Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon (parts 1 & 2)

I.

When I allow my mind to wander back to those times, when we were very young, just beginning our journeys here, bringing forth our fresh lives together, within the soft arms of those ancient hills, I cannot help but feel embraced, even now, by the gentle joy and warm comfort that was our childhood in the valley of the moon.

Ours, actually, was a little valley, Rincon Valley, at the northern tip of the Sonoma Valley, which stretches from San Pablo Bay in the south, up through the town of Sonoma, past Glen Ellen (the home of Jack London) and into Santa Rosa, our home. More specifically, we lived in several neighborhoods set among the oak trees, at the base of the hillsides making up this small valley, made golden by flowing grasses in the summertime, and green in the winter, as the flush of new growth covered their rolling slopes.

Each of us occupied some special spot within these neighborhoods, in homes smaller or larger—neither so opulent as to be a danger of losing ourselves, nor so tiny as to despair—but we lived here with our families in these places, nestled together, side-by-side, sharing our lives, almost as if we were one large organism, knowing one another, familiar, and at peace.

As is true with any organism there is a variety within a unity, and this was true for us. We were so many unique individuals with distinct attributes, strengths and weaknesses—we were a variety of characters. Our common life revolved around our school, this is where we met and made our friendships, where we enjoyed our victories and setbacks, where so many of life’s lessons were experienced, for better and for worse.

Sequoia Elementary School was situated nearly at the heart of our world, geographically as well as spiritually. It was our world within the world. Of course, our homes were this as well for each of us, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Sequoia sat at one pole of our world, and our home resided at the other, and our lives consisted of travelling from one pole to the other, and back again.

Life at Sequoia, for most of us, began when we were five. At that age, though it was only a half-mile journey, I remember the walk from my doorstep to the kindergarten classroom seemed so very long, as I passed through a labyrinth of streets: San Luis Avenue, San Juan Street, Yerba Buena Drive, then cut across someone’s pasture, climbing through the old barbed-wire fences and down the narrow dirt path which kids had made from time immemorial, and finally arriving on the other side, climbing across the drainage swale that ran alongside Monte Verde Drive, and then finally the long walk down Calistoga Road, through the schoolyard, or around the block to the far corner of the school, where the Kindergarten class was located.

Mrs Moresi was our kindergarten teacher, and Adrien was the school custodian. She was kind and wonderful, but he was intimidating (more about him in a moment). For the most part kindergarten was a pleasure: lots of art and crafts, learning the alphabet and numbers, and plenty of time to play outside in the small fenced-in yard. The smell of wet cedar chips drying in the heat of the sun is a pleasure I still carry with me from that time. In the midst of this cedar chip play area was a steel slide which became so hot in the afternoon sun that it actually felt cold at first when one slid down it. This was a surprising discovery which didn’t stop us from sliding down it over and over again, even while wearing shorts or dresses.

One afternoon, just after lunch we were told that we would be having a visit from Adrien and he wanted to talk to just the boys in the class. When he arrived, he lined us up side-by side in a long row. It was all very intriguing and curious. Adrien walked up and down the row looking us over with a scowl. He didn’t seem pleased or happy at all. There were around twelve of us in line and we looked at each other nervously, but giggling and smirking at the same time. We could barely hold our line, truth be told, since fidgeting and moving about in constant motion was more our forte. But we did our best as he looked us over and then he began his speech. It was more of a scolding actually.

The kindergarten classroom had two small designated bathrooms in the corner, one for the girls and one for the boys. Adrien had no problem at all with cleaning the girl’s bathroom, but he had had all he could take cleaning the boy’s, and he wanted to let us all know about it. “Someone!” Apparently. “Keeps missing the toilet!”

“I don’t know who it is, and I don’t care, but you all need to learn how to aim better because I am sick and tired of cleaning up the floor and the seat!” It was terrifying. I looked at my collaborators lined up beside me, and none of us were smiling or giggling anymore, well perhaps a few of us here and there were, but a seriousness had descended upon us. I suspected others had done this dirty deed as well, but I knew for a fact that I had done it, and I was almost certain that it was obvious to Adrien, somehow, that it was me. I’m not sure how he could know, but I felt certain he did.

After he left us, the boys of the classroom were quiet for a while, until we forgot about it, and went back to having a good time. Collectively we may have been peeing on the floor but nobody admitted it to the others. For my part however, I determined not to take any further chances; so this is when I left standing behind, and took the extra precaution of sitting down for the remainder of my kindergarten career.

II.

In the 1970’s Sequoia Elementary was a humble school, but I would contend, a quietly spectacular one. What it lacked in sophistication, it made up for with heart and soul. This was before the time of trumpeting accomplishments on school signage, where every school today claims its fame as a distinguished institution. Today, it is a fancy place by comparison, and while probably just as fine a home to this generation of children, I lament the loss of its former understated simplicity.

Currently, a charter school has been added to its grounds, and where once occupied a dirt and gravel parking area, this has been replaced with an asphalt parking lot and raised veggie beds. And many of the sacred sites, which formerly witnessed our amazing feats of sporting prowess, our innocent amorous adventures, and our budding human dramas, have now been covered over by numerous new clusters of additional classrooms, and sparkling playgrounds with elaborate structures, burying the physical testimony to our former glories and tribulations.

