When I was a little kid, I was mischievous. I have always liked finding the quiet, dark corners where I am not supposed to be, and setting up camp there. It’s the type of thing I would still do as an adult, but unfortunately these things are now referred to as “trespassing” or “breaking and entering” or, at best, “skulking and being creepy”. So I don’t, but I wish I could, because I love the exhilaration and peacefulness of an empty building, a quiet forest.
In about fifth grade, I was old enough to go do whatever I wanted over summer vacation, provided that it was outdoors. I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, so back then a lot of parents were more lax with watching their kids. Mine figured that I had good enough sense not to get in a strange person’s car and that I could ride my bike quickly enough that if someone was chasing me, I’d get away. It also helped that I grew up in a very rural town. Think “look out your window and all you can see is trees for about an acre” rural. I could go anywhere I could bike to, with extra precautions regarding crossing the busy-ish Route 9.
One day, that summer, my friend Kayla and I decided to bike up to our school. I lived pretty close to the town center – a half mile away at the most – and the two of us would often go around town and hang out at the post office, library, school playground, or police station. We lived in a small town (I’ve mentioned this, but I really can’t reiterate enough how small our town was) and the school housed K-8, with 40-60 students per grade. The building wasn’t very big and to this day I could probably walk around it with my eyes closed and tell you exactly where each classroom is and who taught there. This one day, I remember, was particularly hot. Normally, we’d bike up to Kayla’s house and hang out in the A/C until her parents got home and we could go in the pool, but my parents were staunch believers in having us be outside all day “enjoying nature” and I had been told not to do that anymore. Usually, I’d do it anyway, but for whatever reason that day I was feeling obedient and we had trekked up to the playground where we camped out under the wooden structure where it was coolest.
But it was so, so hot. And we were bored.
So, we went around the school, trying all the doors. There were ice cold water fountains up in the middle school wing, and there were bathrooms so we wouldn’t have to bike all the way back to my house and convince my parents that we really had to go. Going inside the school would be the best. We never imagined any of them would open.
But, one did.
You’ve got to understand, this was before these high-tech security systems we have in schools now. To this day, there’s been no stabbings or shooting or bomb threats in the school district where I grew up, so those extra precautions weren’t necessary. They weren’t even on the radar (small town, rural, you get it, right?). By the time I was in eighth grade, all the doors had automatic locks and to get in the front door you had to get buzzed in. My high school now has metal detectors because this is the nation’s standard. But back in 1999, none of that existed. Not in my town. We didn’t need it.
So without all these fancy gadgets, the doors were locked manually by the janitor every night, or after summer school. This one, it seems, he missed. So we took advantage of it.
The moment we stepped inside, it just felt like the right choice. Immediately we felt the woosh of cool air, and we slipped into the dark hallway. The only light was the bright red exit sign hung over the door, glowing eerily on the white-painted brick walls and tacky linoleum floor. There were the bathrooms. There were the water fountains.
And, dude, seriously? We were inside the school on a Wednesday in the summer all by ourselves! Coolest. Thing. Ever.
We promptly did what any self-respecting kid would do – we ran up and down the hallways and shouted to each other. Our voices and footsteps echoed as though we were in a mine, not an empty school. There were so many possibilities for trouble and adventure. We tried all the internal doors, every single one… they were all locked. So we made the hallways our race track, running around until we got bored and it was close enough to dinner time that we figured we should be getting home.
The next day, we came back, and did it all again.
For five total days that summer, we were the queens of our school, walking through those hallways and sneaking between wings like we owned the joint. It never occurred to us how much trouble we would get in if we were caught. All we knew was that we could get inside, and it was fun.
Like I said, I was a mischievous child.