Archive for February, 2012

Recently, I was offerred the opportunity to teach at a campus that was
once–not all that long ago–a state hospital for the mentally ill.
Even though most people would assume, knowing me, that my primary
motivation was to lurk about the hallways in search of echoes of the
past, in fact it wasn’t. Give me a couple of paragraphs to explain
this, so that the rest makes sense.

There comes a time in one’s professional life where everything appears
to be on “repeat,” and one must, if one is to continue transforming
and progressing as a teacher and a person, shake everything up and
start over. I found myself last semester in a state of agitation and
upset, angry that I was in the position of explaining, over and over
and over again, what the subjunctive was, how to use it, when to use
it, and so on. As I ranted and raved over the finer points of the
“pluscuamperfecto,” I understood, finally, what it felt like to be
“burned out.” I had arrived. I didn’t want to be in my classroom, and
I didn’t want to continue to explain concepts that no one seemed to
understand; worst of all, I didn’t care to figure out why they didn’t
understand. It was a very difficult realization for me. The fact was,
the students didn’t understand because grammar was a foreign concept
in any language, Spanish or English. Our students don’t receive the
same education that they used to; no one is teaching the structure and
organization of language itself, so of course they didn’t understand.
They tend to write as they speak, and speak in the same register of
unstudied informality. So, it was a great pleasure to speak to the
Chair of Spanish at a real university who liberated me from teaching
grammar and instead gave me two classes where I could actually teach
language: functional, real, changing, elusive and flexible LANGUAGE.
In the last five weeks, I have been challenged to re-think how we
learn any language and to what purposes we use it to express our inner
states. It has been difficult for me, but at the same time, exactly
what I needed as a professional. As I work through Chapter 1, debating
the meaning of “cutre,” “cursi” and “guay”, I am back in touch with
living language instead of abstract grammar.

Since soulbank is not a site dedicated to the finer points of
language instruction, I will now attempt to convey what it’s like to
teach at a place that once incarcerated thousands of mentally ill
patients. I have always wondered how it would feel to be on the inside
of a place with such a powerful and emotional history. I am currently
teaching in the Bell Tower, where I have an office and spend many
hours a day. I wander from Bell Tower East to Bell Tower West, a
sprawling complex of hallways and floors divided into sections and
subsections. Every day I enter through Bell Tower East and make the
trek to my office, located in the heart of the building. I have one
class on the ground floor and another on the second floor, overlooking
the lush courtyard. I can see the balcony of the old Medical
Director’s apartment from that second floor hallway. It has not yet
been renovated, and it exists as a quiet testament to the past,
abandoned and empty. The old hospital influences everything that
happens in those hallways and classrooms, and I am often uncomfortable
there. I feel the oppression some days more than others; but everyday,
there is the looming feel of suppressed emotion in every corner of
that massive building. Not only has the university failed to erase the
past, it seems to have revived it.

Due to the fact that these buildings are of historical interest, the
arquitects were restricted as far as changes to the original structure
and layout of the Bell Tower complex. Therefore, it doesn’t look very
different than it did in the 1940s and 1950s, which seems to be the
last time the building was renovated. As I walk down an endlessly long
hallway, there are harsh florescent lights illuminating the path as
there were 50 years ago. On several occasions, I have experienced what
I can only understand as a time slip in that area. Once, a lone figure
struggling with a walker dragged himself down the Bell Tower hallway
as I watched from the double doors at the end. I felt in that moment
that I had lost my connection to the present moment; the two of us had
been cast backwards to a time when he was a patient and I was staff.
He disappeared around a hallway, and my attempts to locate him failed.
I don’t know if he was really there or not.

When the sun sets, the students disappear and the building takes on a
life of its own. I was on the cell phone to a dear friend of mine in
the little office I share with three other teachers. During the
conversation, we both heard a “whooshing” sound, like someone exhaling
into the phone. I assumed it was my friend’s child, and she assumed
someone was in the office with me. Of course, neither was the case. As
we spoke, the temperature dropped by what felt like 20 degrees. At
that moment, a student knocked at the door, I ended my conversation,
and she walked in. I watched her reaction upon entering the room. She
looked around, shivered, and asked why it was so cold. “What’s going
on in here?” were her exact words. That’s what is so fascinating about
this place: everyone–almost everyone–knows that something is living
and interacting with them on a daily basis, but there is no language
to explain it or make sense of it. We fall back on hackneyed terms
like “haunted,” which don’t explain the complexity and strangeness of
the experience we all share there.