Nevertheless, these triumphs and trials still exist in memory, and can be unearthed again through the telling of the tales; and as these stories are brought forth, I suspect others will corroborate their authenticity, shining new light upon my imperfect remembrance, yet adding to the veracity of their core truth.

There are many tales to tell, but allow me to first set the scene. Sequoia Elementary occupies roughly five acres at the corner of Calistoga Road and Dupont Drive, in eastern Santa Rosa. A rectangular property, oriented more or less in a northerly direction, with Calistoga Rd. on the western edge, Dupont Dr. to the south, and residential properties lining the northern and eastern edges. It is a fairly flat property with a slight rise to the south, where the first row of buildings resides. Centered, and running parallel to the southern edge of the property is this first row of buildings, which are home to the administrative offices, teacher’s lounge and kindergarten classroom to the right, and the cafeteria to the left (when looking at it from Dupont Drive).

A rounded driveway approaches the front of the building from the far right, stops at the midpoint, and continues to the left to rejoin Dupont Drive. Apart from a grove of Redwood trees to the left of this driveway, and some shrubs lining the front of the building, and a few small trees along Calistoga Road, there was virtually no other foliage on the property back in the 70’s, save the perennial weeds that made up the playfield in the back, and which lined the surroundings of the school buildings and asphalt playground.

The structure of the school consisted of three rows of buildings, connected by a central covered walkway. This walkway began at the midpoint of the first row, essentially dividing the cafeteria to the left, from the offices to the right. The second row, to the east of the corridor, was home to the first and second grade classrooms, and the fourth and fifth grades to the west (although these could change somewhat from year to year). The final row was home to the third and fourth grades to the east, and more fifth and sixth grade classrooms to the west. Where the central corridor cut through each of these buildings, along their inner walls, you’d find bathrooms, the custodian’s workshop, and a supply room or two. To the west of the fourth and fifth grade wing were three additional portable buildings which housed the school library, and two additional classrooms.

Around all of these structures stretched the hallowed grounds, the playground and the playfield further to the north, all of which were the stage for so many of our comic exploits and epic adventures, as well as our mundane misadventures—our plans to jump the fences and break out of this prison, or our trips to distant planets, our Superbowl victories, as well as errant balls kicked into yard-duty faces which landed us in the principal’s office for hours of interrogation and cross-examinations, the four-square, the dodge-ball, basketball, football and soccer and other games with names you could never say in our current times, such as ‘butts-up’ and ‘smear-the-queer’, which upon reflection, is probably a good thing.

This was the place you’d ask a girl to ‘go with you’, and what they meant is you’d walk around the track together, holding hands. Or, on the other hand, if she was a faster runner than you, instead, you’d challenge her to a race, to prove that you could beat her.

By the time each of us had spent our seven years in this place, or fewer if we had joined part-way through or left early, I imagine that every square inch of it could provide us with a unique and lasting memory, something that remains with us, and shapes us, in conscious or unconscious ways. Each room has a story—some were dangerous yet magical, some were off-limits, others were strange and maybe repulsive, or even secret with hidden surprises and treasures; or places of boredom and tedium, discovery and anticipation.

Time was measured by the big, round, white clocks at the front of every class-room, but the schoolyear was measured by anticipation. Each school-year began weeks before classes actually started, when teachers posted the names of their students for the coming year on a simple sheet of paper posted on the door of each classroom. Each of us made our way down to the school, with a mix of dread and excitement, hoping we’d get the teacher we like, avoid the one we didn’t, and get our best friends in the same class with us. Then we looked forward to Halloween and the parade of costumes, the parties and the candy. After that, the beginning of holiday crafts, practicing Christmas songs for the annual Christmas show, and then the long winter break.

For our birthday, Mr Wilson, our principal, would invite each of us into his office, that dangerous place of discipline and remorse, but this time we could enter, in order to pick out a polished rock from his interesting and extensive collection. Who wouldn’t love a polished rock? A magical, colorful, shiny object that reflected the kindness of the man who gave it to us, and who watched over us all, students and teachers alike, with gentleness and benevolence.

After the New Year, we might look forward to the annual book sale. For this, we were given a small catalog which contained a myriad of wonderful books, art supplies and games which we could choose from, place an order, and then anticipate their delivery several weeks later. The library was transformed at this time into a marketplace of these books for sale, where we could see, touch and smell the offerings, samples laid out on tables, the real-life versions of the amazing things found in the catalog. And then there was the annual carnival, with games of all kinds, tickets bought to try to dunk a teacher in a tank of water, or smash an old car with a sledge-hammer, or win a cake at the cake-walk.

And finally the events at the conclusion of the year: first, the big track meet which we hosted, inviting rivals Binkley Elementary, and Rincon (now Whited Elementary) to compete against us in all sorts of track and field events, and finally giving us the opportunity to try out the clever nick-names we thought up, calling our opponents ‘Binkley-Stinkly’ and ‘Rincon-Stinkin’; and second, the annual watermelon-feed, when Adrien, or Mr Wilson, would pull a huge flat-bed trailer filled with watermelon out onto the playground, using the old, ancient, rusty tractor that must have come from the Romans, and they would cut the watermelons into huge wedges, and hand them out to the entire school, crowded around the trailer, and everyone got their piece, and then another, and another, and then we all chucked the rinds at each other, littering the playground with greenish-white and pink slop. Those were the days!

~FS

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