Remembering Annemarie Roeper

The debate in student government was loud and intense. Questions were posed that included the practical ("So, how exactly would this work?") the philosophical ("Is this really all that important?") and the extreme ("I know this one kid who choked once..."). The student government adviser clearly saw that the discussion would not yield an answer that day, so she quietly said "Let's move on," and we did.

I was in third grade; the subject was whether students should be allowed to chew gum in class, and the student council adviser was Annemarie Roeper.

If her name doesn't ring a bell, it will. Annemarie Bondy Roeper escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany with her husband George before the onset of World War II. She and George opened an early childhood program in Detroit in 1941, and later moved the school to the Detroit suburbs, where it became Roeper City and Country School.

Roeper School has always asked the questions most educators don't think to ask -- and once others think of them, they would really rather not have them answered. Vowing to create a generation of thinkers that would never allow anything like the Nazi regime to rise again, the Roepers created a school where power was shared, not hoarded. Relationships between student and teacher were based on a mutual interest in understanding more about the world. Teaching leaned heavily on inquiry, where the teacher asked the guiding questions, then stood back to see where the students would go with them.

By 1956, George and Annemarie saw that this open, curiosity-based approach to learning resonated strongly with gifted students. Unlike many schools where "gifted" only includes children who come walking out of the womb humming all three parts of Bach's inventions at the same time, Annemarie led the school to consider gifted in a broader context, including some radical ideas:

• Students may be exceptionally bright in one area, but average or even delayed in their growth in other areas (this is known today as asynchronous learning -- back then, it was, well, weird.)

• Gifted students view the world differently, with a keener sense of justice, a deeper commitment to their core values, and a curiosity of learning that is astounding.

• Children have an innate sense of right that can (and should) shape the world -- not the other way around.

These radical ideas led to radical actions. According to the school's archives, Roeper was one of the first independent schools in Metro Detroit to integrate. Because students are individuals, Roeper has never ranked its students, and doesn't keep track of average SAT scores -- because students are not numbers, averages, or their grades. The colleges Roeper students attend (yes, Ivies included) seem to like this approach; college choice is based on how the college meets a student's needs, not on the college's name -- gifted kids are just too smart to fall for that one.

Annemarie retired as Headmistress in 1980, a year after George retired. She continued to write, consult, advise other schools on how to do things "the Roeper way," and advocate for social justice. George passed on in 1992; Annemarie died last Friday, May 11, at the age of 93.

The kids at Roeper get to chew gum now, so that student government debate must have had an effect. Still, considering how many students are now taught in classrooms around the world where teachers let the students lead, encourage divergent thought, and understand why a 9-year-old can do calculus and not spell worth a lick, it's clear Annemarie Roeper's effect was a little bigger than that.

Lucky us.