[Last night, I had my high school reunion, which was called appropriately “Dorkstock 2010.” For many of us, it had been over twenty-five years since we’d seen each other, a hideous oversight as far as I'm concerned. Our school, Roeper, was not an ordinary school. If you didn't go there, it would take pages to describe it to you, and you wouldn’t get it anyway. Sorry, but it’s true. I wrote this essay about my school a while ago, but I thought that as we’ve still got the salty-sweet flavor of the reunion in our mouths this would be a good time to dig it out and show it to you. It’s called “My Roeper.”]
A few times in the last year or so, I have said to my fellow Roeper friends, “You know, I really feel like Roeper kind of saved my life. At least twice,” totally expecting them to humor me with a modest smile while slowly backing away and while making the twirling finger koo-koo crazy sign. But to my amazement, several times, people responded utterly sincerely with, “Yeah. Mine too.”
So here is the story of how Roeper kind of saved my life.
By all accounts, seventh grade should have been the worst year of my life.
All through my elementary years, my life had been a smooth, ripple-free pond. A carefree existence full of comforting upper-middle class sameness. But when I was eleven, my home life transformed to a roiling sea. My parents were embroiled in a custody battle that made “Kramer vs. Kramer” look like “Leave It to flippin' Beaver.” My extra-curricular activities involved shrinks, lawyers, judges, a whole cast of nefarious characters who were hell-bent on preventing my mother’s move from Michigan to California with us in tow - or expediting it, depending on which side of the courtroom you sat on.
Just as the sea was whipping up a good froth, elementary school ended, and it was decided that I was not going on to public junior high with the rest of my classmates. Instead, my mother wheedled my way into a private school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with the inaccurately haughty name Roeper City and Country School. Created by George and Annemarie Roeper, this school was designed to meet the needs of “gifted” students. (Though my mother assured me that I was by no means gifted, but merely “above average.”) Roeper School met in a big, cozy home that smelled just the way the best kind of school should smell, like meals lovingly made from scratch, well-read good books, and the woody perfume of devoted educators. I had heard that at Roeper, teachers were called by their first names, there were couches in the classroom, no grades were given, and some Wednesdays were “Action Day,” when we would go on experiential field trips to exotic places such as the steel-making plant at Ford Motor Company or the water treatment facility.
Starting a new school, and one so completely unfamiliar and groovy as Roeper, should have been fairly traumatic for a petite, shy girl who had been raised to believe firmly that she was indeed a princess, or at the very least of royal stock. I must have been terrified on that first day, knowing only one person, a girl from Hebrew school named Michelle. In my memory, however, I was immediately engulfed in acceptance and affection the likes of which I had never before known from peers. In fact, to this day I believe the rarity of the love present at Roeper School may be an educational unicorn, something spoken of, but not truly believed unless you have seen it yourself.
When I think back on seventh grade, instead of writhing in the post-traumatic stress disorder that should have been my fair right, I feel great calm, inner peace, and joy. I can’t help but to smile.
I literally blossomed under the tender, loving care of Roeper School. I shed my shyness at the door. In this safe nest, I could be found laughing in a completely obnoxious but nonetheless full-bodied manner as I clip-clopped around in my Candy clogs and size one Sassoon jeans as my good buddy and I sang from the “Grease” soundtrack. At the top of our lungs. Repeatedly.
In seventh grade I officially was introduced to theater in the form of an acting class taught by a senior in the high school. My first role in a real play was the bit part of Margot in “Diary of Anne Frank.” (Though our teenage director cut most of my lines.) Fatefully, I also had my first experience with improv that year. I remember that all we wanted to do was try on big kid clothes by improvising episode after episode of the “The Newlywed Game.” To this day, tight jeans, loud singing, theater and improv remain some of the truest joys in my life. (The Candy clogs, not so much.)
Though there are no winners in a custody battle, my mother was awarded the right to move to California with my brother and me. The brutal reality of all that was dear about Roeper became clear as I spent the next several years moving from school to school in town to town, sometimes state to state and country to country. In the navy brat school in Coronado, California my attributes were, let’s just say, not appreciated. Then there was the inner city school where I got a front-row look into gang violence, teen pregnancy and rampant drug use. Next up, the boarding school in the hills of Palm Springs, where I learned how to ballet dance as well as the fine art of getting into trouble. The following year, I lived the totally independent life of a foreign exchange student, the only American in a French school where I learned how to speak French and appreciate a crusty baguette. Among, ahem, other things French people feel they excel at.
During my travels, I had kept in touch with my friends at Roeper. While I had been battered by the social turbulence of many cultures, my visits back to Roeper helped to maintain a belief that, even if the kids in whatever school I happened to be in didn’t like me, there was at least one place in the world where I fit in, where I always felt loved and treasured. (Go back and re-read that last sentence again. Just for me. Because I wouldn't be who I am today without that gift.)
At the end of my year in France, I returned to my port in a storm, already feeling world-weary at the ripe old age of sixteen. I again immediately was enveloped in the warm safety of the school where I felt cherished and valued. And I fell in deep love once and for all with performing during our run of “Godspell” where I played the role of the stripper with, what I recall to be, a certain bombastic fervency.
These days, when an old friend and I talk about Roeper, sometimes we call it “f’n Roeper,” our shorthand way of referring to this place and the people, who inexorably are interwoven into our hearts whether we like it or not. Because they are the folks that wove their ways into our inner hearts before we needed to build protective barriers, and then they went ahead and set up permanent shop there. So now it’s two or three decades later, and if someone comes up to me and flashes their Roeper card, it’s like “Oh, you went to Roeper? Go right in.” Straight to the inner sanctum of my heart.
By all accounts, seventh grade should have been the worst year of my life. But it was one of the best, thanks to Roeper. My true north. My Roeper. Our Roeper.