By Glen Herbert
This spring has brought some notable firsts, or at least firsts in their way. In April there was the Hekkla and the first in-person Spring Arts Festival in two years, which was also the first time that the entire school gathered together in a single room since 2020. Also in April there was the first annual Heart and Mind Day, a new initiative to address wellness and mental health. On May 6, a number of students headed to the Bahamas, the first international trip since, well, you know.
The month ahead will bring even more. A reunion and a Pow Wow; a Grade 8 graduation dinner, a Grade 12 Graduation, and a Closing Ceremony. In late August, there will be an RLC community work weekend. All these things have been done before, of course, and some of them fairly recently—the Pow Wow was held during the pandemic—though it’s been two years since we were able to be together, causally, without masks or bubbles, marking these moments in the school’s life, these moments in our lives.
That’s big. There aren't many upsides to a pandemic, or any at all, though it did underscore how important connection is. Uninterrupted, we don’t tend to dwell on what it means to be with others, what it means to us to have shared experiences. In the usual ebb and flow, whatever it is, if we miss this one, well, there's always next week or next year. Then, for the first time in our memory, there wasn’t.
I was speaking recently with Martin Birthelmer '87, and he recalled when then Head of School Dave Hodgetts was retiring. It was unexpected, mid-year, and Martin was chosen to give the goodbye speech on behalf of the students. “I remember people smiling up at me,” he says, “and I gave this big speech about Dave. I talked about what an impact he had on all of our lives, and how much we were going to miss him.” (He also remembers the podium he stood in front of as he spoke. “It’s still the same podium! That one in the dining hall. That’s that one that I stood up in front of. There’s a lot of history in that thing.”)
The most abiding memory, though, was before the dinner that night. Hodgetts had invited Martin over to the headmaster's residence. “We just sat and talked about Rosseau. He asked me about my path, the dreams I had. What Rosseau had done for me." Martin went on to become a teacher, something he credits to the kinds of bonds he was able to form with his mentors at RLC. Hodgetts was one. Another was Bill Cole, even if they didn't at first see eye-to-eye. “He was a tremendous individual who had such an impact in my life. I still remember that the final exam for his English creative writing class was 'A door opens, a door closes, you have three hours, write about it.' And I just wrote about my total experience at Rosseau, and what I was hoping for as I headed off to Western University in the fall.”
Martin ultimately became vice principal at Hillfield Strathallan College, where he is now. “The reason I became an educator is because of my educators. They just really made me believe in the relationship. And I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of a school.” (Martin last saw Hodgetts was at the 50th reunion in 2017. “He looked great. He doesn’t age.”)
Without exception, when talking to alumni of the school, the stories are just like that: they are about people, and about the strength of the connections they share. “That’s the thing about Rosseau Lake College,” Martin says, immediately jogging another memory. “There’s a guy, Gabe Schmirler. He's a chef. He ran a yoga studio in Costa Rica. Very interesting guy. He’s got, like, a knife company that he does, too. … He was at the last work weekend that we could have, the one before COVID, and I hadn’t seen Gabe in, what, 25 years at least. We found ourselves side-by-side scraping paint off the back shed, and I swear to God, we picked up the conversation like it was yesterday. Like I’d just seen him the day before. That’s what the school is about." After a pause, he adds, a bit lost in the thought, “I love this school.”
There's a lot of that going around these days: the first time after a long time. There are, after two years, some real opportunities for people to be together—sharing memories, building new experiences, marking important memories—just like we used to do. In some senses, we never really left. But even so, it's good to be back.