The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 2020 a three-year, $34 million remodel of Tahoe Lake Elementary School was completed. Originally built in 1934, the school was substantially expanded with a host of improvements, but in many ways it’s still the same school I attended while growing up in Tahoe City in the ’60s and ’70s.
I had a blast taking a tour of the new school in March with Tahoe Lake Principal Stephanie Foucek. While she pointed out all the changes that had been made, I regaled her with stories of what Tahoe Lake was like when I was a student there. The remodel provided for eight new classrooms and major upgrades to the electrical, heating, and plumbing systems. Also included were earthquake retrofits and a grander new entrance at the south side near the rebuilt parking area. My favorite addition is a sunny greenhouse room used to grow lettuce for the kids’ lunches and carry on experiments with composting. Despite all the changes there was still plenty left for a stroll down memory lane.
I began my school career at Tahoe Lake in 1963 attending Mrs. Heinke’s kindergarten class and ended it in eighth grade in 1972 with Mr. Steinhauser. They had the perfect personalities for the opposite ends of the age spectrum. Mrs. Heinke was sweet and made sure we had milk and graham crackers before our naps, and Mr. Steinhauser was sarcastic and selectively oblivious to the eighth grade shenanigans going on all around him.
Back then we were scared of the teachers because they had paddles and were not afraid to use them. Putting tacks on other kids’ seats, or pushing your buddies desk into the dark and mysterious confines of the girls bathroom — we could usually get away with that. But I can say from personal experience that tossing out a, “Hey Paul, how ya doing?” to Mr. Steinhauser was extremely ill advised.
Tahoe Lake was all about slowly climbing your way up the hill — literally — from the lowest to the highest grade. First grade was with Miss Bean, who was very nice and tall as Jack’s beanstalk. Her classroom was at the bottom floor. Mr. Steinhauser was at the opposite end of the building, all the way up at the top.
In the middle was the Little Auditorium, or as we called it, the “Little Aud,” where Christmas plays and various other performances were held. The room has luscious pine wood floors and paneling, and a high wood ceiling. A few years ago I did a reading at the Little Aud for my book “Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time.” Fortunately, the space was little touched by the remodel; it was important to the school to retain the original auditorium, which dates back to 1934.
Just behind the Little Aud is the library, which also looks essentially the same as when I was a wee lad checking out Dr. Seuss books. It’s packed to the brim with books, which is how Foucek thinks it should be. Getting real paper books into the hands of kids is what turns them into readers, she says.
A highlight of my tour was Principal Foucek leading me down a dank passage to the ancient boiler that used coal and firewood to send hot water to the clanking radiators that provided heat. Now the boiler is a non-operational, rusty old hulk the size of a mini-van that was too cumbersome to remove, but for many decades it was the school’s only heating source.
The next major attraction as we made our way up the school is the gym, which also serves as the dining room and looks pretty much the same as when I was there missing basketball shots. The kitchen is still just off the back of the gym where, in the old days, ladies with plastic hairnets prepared the fish sticks and Tater tots that we were served every Friday, as long as our punch cards still had 35 cent left on them for lunch.
While Tahoe Lake lost a bit of outdoor recess space for the remodel, it still is a classic winter playground with lots of steep snow banks to slide down. The playground was the centerpiece of the 1998 movie Jack Frost starring Michael Keaton. The school closed for a week for filming and Tahoe Lake students were extras in the snowball fight scenes. The movie premier played to a packed house at the Cobblestone Cinema (now home of the Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema).
Just north of the gym was Mrs. Farr’s fourth grade class. I could be embellishing, but I believe she taught there for 96 years. Mrs. Farr was quite the intimidating presence with a look that could make you confess stuff you didn’t do, but she taught us all about manzanita, Jeffrey pines, and the ways of the Washoe.
After eight years, you finally made it the top of the stairs. One of my seventh grade teachers was Mr. Turner, who the year before lost a leg to cancer. When we played baseball the kids would pinch run for him and he would love to gross us out by saying stuff like, “Hey, Hauserman, take my leg out to the car, will ya?” pointing to his leg leaning against the wall. Many years later Turner told me that our nonchalant attitude towards his missing leg helped him adjust to the loss.
My trip down memory lane was a joyful one. I’m happy that today’s Tahoe kids get to spend their days in this wonderful little school that has been a Tahoe City institution for 90 years.