De Colores: Memories of Zilker Elementary School

I learned today that Zilker Elementary School and the nearby Barton Hills Elementary are at risk of being closed -- but not because of reasons you might think.  Both Zilker and Barton Hills are considered to be exemplary, high-performing elementary schools.  However, AISD is looking to cut costs and, as a result, they are looking to consolidate schools that might be underutilized with smaller, older schools that cost more to run.  The answer for what to do with Barton Hills and Zilker is sobering: Close Barton Hills and Zilker and move students to Becker and Dawson Elementary Schools.

It wasn't quite The Wonder Years but I had an idyllic childhood, one that involved hundreds of cumulative hours running through a little yellow sprinkler in our backyard and long walks on summer evenings that wound through our Zilker neighborhood to exotic destinations like the "Rose Garden House," where we'd, quite literally, stop and smell the hundreds of roses that an old, stooped man tended to every day, or "The Car Slide," the windy bit of Kinney Avenue that leads down to Barton Springs Road where Flipnotics now resides. 

But the crown jewel of my childhood -- easily, always -- was Zilker Elementary School, a squat little brick building that sat perched on what seemed to be a daunting hill of perpetually dewey grass.  My introduction to Zilker was liberating.  It was a step toward adulthood:  Mrs. Matthew's Kindergarten class, staring at her Christmas sweaters and Keds, taking naps on little mats, playing "House," drinking chocolate milk out of sweaty cartons at lunch.

I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Callahan, who taught us about Desert Storm and the Presidential election that was going on at the time.  She got pregnant and left near the end of the school year, which was fine by me as I had never forgiven her for a comment she wrote on my double-ruled handwriting paper one day.  We were supposed to draw and decorate a picture of a snowflake and then write a few sentences about winter underneath it.  I drew a haphazard snowflake, dusted some glitter on it and then got to work, writing several pages about a winter wonderland that existed only in my mind.  "Rachel: A picture's worth a thousand words," she wrote at the top of the page, next to a big bubbly smile.  I decided she had no idea what she was talking about.  Mrs. Oltjen took over and I admired her gritty, no-snowflakes approach.

It wasn't until second grade that I really remember becoming aware of my classmates, or, more specifically, the diversity of my classmates.  Many of my peers lived in subsidized housing, had family members in jail, or simply were neglected at home.  Many of them spoke only a little bit of English.  My second grade class was taught by Ms. Olga Milk, a fiesty Ecuadorian who explained that the equator was at the center of the planet, which was where her home in Ecuador was located.  I believed that this woman who came from the middle of the earth must be pretty special.  She had a thick accent that made it sound like she said my name when she was actually calling on Richard, one of my classmates.  The class was bilingual, so I was exposed, daily, to several of my peers speaking in Spanish around me.  I remember wearing a puebla dress and dancing on Cinco de Mayo with my childhood friend Noah to my favorite of all the songs we sang, De Colores:

Y por eso los grandes amores
De muchos colores me gustan a mí.

And that is why I love
The great loves of many colors.

In the photo above, there's eight year-old me (I'll give you one hint: I have a horse jumping on my sweatshirt and I'm rocking a sweet pair of leggings) and there's a boy named Louis.  You can see him standing at the top row in a red shirt, third from the left.  Louis and I were in the same class from the time we were five until we were eleven years old.  One time, probably not long after this photo was taken, I walked up behind him at the pencil sharpener and discovered he was crying.  I asked, "Louis, are you okay?" and he gave me a look that said no, but he didn't answer.  I never knew why he was crying, but I do remember, specifically, that this year -- third grade -- was the last year he was ever really a kid.  He turned tough and mean.  He turned to gangs.  He was kicked out of fifth grade for a while.  But he was always Louis, and he was always nice to me.

Zilker, it could be said, is where I learned the great loves of many colors.  It was, and still is, a vibrant school that drew a stark contrast to the whitewashed halls of Westlake I was exposed to when we moved across the park in 1994.  For many years, I fantasized about reuniting with my Zilker classmates, until 2005, when I organized a 9 year elementary school reunion for the Zilker Elementary Class of 1996 (the slogan was "Why wait another year?").  To my surprise, about fifteen past students showed up and several of our teachers even made the trek, including my third grade teacher Mr. David Suehs, who brought his accordion and led us in a round of "Froggy Went a Courtin'."  Then we drank lemonade (spiked with vodka) and played foursquare until the sun went down.  I hoped he would, but Louis never showed.

I hope they don't close Zilker.  There are a lot of rounds of De Colores left to be sung there.  I may have learned how to write an AP essay at Westlake, but I learned so much more about how to live in a world de colores at Zilker.

Sign the petition to keep Zilker Elementary School open here.


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