street School.
Mr. Hermanstadt cut an impressive, if unusual, figure in the town. His thick accent – variously described as German or Hungarian or Dracula – his jet-black hair, his charming and disarming demeanor all made the new teacher the talk of the town.
Years later, however, the talk of the town concerned not Mr. Hermanstadt’s looks, but his unnatural and depraved desires, and Mr. Hermanstadt’s class, comprising the ten best students at the Ninth Street School, had borne the brunt of those desires.
Jeff’s father was not privy to the details, but it seems Mr. Hermanstadt was run out of town or was locked up in the county jail which was burned to the ground or was found missing when the facts came to light.
Whatever the real story was, all that Jeff’s father knew was that, in the years since, it had only grown.
The legends that circulated in town, the stories that Jeff’s father had heard whispered in the playgrounds and hallways, had said that Mr. Hermanstadt practiced Satanic black magic, and each term, he had chosen one child from his class for some nefarious purpose. That child would, in due time, meet some untimely end.
Some of the children had horrible accidents, some took their own lives, some ran away and met gruesome ends, some simply disappeared. Whatever the means, the end was the same: their cursed spirits all ended up back in Mr. Hermanstadt’s room.
According to the stories, Mr. Hermanstadt’s chosen students remained in his thrall after their deaths and it seems, after his as well. For, as the stories go, Mr. Hermanstadt returned to the Ninth Street School as a vengeful wraith, and the strange shadows and weird noises that had been reported in the basement over the years were the signs of the phantom’s vile instruction.
“My dad was a real bullshitter,” Jeff tells me, “but I really wanted to scare my friend.” Jeff and Eric sat before the basement window staring at the dilapidated classroom. Nothing moved and nothing appeared very frightening.
Just as the teenagers moved to leave, the sky opened and a little bit of sun broke through the clouds. Not enough sun to brighten the dreariness of the day, but enough to cast a shadow.
The scene inside the basement room quickly changed. Although the room remained as decrepit as before, at every desk there now sat a student, head bowed to their unceasing work. “They looked grayish and grainy,” Jeff tells me, “like an old photograph.”
As Eric and Jeff watched in horror the phantom children’s manifestation, they realized they could hear the children’s labored breath very close to their ears, the ghostly breathing that had so terrified Jeff’s brother. And beyond that sound, another that was not easily identified, a voice that seemed to rise from the shadows lecturing in a language both profane and infernal.
“We both started to back away,” Jeff recalls, “and that’s when they saw us.” As the boys turned away, the quiet students swiftly lifted their heads in unison and as the scene wavered and collapsed, they looked directly at Jeff and Eric. The boys fled, riding their bikes back to Eric’s house.
In the years to come, Jeff would always avoid the Ninth Street School; not until it was finally torn down would he even pass by the street. But as the school and its ghostly legend fade from the town’s memory, Jeff will never forget his encounter and the look of torment and woe without end in the empty, black eyes of the Ninth Street School’s last students.