By Rochelle Santopoalo
On October 31, 2003 the well-worn adage by Thomas Wolfe – “you can’t go home again” – proved to be incorrect. For on that day, accompanied by two of my grade school classmates, I returned to my roots and attended the annual Halloween festivities at my childhood elementary school, Glenwood Grammar School in Waukegan, IL. The experience was surreal. Allow me to share my story.
Like nearly all the adults I know who love Halloween, my love for the holiday began as a child. Maybe it was the time of year. Witnessing the transformation of the world left me in a state of euphoria. Growing up in the Midwest I remember the air being crisp and infused with the intoxicating smell of burning leaves. The palette of warm, vibrant colors – orange, red, brown, and gold – that painted the landscape brought the world alive like no other time of year. The sound of rustling leaves was the auditory sign that the seasons were changing. This was a time for magic and mystery. And with it came the treasured customs and rituals of Halloween – trick-or-treat, carving pumpkins, decorating my house, going to costume parties. My very favorite event was the costume parade and party at my grade school, for it was to be my once-a-year chance to escape the confinement of childhood, abandon my inhibitions and play to my hearts’ content. It was the 1960s and the “Camelot” feel brought on by President Kennedy left the country in a state of euphoric bliss. Like Halloween itself, there was innocence in how we viewed life, which was, unfortunately, destined to be short lived.
Over the years I always recalled my childhood memories of Halloween with great affection. After all, it was these early experiences that lead me to write my doctoral dissertation on Halloween, eventually founding the Global Halloween Alliance. Stopping by my grammar school after a high school reunion last August, my mind wondered back to these years filled with magic. Do they still celebrate Halloween in the grand style of the 1960s? Do they still do the costume parade? The party? Do they decorate in the hallowed colors of orange and black? Or, has the school succumb to misguided parental concerns that Halloween is anything but a day reserved for all manor of fun and frolic? I simply HAD to know the answers to these questions!
To my surprise and delight, upon contacting the school, the receptionist enthusiastically shared with me that Halloween was alive and well at Glenwood Grammar School, thanks in large part to their principal Robert Moran. Besides the costume parade and party on the Friday prior to Halloween, the school also sponsored a popular Fall Fest in October. My curiosity was piqued – I had to see this for myself!
Halloween fell on the last Friday in October in 2003 so the main event was on the ‘high’ holiday proper. This proved a good omen for the adventure we were in store for. The day was reminiscent of the 1960s, a sunny, crisp day and glorious autumnal colors everywhere the eye could see. When my two classmates – Judy (Schmidt) Kanka and Cheryl (Busch) Miller – and I arrived, the energy emanating from the school was hypnotic.
After receiving visitors passes, we wandered the school halls that decades ago we knew by heart. We came upon a fifth grade class and struck up a conversation with the teacher. We shared with her that we were alumni from the 1960s, back to rekindle childhood memories. Moments after returning to her class, she beckoned us in to her room, explaining her students were eager to meet us and hear what it was like to attend the school ‘back then.’ We were only too glad to oblige. The ensuing conversation was a rapid-fire exchange of questions and answers that clearly showed us that while time moved on, the innocence of childhood remained intact. The overhead announcement marking the beginning of the costume parade brought our encounter to an abrupt end as we returned to the hall. What we witnessed was magic – hundreds of costumed children lined up against the school walls barely able to contain their excitement at the prospect of strutting their fanciful costumes for their classmates to see. This was what we had come for. The three of us gasped at this incredible display of childhood memories brought back to life. It was as if the decades separating us from our own experience as children melted away leaving us with a haunting feeling of deja vu and a feeling of exhilaration.
Outside we joined the parade as the children snaked around the perimeter of the school eventually leading to the climax – the haunted hallway. The staff took great pride and pleasure in the children’s screams of delight as class after class navigated the darkened corridor with brave trepidation. I have to admit, there were some scary moments!
With the children back in their classes enjoying refreshments and eagerly sharing what was their favorite part of the Halloween festivities, we strolled through the remaining section of the school. To my hearts’ delight every classroom was overflowing with images of Halloween. In one corridor we saw a display of student essays on ‘What we like about Halloween!’ As we stopped to read the documents I recalled my experience as a fifth grader when I entered a writing contest for the school district. The topic was ‘The History of Halloween.’ It was my first recollection of seeking a reference for an assignment. I told them how I discovered a book on Halloween at our local book mobile and the power of that moment. Little did I know that the same thrill of discovery would repeat itself decades later as I researched literary sources for my dissertation at Northwestern University’s quintessential gothic Deering Library in Evanston, IL.
The time had come for our visit to come to an end. We bid our hosts farewell with a promise to return next Halloween. There was a chill in the afternoon air as we left our beloved grade school. We spoke with excitement of how we wished our fellow classmates could have joined our sojourn. As we crossed the street to return to our cars, I was overcome with a sense of contentment that has always eluded me. You see, together we traveled back in time to resurrect fragile memories while creating new ones. With surprising candor I blurted out to my dearest childhood friends that ‘I can now die a happy woman.’ And I meant every word.