Nearly every day I pass the Sierra 2 complex and feel a twinge of nostalgia. I knew it when it was an elementary school. Our family moved to Sacramento in 1952, when I was 4 years old. We lived in a ramshackle, two story house on 27th Street, a half block from Broadway on the edge of Curtis Park.
I was a student at Sierra School from kindergarten through the fifth grade, when, in 1958, our family moved to the house my parents had built in the new suburb of South Land Park Hills.
But back to Sierra School. As Mom accompanied me, my twin sister Patty-Jo, older brother Billy, in kindergarten that year, and Elsie, in third grade, Mom was, no doubt, filled with trepidation. An attractive, well-educated, middle-class, black woman, Eva Rutland had been born and raised in the segregated South.
As she walked through the doors of Sierra’s elegant Spanish Revival structure, she entered an integrated world for the first time. She was afraid white people wouldn’t be kind to her children. To protect us she became a hyperactive joiner. She recounted it in her memoir, “When We Were Colored, A Mother’s Story”: “With integrated schools, and all, one felt one should, well, integrate… I started joining as soon as I reached California.”
And join she did. At Sierra, she was PTA president, vice president, program chairman, education chairman, parent education chairman, founder’s day chairman and corresponding secretary. That doesn’t include Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownies, Little League – the list is exhaustive.
Mom was also a writer. In her PTA days she wrote a series of skits performed at Sierra and other elementary schools throughout the city. It was called “P.E. PILLS.” “P.E.” stood for Parent Education. The series of programs, sponsored by the PTA, were designed to help parents be better parents.
As I read the plays today, the parenting problems in the skits seem dated and, frankly – sorry, Mom – rather silly. A red-haired youngster is distraught because kids at school call him names. (Carrot top! – Oh, horrors, the shame of it.) A mother who tells little white lies incessantly herself tries to cure her own son of lying. And finally, another mother of four children whose house is in complete disarray – beds unmade, kids late for school, Dad can’t find his blue tie – is at her wits end. No drugs, no divorces, no homelessness – the bland ’50s. By the end of the skit, problems solved with the help of P.E. Pills.
Along with the old script, I found a photograph of my mother. She’s the one arching backward to show the other PTA members how to play their parts. The photo was taken on the stage at Sierra 2, the same stage where I performed in 1950s era Christmas Pageants – that’s what we called them in those days – not Winter Programs. Some 30 years later, my own daughter danced in a ballet recital on that same stage.
I really love the Sierra 2 theater space, and I’m happy it’s being preserved. When I walk through Sierra 2 hallways to a yoga class in what used to be my fourth-grade classroom or to a performance in the old kindergarten room where our beloved Miss Joann presided, I’m filled with wistfulness. It’s been 65 years, but Miss Joann still sends birthday cards to my sister and me.
I’ve adapted my mother’s memoir into a play. A lot of what happens in that play took place right here in Curtis Park and at Sierra 2.
It premieres March 20 on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollack Stage. Whether you are new to the neighborhood, or were one of the thousands of children who attended Sierra Elementary over the years, I invite you to join me in one mother’s stroll down memory lane.
By Ginger Rutland