Lakeland reliving memories of another time


Staff writer

As Lakeland Elementary School prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, former students remember a time when children bowed their heads in prayer before lunch and crouching beneath a small, wooden desk was protection from a nuclear bomb.

The first elementary school in the Federal Way district, Lakeland will host a community celebration in honor of its 50th anniversary this Friday at 7 p.m. Lt. Governor Brad Owen will be the master of ceremonies, and current and former teachers and students will share their memories of the school.

Opened in 1952, Lakeland was the first school in Federal Way to house only students in grades one through six. Since 1929, all of the students from kindergarten through grade 12 had attended Federal Way School -- now Federal Way High School -- together.

In its earliest years, Lakeland was a mess. The playground was a mud field. The auditorium stage housed the school library. Desks were in short supply, and books were even scarcer.

“There was furniture in one room. That was my room,” said Jean Durspek, who moved from Federal Way School to teach at Lakeland in 1952. “Others had some tables, but no chairs. I think some had no tables. I don’t know what they did in there, but classes went on.”

Janine Roberts, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts, entered Lakeland as a first-grader only one year after its opening. In her six years at the school, Roberts’ education spanned more than books and classrooms. From a love of violins inspired by her third-grade music teacher to a lifelong appreciation for books, Roberts says she “learned more by osmosis” than she did from any of the daily lessons.

“I took in how women could be in careers from all my women teachers, especially Mrs. Richey,” Roberts said. “Perhaps most of all, I learned about the power of the unspoken.”

Lakeland’s world in 1954 was one of uncertainty. With fears of nuclear attacks looming, Roberts and her classmates were taught to crouch under their desks -- with knees up, heads down and hands clasped behind their necks, as they had been taught was the safest position during a nuclear attack -- as the air raid alarms sounded.

“I sat there year after year, fully aware that I was not in any kind of bomb shelter like the kind I had seen in Life magazine, all cement-walled and no windows,” said Roberts. “I pressed my knees against my eyeballs so I could see more vividly in my mind the huge red, orange and black mushroom cloud rising over Seattle.”

Karen Justice, who graduated from Lakeland in 1962, also remembers the fears inspired by the school’s disaster drills.

“In the early ’60’s, I remember the disaster drills where we would go out into the hallways and crouch down on hands and knees next to the walls and cover our heads,” said Justice. “I recall my parents discussing bomb shelters -- some people dug them in their backyards -- and kids were encouraged to wear identification tags or bracelets that gave medical information. It was terrifying.”

When Lakeland opened in 1952, there was no such thing as separation of church and state. Each day, one child stood at the front of the room and led the rest of the class in a prayer before lunch.

“At home, as probably the only Unitarian family in the school, we did not say grace. Jokingly, my father would say, ‘Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.’ I could imagine Mrs. Englehard’s kind but wrinkled face looking even more jowly as her mouth opened and stayed open in shock that I had said such a thing,” said Roberts.

A visit to the principal’s office meant fears of a wooden paddle, square dancing was a favorite afternoon activity, and girls were not allowed to wear pants.

“It was skirts and dresses each and every day, which sure made it difficult to play on the monkey bars,” said Justice. “During the snow, we could put pants on under our skirts, but we had to take them off once we got to school.”

Not everything has changed, however, says Andy Bylin, who attended Lakeland from 1968 to 1975.

“I remember getting beat up by another student just outside the covered play area in about the second or third grade, playing football and soccer at recess and being chased by the girls,” said Bylin. “Funny, now I ask my daughters what they do at recess and things don’t change much. Jessica chases the boys and Shannon hangs out with her friends.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and

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