After talking to Mazie Carnell about the life of a cowgirl for my last episode of Growing up in Tahoe, I returned to the source to converse about her days as the Tahoe Lake School’s librarian in the 1960s. Mazie is one of the last of a generation that grew up in Tahoe in the 1930s and 1940s, but many of the traditions of that time continued into the 1960s and 1970s, when I was stumbling from kindergarten to eighth grade at Tahoe Lake School.
Until the early 1960s, there was no library at Tahoe Lake School. Mazie was part of a group of folks who decided to make it happen. Fortunately, the library was allotted the section of the school that used to house the entire grammar school. It had high ceilings and large, church-like windows. But first, the school needed books.
“I went to every classroom [all nine grades] and promised the class that could bring in the most books a trip to Pyramid Lake. They brought in 3,000 books,” Mazie, now 86, said. “Then I got a call from the Ehrman Estate. They donated a library full of valuable, first edition books. Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter [who had a house in Tahoe] even offered books from the basement of their house. Not all the books were appropriate for kids, so we sold them and took the money to buy kids books.”
Mazie started as a volunteer, figuring that because she had seven rambunctious kids of her own in school, she owed it to the school to help out. When the librarian left, the principal, Mr. Smith, asked Mazie to take on the job.
““I don’t even know the alphabet” I told him, and he said, “damn it, learn it.” It scared the hell out of me, but I said “I will do it if you let me do it my way.”” He did. Her way was all about using the library for hands-on learning.
Hands-on meant the kids played with fascinating and perhaps dangerous animals. Terri the Tarantula (yes, a real tarantula) was a favorite, as was Sally the Lizard, Ruthie the Scorpion, Tordy the Tortoise, and two snakes, Bo and Slinky. Special occasions called for bringing in a dead octopus and shark for the kids to touch and play with before they were dissected. One time Mazie even brought in a live black widow spider.
“I wanted the kids to see what they looked like so that if they saw one they would stay away,” she said. “Someone turned me in because they were afraid of the animals. The snake got me in trouble as well. The power went out once at the school and I had to bring all my animals home. The snake got loose and my husband Dick was not happy when he saw it crawling around in the middle of the night.”
Mazie believed that kids needed to experience nature to understand it. The library shelves were stuffed with seashell collections and bird nests from hummingbirds and eagles. She had the kids brand a fake sheep while they baked Basque sheepherder bread. She even brought in a farrier to show the kids how the hot horseshoes molded to the hooves of her daughter Patti’s horse.
While Mazie happily ponders the joy she found in the library back in those days, she’s glad she’s not doing it today. There are too many rules about curriculum and what you have to teach to pass a test for her taste. Back then the school was a family. “Every kid was so important to me and to the rest of the teachers,” she said.
I remember all of those teachers. There was Miss Bean, who grew up milking cows and brought us on the best field trip of the year to a dairy farm near Reno. Or Mrs. Lillian Farr, who taught us Tahoe history and all about the Jeffrey pine and manzanita. And there was Smoky Smith, the principal. Mazie remembers when two new girls from France came to the school. They were more proper than the rough Tahoe kids, so the boys got to bullying them. Smith brought the five boys into the office and said, “We have these wonderful girls and we have a report that someone is picking on them. I want you guys to be their guardians and make sure they are protected and report to me if anyone else is mean to them.” The girls were never bullied again.
A few years after retiring from Tahoe Lake in 1983, Mazie decided that the little town of Tahoe City had gotten too big for its britches and moved to Sierraville, but she still fondly remembers watching the children’s eyes light up at the sight of a spider crawling up their arms.
Tim Hauserman’s latest book, Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time, was recently published.
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