I put Matt Stefano and my troubles with him out of my mind as I prepared for my afternoon classes. Yes—I was still afraid of him; but now I was also thinking about Leah, whom I would see in the first of my afternoon classes.
I walked down the hall toward Mr. Snyder’s classroom. The surrounding walls were decorated for Halloween: cardboard ghosts, jack-o’-lanterns, and haunted houses—all the usual clichés.
Was twelve years old too old for Halloween? I wondered. My father certainly seemed to think so. When I announced, several weeks ago, that Leah and Bobby and I were planning one last trick-or-treat, he gave me that gentle, fatherly disapproving look of his and shook his head. My father was a member of a very different generation, and he had some equally different ideas about the proper lines between childhood and adulthood. I was certain that I hadn’t heard the last from him on the issue.
And I was ambivalent myself about this year’s trick-or-treat being a threesome of Bobby, Leah, and I, even though it had always been so, ever since we were little kids. I would have much preferred it be just Leah and I.
As I walked into Mr. Snyder’s classroom, the teacher was jotting some notes on the chalkboard. This was seventh grade religion class. Although we sometimes discussed church history and theology, Mr. Snyder was one of those “free ranging” teachers who liked to incorporate plenty of discussions about current events, too.
And in that fall of 1980, there were plenty of contentious current events to discuss: Since the previous November, fifty-two American embassy personnel had been held hostage in Iran. That provoked the question: Should the U.S. bomb Iran, or try to make a deal? Most of the boys in the class seemed to think that the US should send in the bombers. Mr. Snyder urged a more cautious course.
“Don’t forget,” Mr. Snyder admonished. “President Carter did attempt to respond with force last spring. Operation Eagle Claw. And it was a disaster, wasn’t it?”
In those days before CNN and the Internet, few seventh graders read the newspaper or watched the six o’clock evening news. So one day Mr. Snyder showed us a newsreel film about the botched operation: We learned how the U.S. aircraft sent to rescue the hostages had collided with each other and burned in the Iranian desert.
Discussions about the hostage crisis naturally segued into discussions about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. As Mr. Snyder had repeatedly noted, President Carter’s approval ratings had fallen as low as 28 percent. His administration was under siege not only from the Iranians, but also from the flagging economy.
All that made the victory of Ronald Reagan more likely. And with the election only days away, this was a hot topic in class.
I had no real grasp of current political topics like supply-side economics, East-West détente, and stagflation, of course. My parents were both Republicans; and in classroom discussions I supported Ronald Reagan out of a vague sense of parental loyalty.
This was one of the few topics about which Bobby and I disagreed. Out on the playground one day, he had solemnly informed me that he was a Democrat and would be rooting for Jimmy Carter. When I asked why, he merely kicked up a little clod of dirt and said, “My old man is a Democrat.”
But on this day, it appeared that Mr. Snyder would not be discussing either theology or current events. Taking my seat, I noticed the exotic-looking words that the teacher had written on the chalkboard: Samhain, Crom Cruach, and Bwca Llwyd.
“All right,” said Mr. Snyder. He was a tall, thin man in his mid-thirties who had gone prematurely bald. He had a brown mustache that the more ironically inclined students often likened to a caterpillar. “We’re going to take a break from our usual flow of topics. Since Halloween is this Friday, I thought it might be a good day to talk about the origins of the Halloween holiday. And it does relate to church history, in some ways that might surprise you.”
I surreptitiously swiveled around in my desk so that I could steal a glance at Leah. She was seated two rows over from me. When I saw her I felt my heart flutter, as they say—and even at the age of twelve I had enough self-awareness to feel a little silly for this. As I’ve mentioned, I had been looking at her for all of my life.
After wearing her blonde-brown hair straight for years, Leah had of late begun wearing it in the feathered hairstyle that celebrities like Farah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith had recently made all the rage. She had grown a few inches, too, so that we now stood more or less eye-to-eye. (My pubescent growth spurt, which would eventually bring me to my present height of 6’1”, would begin the following summer; but I had no idea of this at the time.) Leah’s legs were long, tanned, and lightly muscled.
She was by no means the prettiest girl in the St. Patrick’s junior high. But she could easily be counted among the most attractive ones; and I grew more than a little anxious whenever I saw other boys talking to her—especially the taller, stronger, and more aggressive boys in the eighth grade.
“Halloween,” Mr. Snyder began, “was originally a Celtic holiday in the British Isles, known as Samhain. The Celts celebrated Samhain after the fall harvest. Samhain represented the end of the growing season, and the beginning of the darker time of the year.”
I was mildly disappointed. Halloween a mere “harvest holiday”? The beginning of winter? So what? But Mr. Snyder was far from done.
“Of course,” he continued, “there was a lot more to it than that. This is a spooky time of year, isn’t it? Have you ever noticed that?”
I involuntarily nodded, and felt a little chill. I remembered the figure whom Leah, Bobby, and I referred to as “the ghost boy”; and I wondered if we would see him during our walk home today.
“The ancient Celts believed,” Mr. Snyder said, “that this season at the end of the traditional harvest, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was a liminal time.” Mr. Snyder paused, realizing that he had used a word beyond the range of the average twelve year-old vocabulary. “That means a time when the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead break down, or at least grow very thin. The Celts believed that the post-harvest holiday of Samhain was a time when the souls of the recently departed returned to their earthly homes, to visit their loved ones.”
Now I definitely felt the chill. I had been but a small boy when my grandfather and grandmother Schaeffer had died. My memories of them were fragmentary at best. If what the Celts believed was correct, then maybe they still visited us from time to time—perhaps on one night per year, perhaps more often than that. This thought was simultaneously comforting and unsettling.
Mr. Snyder talked on, and told us how the Celtic festival of Samhain had been co-opted by the Catholic Church, and transformed into the holiday known as All Saints Day or All Hallows. The modern Halloween, he explained, was actually a truncated form of “All Hallows Evening”, or the night before All Saints Day.
Then he told us how the jack-o’-lantern had been originally carved from a turnip, and then a gourd, and finally a pumpkin. The jack-o’-lantern was once thought to ward off evil spirits.
But by now I was only half-listening, my mind wandering off onto other topics. I was reflecting on the fact that I had never had a girlfriend before. I was enumerating Leah’s qualities: Not only was she pretty—she was smart; she had the second-highest average in math so far this year, and seemed to breeze through every class discussion in our other courses, always prepared, always knowing the right answer.
I was wondering (for what might have been the millionth time) how many other boys had noticed her by now. How long would I have to make my move? I needed to ask her to “go with me”—as we said in those days.
That would require a previously unknown level of courage for me; I knew I wasn’t up to it yet. How shattered I would be if she said no—that she “only liked me as a friend”.
And, of course, with the walk home only a few hours away, I was also thinking about the ghost boy.