Few employees discuss the past openly, at least not the professors and
staff; however, like a death in the family or a scandal everyone is
attempting to keep quiet, it floats in the air like a fog, permeating
our senses. Sometimes, someone will break the code of silence: “You
know that this place used to be an old mental hospital,” a colleague
states. “Yes, I’ve heard that,” I respond, careful to keep my
responses to a minimum. While I was giving a presentation to the
faculty, there were loud, disruptive bangs emanating from every corner
of the room we were in. There were the sound of feet running back and
forth on the upper balcony. People looked around, laughing, nervously
remarking that our room was haunted. “It’s the construction,” stated
the Chair, but a check of the outside showed no human activity. Later,
I sat in a dark hallway waiting for a chance to speak to a colleague,
and the banging in the walls started, very loudly and with that same
communicative intent that always unnerved me before. The welcoming
committee, I thought.

What fascinates me is how faculty and staff talk about the place in
which we all work. The Bell Tower and the other buildings on campus
are referred to almost as living beings, waiting quietly for
renovations that will probably never come; university officials have
authorized new buildings to go up over the cost of rehabbing the old,
abandoned wings of the hospital. “No one wants to teach here at night;
this place is different after the sun goes down. Everyone runs back to
their dorms or apartments because the old mental hospital takes over,”
states a colleague. She right, of course; I see this for myself. My
class is finished at 4:00, but of course I don’t run home. I want to
see for myself what happens as the shadows lengthen and the campus
empties. There is a palpable sense of sadness and depression, but also
of mystery. As the south side of campus, home to the infamous Unit 26,
darkens in the dying light, I am almost physically incapable of
standing watch. The campus is ringed by abandoned buildings, the
administration only managing to reform and rehab units in the center.
The empty wings stretch out like an endless prison, trapping us on the
inside or expelling us to the street, but never inviting us to
experience them directly; there is always an implicit rejection of our

I wander around, taking pictures with my phone, attempting to capture
something of the strangeness of the place, but it’s impossible. You
have to sit with those buildings as the air cools and the light fades,
if you can manage it. The glass is broken, the weeds have taken over,
the smell of mold, damp, dust and some sharp, unidentifyable chemical
wafts from the windows. Sometimes, a door will open for no apparent
reason by unit 87; it’s behind an iron gate, and you watch that door,
wondering how something so heavy and latched can simply drift open.
The message is always the same: I want you to come in, but I want also
want you to leave. The contradictory nature of this message feels like

In class, there is an exercise we always do to help the students
practice narratation in the past. There are three questions, of which
they pick one: 1. Describe a situation where you lost control of your
emotions. How did you feel? How did you regain control? What was the
effect on the other person? 2. Describe a situation where you received
information that changed your life. What did you learn? How did it
change everything? 3. Describe a situation where you felt real fear.
What happened? How did you resolve the situation? They almost always
pick number three. The students at this university almost unanimously
chose to talk about the campus and their dorm rooms as the setting for
their frightening stories. Keep in mind that I have revealed nothing
of my interest in the history of the old mental hospital. I have said
nothing regarding ghosts or paranormal phenomena. As far as they are
concerned, I’m just another Spanish teacher. Here are some of their

“I was sitting on the steps of one of the old, abandoned units. There
is an iron gate, and behind that, a landing with a heavy, locked
wooden door. That door is always bolted. I saw that it was bolted as I
sat down; I pay attention to things like that. I opened my book to
study a little bit while I was waiting for a friend. I heard something
creak behind me. I turned around, and that massive, heavy, latched
door was wide open. There was no one inside. There was no way it could
have opened on its own. I ran away so fast that I left my book on the
steps.” In fact, I can corroborate her story. I know this door to
which she refers. It was closed and bolted one day, and a few minutes
later, as I circled the building, it was wide open. There was, of
course, no one there.

Another story: “I was in my dorm room, Skyping with a friend. She kept
asking me who was there with me. I told her no one, that I was alone.
‘No,’ she said, ‘there’s someone behind you’. She could see the figure
of a man behind me, but when I turned around, there was no one there.”

