Signs of Life Artwork

It stands like a monument at the corner of Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach. According to the signs, and to the more recent arrivals in these parts, it’s the Hermosa Beach Community Center.

But to me and thousands of other old-timers, it will always be Pier Avenue Junior High School.

A school was first built on the site in 1904. After the original building was damaged by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, a new structure was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), President Franklin Roosevelt’s program to pull the country out of the Great Depression by employing millions of people to build thousands of infrastructure projects.

In 1974, I had the distinction of being in the last seventh grade class to attend Pier Avenue. The school closed that year for a variety of reasons, including declining enrollment, some costly needed refurbishments and a small problem with rats.

I returned to the elementary school I had attended, Valley Vista, which was turned into what is now Hermosa Valley School. When I graduated from Hermosa Valley in 1975 it was just a middle school, although it has since been expanded to include grades third through eighth.

So, if you are keeping score, my final Hermosa school tally includes membership in the last sixth-grade class at Valley Vista Elementary, the last seventh-grade class at Pier Avenue Junior High and the first eighth-grade class to graduate from Hermosa Valley.

At the graduation ceremony, I gave a speech in which I imagined a friendly rat waking up at Pier Avenue School, wondering where all the kids went. He searches high and low until he finally finds them, and a new home for himself, at Valley School. The speech was well received enough that it was posted for years in the school office, most likely the only time a public school ever celebrated the notion that it might have a rat living on campus.

I am reflecting on my junior high school years because last Saturday I attended the first-ever (as far as I know) all-year Pier Avenue reunion. Held at the old school site, in what used to be the boys and girls locker rooms and is now the Hermosa Beach Historical Society headquarters, the get-together didn’t attract a large crowd – it was only promoted on Facebook – but what we alumni lacked in numbers we made up for in affection for our old campus.

The place hasn’t changed all that much. Its function is different – besides the Historical Society, tenants include the city’s Parks and Recreation department, a senior services center and an Easter Seals program for developmentally disabled adults – but the building is much the same, albeit a little more spruced up.

My twin brother and his wife went to the reunion with me. We didn’t know as many people as I would have liked because – as members of the last seventh-grade class – we are among the youngest of Pier alumni. I would have liked to see more of my classmates, but at 51, it’s sometimes nice to be one of the youngest people in the room.

The highlight of the afternoon was the presence of the oldest people in the room. A gaggle of former teachers attended, including two Pier (and Valley) legends: P.E. Coach Avery Bryant and Dee Strange, who taught science and just about everything else.

Coach Bryant is 89 now. As soon as he saw my brother and me, he said, “Take two laps.” He looked the same. He was still fit, with a chiseled face that advertised the years he had spent in the U.S. Navy before becoming a teacher.

The funny thing is, when I had him for seventh-grade P.E., I thought he was ancient. Now that I do the math, he was the same age as I am now, 51.

I didn’t have the courage to ask Mrs. Strange how old she is, but when I asked her how long she taught, she said with a laugh, “A lot longer than they wanted me to.” She claimed to not only remember Mark and me, but also said she could tell us apart back then and now. Of course, the name tags probably helped her on Saturday.

After I graduated from Valley, Mrs. Strange became even more famous for a unit she taught about the space shuttle. In retirement, she told me, she had the thrill of seeing the Endeavour up close and personal when it was strapped to a jet and flown over Southern California on the way to its final home at the California Science Center.

“It flew right over my house!” she exclaimed with the kind of glee that enraptured generations of students.

While I didn’t get to see many of my classmates in person, I did thumb through our yearbooks. I lost my copies long ago, so it was great to see the faces of my childhood. Memory is a funny thing. If you asked me to name 15 kids I went to junior high with, I might have a tough time. But when I saw their faces in the yearbooks, I was stunned at how many I knew and remembered vividly. I could recall details about almost every kid in my grade.

Those kids are more familiar to me than adults I’ve known for years. A young mind soaks up indelible impressions in a way that an older brain can’t.

I had the same feeling walking around that campus. I was right back in seventh grade, worried about keeping my grades up and finding a girlfriend, not necessarily in that order.

I was also reminded how absurd it is that Pier Avenue is no longer a school. The district sold the property to the city for a song a long time ago. It also closed and sold off other school sites, which looks like a big mistake now that the district’s two remaining open schools are busting at the seams.

There has to be a way that Pier Avenue can be part of the solution. There was some talk of it needing to be retrofitted to protect against earthquakes, but that sounds like poppycock. The place is made of poured concrete. During the Cold War, it was designated as the best shelter during any attack. Pier Avenue will be standing long after other newer buildings are dust.

At the reunion, we all sang the Pier Avenue song, which ends, “With might and main sing this refrain, Pier Avenue is the only one for me, rah, rah, rah!”

Might and main. I can’t think of two better words to describe the monument – built by the best government program that ever existed – that still stands at the corner of Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway.

For photos of the Pier Avenue Junior High School reunion, see page 12.

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