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The “Outsiders” of Santa Monica: Some Lessons Learned

By Jeffrey BELL-Zekas, Class of 1972

Gazing out my window at the leaves falling like downy feathers, it’s hard to believe that I grew up in the “bay area”. The pine-covered hills and the howls of coyotes near my house, are a marked contrast to the traffic of Pico Boulevard and noisy crowds of Santa Monica pier. Samohi and the close friends I had there are now a mist-shrouded fantasy, like some California “Brigadoon”.

I grew up estranged from sunny Santa Monica’s world of wealth and privilege. By nature shy and reticent, my schooling at Samohi was also colored by my family’s status as “outsiders”. In contrast my dad, George Bell, arriving from rainy Harvard, was the popular son of a beloved small-town minister. He was athletic, smart, and used to success. Moving to Santa Monica (and having us in Samohi) was part of his plan.

My dad married my mom, and 13 years later they bought our house in Santa Monica. Yet despite moving to an upscale neighborhood north of Montana Avenue, we were treated as outcasts among our Santa Monica peers. The “Santa Monica Sacred Trinity”---money, power and connections---was a trap. Unlike the town’s “established” families, such as the Laters (Terri ‘71, Angela ‘74, Janet ‘76) and the Spurgins (Bob ‘72), we had to constantly prove ourselves. We were “newcomers”, having moved to the house on 25th and Georgina in the middle of 1963. And being from the east coast (mom was from Beverly, Mass.) further branded us as “foreigners”.

Having been snubbed by the Santa Monica elite, my father and mother made friends with other newcomers. Mom forged friendships with Marian Chamberlin (a “25th Street Ohio Farm Girl”) and Kathy Aliberti (our aristocratic neighbor on Georgina). Both had kids that were close in age to us: Roy Chamberlin was my best friend in 3rd grade and later left Samohi for Olympic High; Elaine Aliberti (‘75) was my sister’s best friend from 2nd grade through Samohi).

Dad sought refuge with eccentrics such as Mattel toy inventor Jim Ryan. Dad’s path to success was to compete tirelessly, so my brothers and I were trained to compete for grades and friends, both at Samohi and at Lincoln Junior High. At Samohi, I dreamed how “easy” our lives would have been, if we had been born and raised as Santa Monica “locals” (instead of being branded as “aliens”). Being “accepted” and popular were important to an 16 year old misfit in 1970.

Many years later, I looked in the mirror and I saw Dad’s face. But although I shared some of his traits, I was not my father. I had his ironic sense of humor and orderly nature. But unlike my father, Samohi taught me to accept my “outsider-status”.

Nowadays, popularity is less important than co-operation and trust. Being accepted by the locals is less important than being accepting of myself. And the lessons I’ve learned weren’t only taught at Samohi. My children have taught me that a man’s true wealth comes from having the free time to dream and play. My wife has shown me that true power is the power to change oneself spiritually. These last two decades have taught me that loving others, and having friends, is the only “success” worth having.