A Sahuaro memory sampler
By John Bueker
Being the only family member to matriculate at Sahuaro School for the full 8 years of elementary education, I imagine it falls on me to pay tribute to the grand old institution as it observes the big five-oh. After some soul-searching deliberation, I have settled on the idea of revisiting a lingering recollection from each annum of my Sahuaro sojourn. Thus:
1st Grade: My single most memorable experience that first year, and I had many, was one of misfortune. One morning before school, sitting under a tree on the 1st grade playground leisurely observing my classmates at play, I was suddenly beckoned by pal Tom Neff to join in the fun. As I abruptly arose, the seat of my trousers split wide open, from the belt line to the crotch.
Far too embarrassed to report the circumstance to any authority figure, I was forced to endure that entire school day in this frightfully compromised condition. Naturally I remained seated at my desk as much as humanly possible, but the necessity of standing and moving about inevitably arose. At one point I was obliged to participate in a silly dance the class had been practicing all that week; fortuitously, the promenade required us to position our left hands behind our backs as we circled the classroom, and I exploited this circumstance to cover as much of my gluteal region with my hand as possible until the activity had mercifully concluded.
I have little doubt that my wonderful 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Palczak, at some point that day detected my problem, but wisely ignored it to spare me the monumental humiliation involved. I walked home from school with my sweater wrapped tightly around my lower torso, the harrowing ordeal finally at an end.
2nd Grade: Year II at Sahuaro was colored by my unmitigated fascination for dinosaurs. I devoured all the school library books on the subject and pretty much wore out my personal copy of “The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs.” My infatuation with the terrible lizards ultimately prompted our teacher Mrs. Landon to make a startling suggestion: she encouraged me to devise an entry for the venerable Sahuaro School science fair, a virtually unprecedented step for a 2nd grader at the time.
My project ultimately consisted of little more than plastic toy dinosaurs from T.G.&Y. glued to a black poster board with typed index card descriptions. But the novelty of having a lowly 2nd grader entering anything at all into the prestigious event apparently impressed some of the big wigs at the school. I was presented with a special honorable mention certificate during the awards assembly in the cafeteria at the end of the year. To this day, I still think back immediately to my 2nd Grade science fair project at the sight of any orange plastic T-Rex toy.
3rd Grade: Mrs. Swanson’s class was a departure for me and probably a turning point in my educational career.
Unlike my previous three teachers, Gertrude Swanson refused to accord me any special treatment: no special projects, no academic license, no favoritism whatsoever. She was meticulous in her ethos of regarding all students as absolute equals, and this was an adjustment of which I was probably sorely in need. There would be no “privileged characters” in her classroom, she frequently assured us. And she was true to her word.
So it was that neither I nor my classmates was given any advanced warning regarding a rather peculiar event that went down in the fall of that school year, perhaps in October or thereabouts. One day out of the blue, Mrs. Swanson quietly started taking down all of her bulletin boards and classroom displays, packing them neatly away in various cardboard boxes.
What could this possibly signify, we wondered? Were they ending the school year early? Had it been cancelled? What an attractive prospect was this! We all exchanged looks of wide-eyed anticipation with one another.
The excitement and speculation built to a crescendo until Mrs. Swanson matter-of-factly informed us that we were merely moving. We would vacate Room 13 and finish the school year in Room 19, directly to the south on the other side of the classroom block. The school year would then continue on its normal course without disruption. True to our class’s egalitarian spirit, we were all equally disappointed by this dreary revelation.
4th Grade: This was my “astronomy year” at Sahuaro. I was so enthralled with the subject that I carted my telescope down to Open House that spring and encouraged parents and classmates alike to view the cosmos at 200x. Naturally, as a decorated science fair veteran from two years earlier, I was expected to produce an impressive and competitive project for that year’s event. Expectations ran high for my astronomical science fair project, but sadly I did not prove equal to the task.
I probably wasn’t the first elementary school student to ever conceive of a styrofoam ball model of the solar system, but it seemed like a relatively novel idea at the time. I mounted my styrofoam planets on a piece of particle board that we found at the Westown hardware store, and my artist mother painted a glorious solar surface at the base of the display. Mrs. Liem and my classmates seemed impressed with the result, and I was cautiously optimistic about another science fair award coming my way.
Walking home from school the day I entered the project, I had my bubble rudely burst by an older student who in essence informed me that my science fair project sucked. The thing looked kinda cool, I was told, but since it performed no experiments nor demonstrated any scientific principles, it was a lame project. I wasn’t in 2nd grade anymore and would not be rewarded merely for showing up.
Initially hurt by this criticism, I quickly perceived its validity, and subsequent events confirmed the assessment – my styrofoam solar system was politely ignored by the science fair judges. It didn’t win jack.
It did look kinda cool though.
5th Grade: We fielded a superlative softball team in Miss Eden’s class this year, one of the best in the school.
