After preschool in the log cabin located in the City Park and shared with the Boy Scouts and the Parks and Recreation Department, it is on to kindergarten at Schnell School. Having opened in 1964, Schnell School was barely a decade old when I started kindergarten and continued on at that school through the third grade. The school was named after a long time Placerville teacher, who was also Principal at Sierra School for a time, named Louisiana Schnell. She died in 1985. The campus has pod buildings that house four classrooms each, surrounding a large central common room. Here, all the students of the grade in question can gather for singing time or the flag salute. There are two other smaller rooms in those pod buildings that might house storage, special meeting rooms or libraries. At the time I was going to Schnell in the mid 1970s, there wasn’t a gym and all physical activity was accomplished on the expansive playground areas. We ate lunch outside on picnic tables, but if it rained we ate in the classroom and spread out into the common central areas of the pod to play board games. It is strange that we didn’t have a proper cafeteria or multipurpose gym in which to have lunch. After all, this was Placerville in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and it was cold in the winter. Still, the school was inviting, spacious and pretty on little hills with paved paths winding about green lawns.
Every morning I’d arrive on the bus and we would be dropped off on the big lower playground with a huge area of painted dodge ball and hopscotch courts. Swings and monkey bars were in “the gravel area.” When it was time to start class the recess monitor would blow a whistle and we would all line up and march up the hill, branching off to our various pods for the first, second or third grades.
Visits to Sierra School across town on another hill for their annual Halloween carnival made that school alluring. Built in 1953, Sierra School seemed more cosmopolitan due to its mid-century modern architectural influence, but really, Schnell was the true modern campus––allowing teachers to team teach by opening up the accordion walls so that two classes could share as one. However, Sierra had a multipurpose gym and the kinds of classrooms that looked like the ones kids on TV always attended. To me, finally attending Sierra seemed like true advancement. Since I attended fourth through sixth grades there, it was literal advancement.
I usually ate the hot lunches available. There was a monthly menu calendar that we took home to post on the refrigerator to guide us as to whether or not we wanted to buy hot lunch, but I very rarely took lunch to school. The routine was that you’d swing by the multi-purpose room to sign up and pay your dollar for lunch. There was a regular lady who took our orders––her name escapes me now, but she reminded me of Carol Burnet. She had little pet names for the lunches in standard rotation. If it was spaghetti she would say we were having “sketties” that day. The lunches were made at Edwin Markham School and shipped to Schnell and Sierra schools in big green insulated cases with hot items in a tin tray and cold items in a plastic tray. When it was lunch time you’d line up, have your name checked on a list and pick up your tin and plastic trays. This routine and the particular recipes were a way of life from first through eighth grade. I never thought the food was the greatest, but it was good enough I suppose, because I always ate it.
Besides the Halloween carnival we also had a sixth grade square dance night where after learning to square dance during school hours, the parents all came out to an evening dance where we kids showed them how it was done. It was in the Sierra School library where I found the book Make Your Own Animated Movies and my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Bratt, taught a unit on making Super 8 animated movies that started me off on a hobby that lasted through high school (See post “Making Movies”). Sierra also had an annual talent show and Christmas program and an extracurricular band program to prepare musicians to participate in Edwin Markham Intermediate School’s more formal band program.
Edwin Markham (now referred to as a “middle school”) gave we Sierra kids some promotional enticement as their drama and band kids would visit to put on shows twice a year. At the time I was participating in the Parks and Recreation Department’s Children’s Theatre program, so I was getting a good helping of performing arts, but the visiting players from Edwin Markham represented the main reason I was looking forward to junior high school. Those productions seemed like a kind of advancement from what I was doing.
Perhaps the first live theatre I ever saw was thanks to the visiting Discovery Players, a program of the local branch of American River College. The group toured the schools of El Dorado County with original adaptations of children’s stories. They used the same unit set for years––repainted for each new show. The actors were recognizable as they seemed to hang on for several productions before changing over. As a kid I always thought the actors were good, the costumes seemed elaborate and it was interesting to see how that same unit set was manipulated to work for each new story. The visit from the Discovery Players was always a big deal and those productions were part of the fabric of going to school in Placerville, for there was a new show every year from kindergarten through the eighth grade.
Edwin Markham Middle School was named for a poet and teacher who was born in Oregon, but moved to California as a boy and grew up and went to several colleges throughout the north part of the state. He lived in Lagoon Valley, San Jose, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Vacaville, and Placerville where he belonged to the Masonic Lodge and taught literature in the 1880s. He became a very important man of letters thanks to two poems in particular: “The Man with the Hoe” and “Lincoln, The Man of the People,” which was selected to be read by the author at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. And so, Placerville claimed him and named a school after him in 1959 (though he died in his long time home of Staten Island in 1940). Other towns claimed him as well, resulting in Edwin Markham schools in Vacaville, San Jose, South Central Los Angeles, Pasco, Mt. Lebanon, Portland and Staten Island. I wonder why no one thought to name a school after James Marshall in Placerville? After all, without him there wouldn’t have been a Placerville as we know it (though there are schools named for him in other California cities).
At the time I was going to Markham it was a true junior high with just the seventh and eighth grades. I took to the school dances right off and there were many of them. I toured in the drama productions, which were generally half hour parodies of TV shows and fairy tales under the direction of the pun-loving George Sabato. Mr. Sabato started a year insisting that we learn to juggle, which I didn’t master as well as others. However, the other units of improvisational games, pantomime, puppets and touring plays were all a great time and Mr. Sabato’s class made going to school worthwhile to me. In those days, I felt that all the rest of school was a chore.
Surviving all these years since Ronald Reagan first became President is a video tape of a project called “The Michael Jackson Show.” For some reason, Mr. Sabato decided I would be host of a variety show. All the other kids put together skits and I introduced them doing celebrity impressions. I did this because at the time there was a show hosted by celebrity impressionist Rich Little and I watched it just to hear his impressions. I can’t even remember the Rich Little show now, but IMDB tells me it must have been “The New You Asked For It.” You could make the case that my own impressions were actually impressions of Rich Little’s impressions (a strange side note is that I worked with Rich Little in 1991 at the Sacramento Music Circus on a production of Little Me where he was allowed to do all his impressions during the course of the show). Schoolmate Michelle Vien acquired a copy of this tape only recently and posted it on Youtube. The most astonishing thing about it, save for the delight that we are actually all rather creative, is hearing my preteen voice. I feel so removed from that time now that hearing my kid voice is almost a shock.
After Edwin Markham there is nowhere to go but onward to El Dorado High. Schnell, Sierra and Markham are still the order of a Placerville child’s school days. There was an eighth grade graduation ceremony where everyone dressed up. All the boys were in ties, looking like little adults for the first time. It was so hot that June evening that we all had sweat stains under our armpits. The choir sang “Over the Rainbow” and the seventh grade members of the band played “Pomp and Circumstance.” There was a big dance afterwards––made more festive than the others––or so it seemed. You really did feel like you’d accomplished something, that you were big stuff, that you’d finally been released from the prison of school days. Never mind that high school was around the corner––after graduation from Markham I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Of course, you then feel as small as can be on your first day of high school when, suddenly, absolutely everyone in the upper classes seems years older and more sophisticated than you, but on that day of eighth grade graduation we were lulled into a temporary and joyous feeling that we ruled the world.
The "Michael Jackson Show" from Edwin Markham