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Why I Work at Roeper School

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From the way they walk into the room, you would be convinced that stress was the last thing on their minds. They have but 45 minutes to answer 20 multiple-choice questions and write a 250-word essay on a newspaper article they haven't read yet. This much work in this little time has literally led college students to drop a class rather than face the task at hand, and top high school students often respond to this challenge with nausea, fainting spells, or visions of their acceptance to Harvard being crushed by the simple weight of a Scantron.

But these are Roeper students, so the exam is not a time to panic -- it is a time to revel.

To be sure, the tone in the room is more subdued than usual -- just yesterday, the class could barely be contained as it debated the likelihood that Michelle Obama is the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy. But the relative quiet only means they are in pre-game; they review one last fact, make sure their Number 2 pencil has an adequate eraser, recall the one thing they studied last night they were certain they would forget -- and then off they go.

The multiple choice exam is dispatched with ease, as many students benignly ignore the heading DO NOT WRITE ON THIS EXAM and pencil-slash through wrong answers like a sickle through dry autumn wheat. I implore them to transfer their answers to the Scantron, since a good answer left on the exam they weren't supposed to write on is money left on a table in this academic Las Vegas. They respond by drilling perfect dots on the test form that nearly puncture the paper, even though their pencils make nary a sound while the ovals are darkened.

That is hardly the case when the students address the essay question. They are writing in pencil on single sheets of paper, working on pressboard desks that contain no water or warp, so the formation of every letter sounds like 17 masons with micro sledgehammers, whose sole purpose is to beat the wall in front of them to death. The cacophony builds to a frenetic level, as one student comes in late; she surrendered her lunch period to complete a math test she had missed the day before, and quietly digs in to catch up with her peers.

The crafting of essays continues, with each author almost oblivious to the other 16 -- but only almost. One student holds his palm up in the air with his elbow on the table and gently rubs two fingers together. Without looking up, the student next to him rotates her pencil into his hand; his eraser is gone, and he needs to correct something. She reviews what she has written while he sandblasts the wrong idea away; once her pencil is again her own, she spot-edits the errors she caught waiting for him to finish. No better dancing has ever occurred at any prom, yet they are not dating; they are classmates who support one another's academic efforts with integrity.

The papers trickle in, most of them now on loose leaf that has been curled due to the force of the scribing that has gone on for the last 20 minutes. The girl who came in late finished her essay early; it weighs in at about 450 words, and it is immaculate.

The other papers are just as strong, some humorous, some conversational, some that sound more like the instructor who gave the lectures than the student who sought their meaning. All are rich with growth and reflection on the sometimes conflicting roles of law and society, and the challenges citizens often face in honoring the spirit of the law even if they violate its letter. You know; typical kid stuff.

I gather the bowed parchments together and dash downstairs to my office, where I will revel in the privilege of looking at the world through the eyes of 17 exceptional 17-year-olds who are on the cusp of embracing the world they know so much about and daring it to change. On the stairwell, I imagine their efforts would stir pride in the founders of our school, the Founding Fathers, and even John F. Kennedy.

Wherever he may be.