Opinion: Elementary school: Where the ‘firsts’ last

Christa Chavez

Last week, I cruised down Pacific Coast Highway and passed the site of my old school, Mary E. Zoeter Elementary in Seal Beach. I attended kindergarten and first-grade at little pink Zoeter before our family moved to Huntington Beach, where I attended St. Bonaventure. While I wouldn’t say Zoeter made me who I am today, I would say that many of my formative moments occurred there – many “firsts” that taught me a lot more than reading and arithmetic. Here are a few:

First planned outfit: For the first day of kindergarten, I decided to wear my brown plaid jumper, white blouse, and T-strap Buster Browns. Something about it just said “school.”

First experience groveling: Sylvia was sitting alone at recess when she broke out her pack of Nabisco cheese crackers sandwiched with peanut butter. I began to salivate. “May I have one?” I asked as she munched away. “No,” she said, flatly. So, I got out the big guns: “I’ll be your best friend.” Sylvia swallowed. “No!” I was humiliated, of course, but that’s what you get when you sell your soul for processed food.

First Adam and Eve moment: My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bentley, specifically told us not to eat the paste. Guess what I did?

First anxiety attack: It came during my first game of musical chairs, in kindergarten. Why is Teacher forcing us to march in a circle around the chairs, and why does she keep taking one away? In the end, two five-year-olds were willing to throttle each other for the last chair. I felt like Spartacus.

First marriage proposal: His name was Gaylin, and one day on the playground he said: “Will you marry me?” I said I wasn’t sure—after all, we were still so young. He started to cry, and I panicked. “Ok! Yes!” Gaylin proceeded to kiss me on the cheek, and I remember wondering, how am I going to get out of this one?

First heroine: Mrs. Smith, my first-grade teacher. I was impressed with her quintessential ’70s style (shag haircut, pointy rimmed glasses, polyester slacks), but more impressed with the love she showed every one of us. Amazingly, she never once raised her voice.

First taste of patriotism: The school gathered in the auditorium on occasion to practice traditional American songs.

I remember singing “America the Beautiful” and having visions of purple mountains and fruited plains.

I wasn’t sure what a fruited plain was, but that didn’t stop my 6-year-old throat from getting choked up with a beautiful, new feeling: love of country.

First best friend: Her name was Blake. She was smart, funny, and laidback, and she could print her name perfectly. Blake, are you out there?

First moment of showing off that backfired: I had watched Mutual of “Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” on TV the night before. It was all about mustangs. In class the next day, I raised my hand during Mrs. Smith’s math lesson. “Yes, Christa?” she said patiently. “I know what a mustang is,” I said smugly. “It’s a wild horse!”  Blank stares. A few dirty looks. A long, painful silence. As Charlie Brown would say: “Ugggh!”

There you have it—all of the memories that rushed through my mind as I passed my alma mater. Of course, Zoeter is not a school anymore. Back in the 1980s, the property changed ownership and is now comprised of strip malls, daycare centers, and a field.

I wonder, though, if that auditorium remains, in some form. How I would love to revisit it: to step on that terrazzo floor, to see if the sun still streams through those pebbled-glass windows, and to listen for the echo of a little girl’s voice, singing proudly.

Christa Chavez is a long time resident of Rossmoor and a Sun Newspapers regular guest columnist.


Opinion: Elementary school: Where the ‘firsts’ last