Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Growing Up in Bellevue

Several said that they'd learned not to say that they were raised in Bellevue.

Since our high school class picnic (see below) I have been ruminating on the experiences of my classmates and my growing up in Bellevue, WA, a city that could now be considered part of Silicone NW. As our evening at Lake Sammamish State Park drew to a close and twilight and good food blurred our edges, people spoke of their experiences in telling others where they had been raised. Many said that they had ceased telling people where they’d grown up. They said that they always met the expectation that they were rich and snobby. Several said that they'd learned not to say that they were raised in Bellevue. I know that when I moved to the Long Beach Peninsula as a 36 year old and told people where I’d been raised I got tagged as “the Bellevue Princess” which could not have been much farther from the truth.

It is true that to teenagers who came across Lake Washington from Seattle to dance at the Lake Hills Roller Rink on Saturday nights, we may have appeared affluent. We certainly were middle class and the housing tracts we lived in quintessential post WWII suburbs. But even within Bellevue there was stratification. I grew up in Lake Hills in the eastern part of Bellevue. Lake Hills was not considered as affluent as “old” Bellevue and some of the swankier housing tracts. My mother chronically suffered from house envy.

Bellevue in the 1950s (my parents and I moved to Bellevue in 1957) was nothing like the Bellevue of today. The downtown area was a few blocks of buildings on which there was a three story height restriction. There were grocery stores downtown and in the housing tracts which were populated largely by veterans of WWII and purchased with VA loans. Initially when we moved there from Seattle my mother and I dressed up in our Sunday best and took the bus or car (we had one for years and my father ride-pooled to Boeing) to Seattle to shop at department stores. I still remember when Fredrick & Nelson built a store in downtown Bellevue and how relieved I was to not make, what seemed to a child, long boring trips to buy whatever it was my mother thought we couldn’t live without.

The student parking lot at Sammamish High School only held about a dozen cars. At Gig Harbor High School where I work the student parking lot is several times larger than the staff lot and sprinkled with BMWs and F150s. Most of us rode the bus to school all three years. The boys who had cars were is large demand by the girls, thus eliminating the need for having parents cart them on dates. Those of us who had cars had ones that were ten years or older, not bright, shiny new ones. The gearheads, boys who knew cars inside and out, took great pride in keeping their cars looking nice and running well. In the district where I work the automotive program has been ghettoized by being moved out of town to another city where today’s gearheads are bused for part of the day. Talk about elitist. Although available to students, our district doesn’t want the program visible. The former automotive classroom houses a weight room now. I have no idea if the Bellevue high schools still have automotive programs.

During the 1950s and ‘60s the Bellevue School District was considered the best in the state, but apparently it wasn’t a given that everyone received a proper education. With elementary classes as large as 40, teachers had their hands full just keeping us in line. My first and second grade classes sat in alphabetical rows and there was little cooperative learning. It is not surprising that there were students whose learning styles fell outside of the set curriculum and fell through the cracks. Only recently did I learn that one of my classmates never learned to read until well on his way to senior citizen status. That fact that he has learned late in life is proof that he could have learned then if someone had had or taken the time to figure out a different way to present the material. But there are stories like this in all school districts, although it makes my heart ache at the years of pleasure this man missed in recreational reading, much less reading that would have helped him in his job life. Fortunately he’s making up for lost time.

Another student from our high school was a wonderful athlete, but no one addressed his dyslexia. There were plenty of girls willing to help him with his homework so he completed high school functionally illiterate. Although he married his high school sweetheart, who became a college graduate and teacher, the marriage didn’t last because it was colored by his inability to even read notes sent home by his children’s teachers. How might their lives have been different had he received the right instruction?

From a distance our lives might have been viewed at perfect. Most of our parents owned their own homes, many of the fathers worked at Boeing; most of the mothers were stay-at-home moms. We undoubtedly looked bright and shiny ourselves on that June evening in 1969 when we walked across the stage and received our diplomas. Despite what other communities might have thought, we were not born with silver spoons. For the most part our Depression Era parents worked hard to give us what they had not had and that level of comfort allowed our generation to cause a social and political upheaval, the ramifications—both good and bad—are still felt today.

Most of us have been successful in that we’ve faced struggles as varied as the raising of handicapped children to alcohol and drug addiction and managed to build lives that range from well off to comfortable with a few who have, despite a good beginning, messed up their lives . We are aging doctors, dentists, lawyers, mechanics, plumbers, hippies, conservatives and liberals. Most of us are grandparents who will not retire in as much comfort as many of our parents did. I know we won’t.

The only time I have demurred at telling people where I was raised was to people unfamiliar with the Puget Sound Area. Back in the 1960 and ‘70s if you said you were from Bellevue, WA you were frequently met with a blank stare. If you said Seattle, well that was a city they understood. Where the World’s Fair was, right? No, if anything makes me loath to claim my hometown it is what it represents now. I’m glad we grew up there when we did. Not all of our families were Father’s Knows Best, but we were better off than many. I wonder what they young people of Bellevue today think of their hometown.


Jamie Salisbury said...

What a sad post! I too grew up in Bellevue in the same time period as you. I have never, ever felt ashamed to say I'm from Bellevue.
Unfortunately, I now live in the American South and see no way I'll ever get to live in the NW again, but then one can dream.

Stephanie Frieze said...

It is sad that the Bellevue of our childhoods is no more. Just yesterday my husband and I were there and looked like Ma & Pa Kettle gawking at the big city. On the part of being raised in Bellevue, the reason some of our classmates and I hesistated in our young years to own having grown up in Bellevue was the perception that if you came from Bellevue you much have been spoiled and have a lot of money. While there were some well off families in the eastern half of town, most of us were decidedly middle class and some down right poor.

I am sad that you cannot return to the Northwest. I should not like to live in the South. We here live in as close to heaven on earth as there is. I'm just grateful to not live in Bellevue. Too many people and too much money. We are simpler folks. Thank you for commenting.