This is no exaggeration. With outstanding athletes like Bobby Gess, Glen Prevost and Rocco DeVincenzo, Room 30 routinely blew away all the diamond competition. We even managed to sweep a memorable series of practice games that spring with Mrs. Parker’s highly regarded 6th grade team. Going into the tournament for the 5th grade pennant the last week of school, we felt supremely confident. It wasn’t even going to be close. A simple formality.
Pride proceeded then to meet fall. Mr. Cooper’s class somehow pulled off a shocking upset in the championship game, humbling Miss Eden’s mighty softballers by a couple of runs. As Mr. Snader signaled the final out and our jubilant opponents raced back to their classroom with the coveted pennant in hand, we all just sort of stood there in stunned disbelief. I’ll never forget the atmosphere of utter gloom and dejection back in Room 30 after that game. A splendid school year at Sahuaro had ended on a very sad and disappointing note.
6th Grade: Lunch time in the Sahuaro cafeteria was a culture unto itself. A series of memorably amusing traditions and rituals emerged in that storied building down through the years, two of which reached a sort of culmination during my 6th Grade year.
The first was the “strikes” tradition. Before the conversion to plastic trays, food in the Sahuaro cafeteria was served on remarkably fragile porcelain dishware. Whenever some poor unfortunate sod managed to drop a plate or bowl and break it on the floor, every student in the room was obliged to yell “strike!” in unison followed by the number of the incident. For example, the first student to shatter a dish during the lunch period that day would be greeted with a hearty “strike one!”
It was not until my sixth year at Sahuaro that I witnessed the proverbial third strike. Classmate Danny Best did the honors, and although he acted appropriately embarrassed by the mishap, there was a persistent suspicion that he deliberately perpetrated the deed to achieve the big trey. A resounding “strike three!” instantly rang out across the lunch room and was followed by about fifteen seconds of sustained applause while the teachers seated at the faculty dining table looked on in utter bemusement. I’ll never forget it.
Then there was the ritual of going to the “seconds window,” an opportunity for students with exceptionally hearty appetites to procure an extra bite at the end of the meal. No one who attended Sahuaro School in the ‘60s or ‘70s will fail to remember the seconds window.
Typically, the seconds were relatively mundane offerings, anything from dollops of stale peanut butter to leftover hamburger buns. In other words, whatever surplus foodstuffs the cafeteria ladies were anxious to be rid of that day. However, for one brief shining moment in 6th grade, the seconds became inexplicably spectacular. The news spread rapidly through the cafeteria one fateful afternoon like an untamed wild fire – banana pudding for seconds!
We all lined up at the window for this unbelievably extravagant offering. The only caveat was that each student was allowed but one trip to the seconds window that day. Fellow 6th grader Ricky Drost, however, had other designs. Waiting a discreet length of time after consuming his pudding, Ricky carefully licked his plate clean, and after removing all traces of the incriminating dessert treat, slipped quietly back into line for more. His plate-licking strategy succeeded brilliantly and was rewarded with a second helping of the creamy ambrosia.
I always admired Drost for sticking it to the man like that. Took stones.
7th Grade: Field Day was a grand and unique day on the school calendar each year. Students were allowed on this one day to come to school dressed in their P.E. uniforms and then to spend the entire time outdoors observing and participating in the various athletic competitions. Everyone loved Field Day, faculty and students alike.
I wasn’t much of a runner or jumper myself, but beginning with my first Field Day in 4th Grade, I did become the perennial shot put champ of my class. I won three consecutive blue ribbons in the event from 1968 through 1970, and was the odds-on favorite to make it four in a row in 7th Grade. My parents even bought me a ten-pound put at Kerr’s Sporting Goods at Chris-Town with which to train for that year’s event.
However, by 7th Grade, the competition was becoming increasingly daunting. Mike Powell, a new student at Sahuaro that year, was an incredibly strong lad who could hit a softball about three hundred miles with his eyes closed. This guy had biceps like Dick Butkus. There was also Steve Wieters, a familiar rival of mine in the event, who had been improving steadily with each passing year. I had a nagging suspicion that I wasn’t going to pull off number four in a row.
To be brief, I didn’t. Powell won the event and Wieters came in second; or perhaps it was the other way around. In any case, I came in a distant fourth. The Bueker era of shot put dominance at Sahuaro School had come to an end. All glory, as they say, is fleeting.
As it turned out, this was to be my last Field Day at Sahuaro. The following year in 8th Grade, I was nursing a knee injury on the big day and was unable to participate.
8th Grade: My final year at Sahuaro was predictably bittersweet. I could focus on any number of majestic moments, from dramatic athletic triumphs to spectacular failures in shop class, but ultimately my thoughts are drawn to the very last day of school.
The student council draped a huge sheet of paper over a chalkboard in one of the portable classrooms for everyone to sign and scrawl messages upon. At the end of the day, I stood for the longest time in that portable, absorbing the names and words of farewell from all the little companions I had grown up with for eight long years and feeling a sense of disbelief that this was all suddenly ending.
I finally stepped out of the room and for the last time as a student walked down the breezeway by the cafeteria, crossed Sweetwater Avenue, and wandered home.
I missed the place already.