In Loving Memory of My First Grade Seat-Mate

This was actually written a year ago on the now defunct Anti-Social Networking site. Everything still holds true, and it’s something I want to share with you all. I’d like to think that Joey would be pleased that he’s reaching a larger audience through the internet.

For those of you who live in LA, you might have come across the story of the Santa Monica High teacher who drowned in a freak accident in Panama. Much to my surprise, that teacher turned out to be the boy who used to sit next to me in first grade.

The moment I heard the sad news, all I could think of was the two of us sitting next to each other in Mrs. Tomlin’s first grade class at El Rincon Elementary.

Somehow I had the misfortune of getting a seat assignment next to a boy. At the age of 6 nothing could be more unbearable for a little girl. All the other kids were sitting next to someone of the same sex; it wasn’t fair for me to have to sit next to a boy.

His name was Joey Lutz and was a bit goofy looking: big eyes that looked like he was half-asleep most of the time and big honking glasses. I tried to make sure that I kept to my half of the desk as much as possible. I mean, gawd, I was sitting next to an icky boy. A boy who would try and infect me with cooties when he had the chance. And we attempted to infect each other with cooties at every available opportunity. It got to a point where I had to resort to threats of kissing, which we all know is the ultimate form of cooties.

Even back then he had the traits of a nerd. On top of the glasses, he took Hebrew school and actively participated in Jewish events. (I most likely learned more about Hanukkah and Passover from him than what my Jewish neighbor told me.) His clothes always looked like they were a bit too big and he kept to himself most of the time. At lunch he would take out a huge PB&J sandwich from a lunch bag (his mom never cut his in half for some reason) and tear into it. By the time he was done, his shirt front would be a mass of crumbs.

Somewhere down the line we started to get along. His mom and my mom were active parental volunteers and became friends. It was through my mom that I discovered Joey was also an only child, something that was totally unheard of for me. He was the first kid I’ve ever met who also had a birthday in August and of whom I was ten days older. When his little brother and sister (twins) arrived towards the end of the school year we were both in shock: him at having sibblings and me trying to get readjusted to being the only only-child in my class.

We drifted slightly during the rest of elementary school, as we had different teachers. We reconnected on the bus back from a GATE field trip in middle school: once again getting stuck next to each other on the seat. In the span of an hour or two we managed to catch up to the current points in our lives.

High school prompted Joey to change and be a bit more outgoing. Suddenly he was involved in the school plays and was making himself known. Physically he was still the same nerdy Jewish boy I knew but socially he was expanding – with the other loud geeks in our grade. He was amongst a small group of us who knew Monty Python backwards and sometimes we’d yell out random references in AP class or in the halls. Sometimes we’d make up silly limericks or songs on GATE trips: everything from outer space to farts. And with him expanding, it lead to one of the greatest campaigns for ASB president that Culver High ever saw.

One quirk I remember during senior year was him coming up to people and singing, “Cinnamon…” from the Cinnamon Toast Crunch jingle (he was trying to get others to finish the song). I’d completely forgotten about it and responded with “Buns?”

College had us drift apart again but with the phenomeon that is Facebook we got back in touch. He found me and added me as a friend. It was great! Out of the elementary school people that had been adding me, he was one of the few I’d actually wondered about.

He still looked the same. A bit more toned, but still the same Joey. Still making silly poses. Still wearing his glasses. Still doing things with improv. And he was still geeky.

It was when I got back from my trip to SF, a friend from high school sent me an email: Joey had drowned while on vacation. A wave and a rip tide was the suspected cause. The memorial service brought together a huge crowd of people and was three and a half hours long.

Even though he was cut down way too early in life, I was extremely glad to know that he hadn’t changed much in the past six years. The people that shared their memories of him all had the same thing to say. And it was still the same Joey.

It’s been 12 long years. 12 years since I first sat next to you on the first day of first grade. I believe I can honestly say that you were my first and most long lived friend in Culver City. Or even in life. After first grade our contact lessened though, with the exception of random field trips, every year there was the same contact, as if we were never meant to truly drift apart. From Morty’s class in 10th grade to Gilbert-Rolfe’s class in twelfth grade, we were always making cameos in each others lives and renewing old acquaintances. Even our mothers were friends! I’ve always enjoyed talking to you. You have a certain subtle, understated charm that always amazes me. Whatever you end up doing, I’m sure it’ll end up amazing. Up ’til now life has dictated that we remain in contact, I believe we still will. The best of luck to you. Much love, your 1st grade buddy,
Joey Lutz

That’s the entry he put into my senior yearbook. Although I’m sure he got carried on the same wave of sentimentality we were all on, I do believe he was being sincere. And it’s from a fellow geek that you get a truly memorable autograph, as opposed to the usual “Stay sweet! K.I.T!!”

Happy 27th, buddy. I’m sure in the afterlife we’ll be sitting next to each other again, catching up. You are the geek I will aspire to be for the rest of my days here and I am pleased and privilaged to have known you and call you a friend.

  1. Thats… There are no words. He sounds like a one of a kind guy. He’ll be missed but never forgotten with people like you around to remember him.

    • theletterkae
    • August 31st, 2009 1:36pm

    That’s why I wanted to repost this on the internet. Joey deserves to exist, even if he isn’t physically here.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    • Madison
    • June 17th, 2012 8:48am

    I was one of his students and actually got up to share a story about how he was always trying to make people feel happy and comfortable, never giving up and always believing that everyone could be the best they could be and happy. I wore white because I couldn’t mourn his death anymore and had moved on to celebrating his life. I was thinking about him today and wondering if he’d be proud of me. I came across this and it was so beautiful. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I don’t think anyone else will truly know how amazing it is that you each were able to call each other friends. Which is the saddest thing of all.I know this was posted years ago so I hope you’re doing well.

  1. March 8th, 2010