Does Ethel Dwyer haunt the Huntington Beach middle school that bears her name?
I don't know. But for decades rumors have persisted that the former student, librarian and vice principal at Dwyer Middle School still makes her presence known, particularly down in the boiler room, where few ever get to set foot.
Recently I had the privilege of speaking to the sixth-grade class as part of this year's Author's Day, put on by the Friends of the Children's Library. I've long been aware of the school's eerie history, so when I asked about it from the auditorium stage, it didn't surprise me that most of the kids were aware of the stories too. What did surprise me was that not one student had ever been down to the boiler room.
Principal Morgan Smith was kind enough to take me downstairs during my visit. The school, which was all but completely rebuilt after the devastating 1933 Long Beach earthquake, has a robust history. Visiting the boiler room truly was like taking a step back in time.
In addition to the boilers and old-fashioned 1930s large metal rolling doors, we walked through the old underground student locker rooms. It's no wonder the ghost stories persist. The cavernous, bunker-like basement still creaks and moans as students thunder down the hallways overhead.
And what was that strange shadow I saw on the wall?
When I told the afternoon class where I had been that morning, many jaws dropped. The envy was palpable.
It made me think: What if we could make an underground trip available to any sixth-grader who agreed to write about the experience?
Would it tap deeply into their creative recesses? Would it make their school more fascinating to them? These seemed like good possibilities.
Thankfully, Smith and the teachers were open to the idea, which is why we found ourselves leading all of the kids on a tour one week later.
Joining us was Dwyer physical education teacher Stacy Wood, who has been at the school long enough to remember when the underground locker rooms were in use. We broke the kids up into groups of about 15 with Smith leading the way and Wood bringing up the rear. I stayed somewhere in the middle and explained what I knew about the school.
It was one of the most fun days I've ever spent, in school or out. But this wasn't about me. It was about the students, and they seemed to absorb the experience with a ton of enthusiasm.
They asked great questions and clung together, tiptoeing carefully through dark, narrow passageways, traversing the netherworld that they had only heard about. One student brought a hand-held "ghost meter," which seemed to get triggered once we entered the locker room. Could it be?
I learned a lot about Dwyer Middle School in these past couple of visits. For instance, I had no idea that all of the auditorium seats and even the thick maroon velvet curtains were transported from the old Huntington movie theater at Five Points after it was shuttered. But it was the trip down under that I will remember most fondly.
Several days later, the seeds of our historic experiment produced some marvelous fruit. I received the packet of essays, stories and poems written by the students who signed up to take the tour.
And they are exceptional. The work was gathered into a binder, which we will secretly tuck away in the boiler room to be discovered someday, perhaps by another sixth-grade class. But a copy will be available as well, simply because it is thrilling to read what happens when young people become inspired.
I wish I could present all the work from the thick stack of paper. But trust me, the trip underground seemed to unlock many sparkling and spooky literary works by some fine young writers. That said, I would like to share a poem by student Whitney Slome.
Loud whispers and stomping feet