Remembering Louise Van Meter Elementary

I’m becoming a cliché, one of those women of a certain age who go around marveling at how fast time moves and how they couldn’t believe when their kids played soccer that they wouldn’t be carpooling for the rest of their lives.

Louise Van Meter Elementary School turns sixty four this year. And yes, it seems like yesterday that my fifth grade was transferred out of our wonderful Los Gatos Elementary with it’s big campus and historic architecture, giant oaks and basement passageways and a cafeteria smelling of stewed everything, moved en masse into a school so new we could still smell paint in the halls.

To understand what the move to Louise Van Meter School meant to us, you need to get how we all felt about Los Gatos Elementary. I started second grade at LGE and from the first day there, I had my eye on the graceful double curved staircase that was the defining feature of the school’s California colonial style.

It was the big kids’ staircase, forbidden to all but seventh and eighth graders, one side for boys and the other for girls.

All of us fifth graders who were sent across town to the raw new school in the middle of an apricot orchard were afraid we’d be trapped there until we graduated and went to Los Gatos High School.

I don’t remember riding the school bus but I think I must have and for a while it was probably an entertaining novelty. Before that I had always walked from College Avenue to University every morning and afternoon rain or shine. I’m sure my mother had never heard the word carpool; and, even if she had, she wasn’t the kind of mom who cared for schlepping a daughter who had two perfectly good legs.

So I must have walked to school and I must have bitched about it. Today LVM, surrounded by shopping centers and businesses, belongs to the footprint of Los Gatos; but when I was ten it was way out on what was then called San Jose Avenue, a street lined with a mix of homes and orchards and vacant lots, ranches and truck farms. It’s possible we rode our bikes. We were world-class riders in those days who thought nothing of traveling ten miles or more miles out of town on a Saturday afternoon.

The new school was painted a stark white and shaped liked a series of rectangular boxes set down on scraped earth. Someone might have planted a tree or a shrub somewhere, but to me it looked like the carpenters and masons had only left the day before we arrived. Miss English’s classroom was the brightest classroom I’d ever been in. I think the wall of windows looked due east and on warm days that spring we all cooked in there.

Our old school was shaded by immense California live oaks. The only trees at Louise Van Meter were out back, an orchard where my friends and I used to play every lunchtime. I think we must have been breaking the rules but maybe not; there were fewer rules then. At the time I had a crush on a boy named Robert and he and Don and Jill and I carried on a long flirtation in and among the trees, chasing, falling, climbing and swinging on the wide, reaching branches, just within hearing distance of the school bell. I don’t remember anyone ever telling us to play on the pavement, but I’m sure someone must have. Think of the liability!

The other day my friend Betty reminded me that there was some sort of lookout tower on the edge of the playground, which we all assumed was for spotting enemy planes. That seems right. We had duck and cover drills on a regular basis. I had no idea who those enemies were. I knew only one person who owned a television set and computers were pure science fiction, what counted most were my friends, our teacher, and getting back to Los Gatos Elementary School. Ms English must have been delighted with the bright white new school but we kids were traditionalists. The next year we would be sixth graders and a year closer to that curved staircase and all the privileges of grown-up-ness that went with it.

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