The Ghosts of Tam
He made the sign of the cross, placed his hands together, and prayed. A door suddenly banged on the floor above him, piercing the quiet, like glass shattering on the ground. Night custodian Moris Mira looked around the deserted hall, trying to figure out what had happened. He ran through a mental checklist. A student? No, it was 9:30 p.m. A burglar? No, the doors to Wood Hall were bolted shut. So, he decided, it had been a ghost.
Another sound startled him from behind. He turned, alarmed, but it was only the flush of a toilet. He turned back and continued his work. “I don’t feel afraid because the ghosts, they don’t want to kill you,” Mira said as he swept the front office floor. He has had too many encounters with the paranormal to be scared by it.
Mira has worked at Tam for 12 years. “I love [my work],” he said. “I will always try to keep Tam number one …. Tam is my school, so when they [have rallies], I scream aloud. I want to leave good memories.” Mira wants to be remembered, just like the people before him: the ghosts of Tam.
He explained that the ghosts are the souls of people who had connections to Tam and have passed away, including former students and teachers. “So many people [have] passed away, and they leave their spirit, their soul into the school. They probably come to say hello to whoever is working. Lately we have two persons who passed away,” Mira said. “One [was] the computer guy, Charlie. The spirit is hanging around here. They just want to look around, like a regular person.” Mira feels as if he knows the ghosts of Tam. He spends much of his time studying the cracks and crevices of the halls, he said, listening to or interrupting the ghosts that wander by.
“I spent 75 percent [of my] time at Tam. My wife works very early in the morning. She get up at four o’clock in the morning and go to work. When she [gets] home, sometimes I just left, I don’t see her. But in here, I see [my coworkers] … every day for twelve years,” said Mira. That proximity, he continued, has made him closer to them: “It’s like a family. We here all the time, five days a week, eight hours a day we’re here.”
He unlocked the door in front of him, flipped a switch, and walked confidently up a narrow staircase, the walls of which were covered in graffiti. “A lot of the graffiti is from people who are not alive anymore,” Mira said. “Check this out: 1966.” Some of the graffiti were signatures of classes dating back to the early 1940s.
“Up in the clock tower, [it] is so lonely and quiet … it is a good place for the ghosts to hide,” Mira explained. The stairs led to a landing. There were a few unmarked doors and rooms on the side, but mostly pipes, heaters, and vents. Old uniforms and awards lined the floor and walls. Straight ahead was a bolted door. Mira’s keys rattled as he took them out of his pocket. He selected one, and slowly opened the door, revealing a ladder-like staircase that ascended into the murky darkness of the clock tower.
For all that it is now, Tam has not always been his home. Mira moved from El Salvador in 1975. “In my country you see these [ghosts] more than in the United States. In the United States, people work 24 hours,” said Mira, who added that when people are busy, they don’t have time to notice paranormal activity around them. According to Pew Research, 40 percent of Salvadorans believe that it is possible to communicate with spiritual beings, compared to 29 percent of Americans.
For Mira, ghosts are not so much a matter of belief as of experience. One night in El Salvador, as a young boy, he was sleeping in the back of his brother’s pickup truck after a long day’s drive. While he was curled up under a blanket, a figure appeared in the distance. “You could see [her] from a block away. She was walking toward us … [and] wind started blowing,” said Mira, adding that the experience was the most frightening moment of his life. The ghost, wearing a white wedding dress, drew up close, and almost immediately dogs started to howl. “They were going crazy like they were seeing something,” Mira said. “She was getting close to our truck … she started coming closer to us.” He took a heavy breath and continued. “She went into the flatbed where we were sleeping. [She] came and opened the blanket so she could see my face, and the other two guys. She looked at my face and said, ‘No.’ Then she looked at the other two guys and said, ‘No’ … she walked down and disappeared [into] the darkness.”
Mira is accustomed to darkness. He, along with the rest of the custodial staff, works from 3:30 p.m. until midnight, cleaning the campus long past students’ bedtimes. “We are people that worry about doing our job the best,” Mira said. “I [want] to do my bathroom nice and clean, that’s why I know a lot of people like to come and use [the Wood Hall restroom], because these restrooms are much, much cleaner than other restrooms. So, I do my best overall to make sure my students have clean restrooms tomorrow when [they] come in, classroom ready when [they] come in tomorrow, ready to go. So, we’re always looking forward to Tam being the best …. I always make sure my furniture [is] well aligned, my floors, they’re all cleaned. I had a teacher who [would say], ‘Oh Moris, thank you, thank you.’ That made me feel good. That little bit helps, but some other teachers, they don’t give a damn about [custodial staff].”
This disregard is not uncommon. “We have some teachers, they’re coming in the hallway, they don’t even say hello … sometimes they come into the room [when] I’m cleaning the room, they don’t even say thank you, they don’t even say hello,” Mira said. “They ignore me. That makes me feel something. They think [janitors are] worth nothing …. God created everybody the same … I know I am in the low-level classification as a worker, but, you know, everybody has to do his work their best.”
This will be Mira’s last year working here. He looks forward to moving back to El Salvador, his home, where he plans to barbecue and play soccer. Until then, he can be found working with those he considers family and doing his best to make Tam a better place.
He told one final ghost story while he worked. “These ghosts come and visit me, not only in this building but in some other buildings,” he said. One night he heard a noise in the boys’ locker room and exclaimed, “God, you’re with me … don’t leave me alone. I’m not a bad person. I just try to do my work, to do my living.” But instead of a ghost, he discovered a different visitor: “A big rat over by the garbage [was] eating all the leftovers from the kids. I said, ‘Oh my god.’ But … I’m not afraid of them.”
Photos by Ethan Swope.