“I was alone in my room. I turned off the lamp by my bed and went to
sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the lamp was across the room
and plugged in to another outlet. This happens all the time. Things
move around my room. I have no idea why this happens.”

“We were standing just outside the Bell Tower when we saw the shadow
of a tall man in the doorway. We were thinking that someone was
listening to us, because the shadow didn’t move. Finally, we went to
see who was there, and there was no one anywhere near that doorway.
This happens a lot here–there are dark shadows in doorways and
hallways, and no one is ever there.”

Other stories concern someone in one of the Bell Tower women’s
restrooms who shuffles and makes noise, but is not actually there. I
was able to experience this myself. It was after 4:00, that strange
time on campus when the students scatter and the buildings begin their
evening replay of past events. I walked into the fabled women’s
restroom and heard someone in one of the stalls, shuffling, pulling at
the toilet paper roll, sniffling–in short, making sure I knew she was
there–and because I had heard the stories, I had to check. All the
stalls were empty. I was the only one in there. I try to make some
sense of what happens in the Bell Tower and environs, but it’s
difficult to do. This is phenomena far beyond our paltry
‘investigator’ categories of residual vs. intelligent haunt. The
entire place seems intelligent, responsive, aware on some level. There
are no descriptors to make this clear. There is now a decade of
stories regarding this campus.

What most impresses me, however, are not the rather fantastic stories
of the spinning man in the parking lot or the woman by the entrance to
the Bell Tower who asks for directions and then disappears; no, what
most impresses me is the fact that so many people can feel this place.
They report nausea, headaches, feelings of depression and gloom, a
sense that they have to leave where they are and find another place to
hang out. You can see this on campus; the students do not linger in
the hallways of the Bell Tower the way I have seen countless other
students do so on other campuses. There is a palpable sense of needing
to escape certain areas; if I stay too long in my little office or sit
too long in one of those endless hallways, I will start to feel it:
that beginning of a headache in the back of my head, that sense of
being watched and weighted down by something I can’t name or
understand. Every day that I am there, you will see me flee to the
safety of the patio by the Student Union. I work there until I am able
to re-enter the building. But always, there is that nagging feeling
that you are pulled in two directions: towards the mystery and the
strangeness, and away from it. My mind pulls me into the Bell Tower
because I am fascinated by it, by the seepage of history and emotion
into the heart of this campus; I am repelled by something more basic,
an instinct for self-preservation that kicks in at a certain point and
doesn’t allow me to linger too long in a place that is defined by
instability, insanity and confusion.

I can’t help but think how the turmoil of adolscence and young
adulthood mixes with the chaos of the old State Hospital, creating an
emotional stew so potent that it brings back the living and the dead
to re-enact, re-interpret and re-conceptualize the distant past. This
is where the language teacher is at a loss for words. My professional
life has always focused on expression, on the precision of language to
interpret inner states and comprehend the external world. That is my
job; take a ‘foreign’ language and de-mystify it, make it
comprehensible, bend it to the will of the student so that it becomes
a tool for their self-understanding. I always believed that everything
we experience can be expressed, if we only could find the proper
phrases, sentences, syntax and grammar. It’s the conceit of every
language teacher: learn the right words, in the right order, in the
proper mood, with the correct punctuation and accentuation, and you
will have understood the world and the world will understand you;
however . . .

Camarillo State Hospital erases all that hubris as soon as you step
from the outside courtyard into the hallway and are assaulted by
lonliness, doubt and discomfort. You don’t know why you feel that way.
You don’t know how to explain it. There is no grammar for expressing
what we call ghosts, no terminology that makes sense of it. It’s
beyond language, beyond words, beyond the skill of the professor to
create order from a feeling. At five o’clock, the students are gone
and you are alone in an endless cage of walls and bars, lost in a
labyrinth that others experienced decades ago, staring endlessly out
the windows that allowed no thought of freedom. You feel your own
tears for reasons that are hidden from you, as if you were remembering
something terrible that could not have possibly happened to you; and
yet, somehow, some way, it’s as if you were there from the beginning,
remembering scenes from a life that you never lived.

Now, you think, it’s time to go home.

–Kirsten A. Thorne, Ph.D.

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