Noe Valley Voice March 2004

Florence's Family Album:
Middle School Memories

By Florence Holub

Voice writer emeritus Florence Holub, 85, has lived with her husband, Leo, on 21st Street for the past half century. But her early teens were spent in the Sunnyside neighborhood of San Francisco. This column, reprinted from the March 1992 Voice, reveals Florence's gymnastic apprenticeship at Aptos Junior High.

Every month as the Noe Valley Voice deadline approaches, I start my article with a thread of thought that eventually weaves a story. But sometimes nothing percolates up from the far corners of my brain, and I become convinced that I have gone dry. Then, at the last minute, something always happens to bring on another batch of almost-forgotten memories.

This month, as I sat with a blank page and a blank mind, the phone rang. It was Linda, my nephew's bride, calling to ask me if I had graduated from Aptos School. I had. She told me the 1992 marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the junior high school (nowadays called a middle school). Linda is part of a group of teachers and parents who are hoping to do something in commemoration.

After hanging up the phone, I went upstairs and unearthed the three Aptos yearbooks I had stored in the attic decades ago. As I perused these mementos of my years at Aptos, from 1931 to 1933, I began to laugh and relive my youthful days of trial and error.

I attended Sunnyside School, west of Glen Park, until the seventh grade. But when Aptos opened, everyone above the sixth grade was transferred to the new junior high, which was located at Ocean and Aptos avenues. During the summer prior to going to Aptos, my friend Elsie and I decided to make a trial run to determine the best route, as well as the time required, to walk to school.

Instead of the two blocks from our neighborhood to Sunnyside, we had to walk uphill about 20 blocks to get to Aptos. We walked because there was a depression on--10 cents bus fare was a lot of money in those days. That, and the streetcar took too much time. It took us about 30 minutes to walk there (and as long as 45 minutes once school started, depending on the weather and the things we saw along the way).

When we arrived at the handsome new building after our trial run, we were impressed. And since some out-to-lunch workman had left the door open, we sneaked inside to inspect the newly painted classrooms and the modern girls' restroom. Since no one was there to stop us, we couldn't resist looking into the boys' restroom as well. When we saw their accommodations, however, we were incensed. The boys always got the best of everything. We went home complaining that we had been cheated, because they had been given a long bathtub. We had no way of knowing that what we had seen was the latrine.

When fall classes began, we girls wore skirts, and the boys wore cords (corduroy pants). But when Marlena Dietrich introduced the new fashion of pants for females, our affluent friend Blossom bought a pair and wore them to class. The teacher was shocked, and consulted the principal, who sent Blossom home with the order not to come to school so attired again.

There were many elective classes to choose from at the well-equipped facility, and we wanted to try them all. I went out for the tumbling team, and can be found pictured in the 1931 yearbook as part of a pyramid of little girls, all wearing black bloomers and white blouses with collars (called "middies") and frozen in various gymnastic positions. I am the skinny little girl with short, straight blonde hair, doing a handstand on the left side of the photo.

A week after I began practicing my handstand, however, while attempting to boost my lower extremities upward, I somehow stomped on my right thumb, causing it to throb and swell to twice its normal size. I thought it wise to nurse my thumb--and to give up tumbling forever.

In the 1932 journal, I am shown in the photograph of the Aptos Mermaids, the swimming team that I tried next. We worked out--in our black, bulky, woolen, itchy, and, as I remember them, ugly swimming suits--at the wonderful, long-gone Crystal Palace Baths, located in North Beach.

It quickly became clear that I lacked both speed and style in swimming, so I decided to test my diving. It was easy from the low board, so I soon climbed the ladder to the 10-foot board, dove head first, and plunged straight down to the bottom of the tank, where it became necessary to turn upward. I turned too abruptly, bending my spine in a painful V-shape. Thus I ended my swimming for the day--and, I decided, for the season.

The same yearbook contains some sketches of my teachers, which I did whenever a lecture went on too long. I had finished six likenesses when my music teacher got wind of my activity and warned me that if her image were printed in the journal, I would not get a passing grade in her class. It was blackmail, but I did it her way and opted for the grade. None of the other teachers objected or retaliated, and one of them even signed his drawing, which I considered a stamp of approval.

In 1933 I graduated from Aptos, and that year I helped design and illustrate the yearbook. The designs had to be drawn, then transferred to a wooden square that would be the printing plate, after the illustration was gouged out with a sharp tool. The teacher stressed how expensive the wood blocks were, and how careful I must be not to ruin them.

Nevertheless, I took the cover block home on the weekend to give me more time to do a good job. The work went well until I applied a little too much pressure, causing the corner to flip off--the very disaster that the teacher had warned me against!

My wail of frustration brought my father running to the rescue. Fortunately, he was an accomplished woodworker. In no time at all, he glued the chip back on, put it in a vise overnight, and by morning it was as good as new. Then, very carefully, I finished cutting out the design, and on the next day delivered my project with great relief.

The 1933 book also contained photographs of the graduates, including one of me. My hair was longer and wavier by then, thanks to the availability and affordability of the miraculous new permanent wave. So with high school looming ahead, I looked less like a tomboy and more like a girl, at last!

These reflections probably won't serve the Aptos anniversary celebration, but they may bring a chuckle to anyone who remembers the happy, sometimes painful formative years of youth.

To finish my story, I must declare that I still have a reminder of my tumbling skill--a tender and slightly enlarged thumb joint. Also, I suffered from back troubles after my swimming dive, until the day, 10 years later, when I worsened the condition by grabbing a bucket of lead in my father's paint store. This turned out to be pure luck, though, because I rushed to the nearest chiropractor, who realigned my vertebrae within a few visits and corrected the damage. He was not able to reverse my permanent aversion to vigorous athletics, however.

With artistic endeavors I fared much better. Through the years, drawing and painting have caused no ill effects, aside from a little eyestrain now and then. And the arts have given me a gratifying purpose in life. I realize now how fortunate I was to find out early on, before damaging myself irreparably, that some of us are simply not cut out to be tumblers or mermaids. m