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Getting the Point

Rock Point School's outgoing headmaster reflects on 40 years of outside-the-box learning


Published August 17, 2011 at 7:20 a.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • John Rouleau

There’s an oft-told story about John Rouleau, the recently retired headmaster of Burlington’s Rock Point School. One day, a student walked into his office with an odd request: She needed a toilet seat for an art project. Rather than passing off that chore to someone lower on the faculty totem pole, Rouleau rummaged through his closet and actually found the girl an old toilet seat.

The story doesn’t encapsulate Rouleau’s 40-year career at Rock Point School, a place where teenagers who’ve gotten “off track” in life, or have trouble fitting in at other schools, can find another avenue to success. But those who’ve known Rouleau for years say the incident is indicative of his resourcefulness.

Need a fountain pen? Rouleau will give you three of his own. Thinking of studying Dutch? He probably has two or three books on the subject. Want to learn the banjo? The headmaster can teach you to fingerpick, then accompany you on upright bass.

“John is this extremely generous, knowledgeable guy who encourages you to go to him with your interests,” says development director Charlotte Blend, who’s been at Rock Point for seven years. “He’s a constant learner, and he encourages his kids and staff members to be constantly learning, too.”

In June, Blend organized a farewell party for Rouleau at Rock Point’s 150-acre campus, which juts into Lake Champlain just past North Beach. Dubbed “John-A-Palooza,” the fête drew more than 150 guests, including current and former faculty, staff, board members, donors and students, some of whom traveled from as far away as California. A carload of students drove up from New Jersey the night before, picking up passengers along the way.

When the guest of honor arrived, his hosts sat him in a rocking chair, dressed him in a top hat and plastic jewelry and swapped stories about him. Obviously, there was much to say, as Rouleau has worn many hats over the years: music instructor, dorm parent, science teacher, maple-syrup maker, headmaster. Again and again, one phrase kept cropping up to describe him: lifelong learner.

What compelled so many people to travel so far to share stories about toilet seats and fountain pens?

“That’s a clear indication of the serious effect this man has had in the lives of many, many kids over 40 years,” Blend says. “Sometimes it takes them a long time to realize it, but they can look back and say, ‘Wow! That was a fantastic school, and this guy had this positive effect.’”

Yet Rouleau’s path to becoming headmaster seemed anything but preordained. A self-described “resistant learner,” he had no formal education or training in teaching or adolescent psychology. He graduated from the University of Vermont — after 10 years — but still expresses skepticism about whether colleges and universities instill a love of learning in their students. And, though Rouleau stepped into the role of disciplinarian long before becoming headmaster, he confesses to a deep suspicion of authority figures.

To wit: Rouleau tells of one student who arrived at Rock Point against her will.

“I think she didn’t smile until Thanksgiving,” Rouleau remembers. “Her parents said at one point that her first complete sentence was ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ Right away I recognized that’s how I feel about most authority.”

Rouleau agrees to an interview outside Bishop Hopkins Hall, a large stone structure on a private road just past Burlington High School. Since the school’s founding as the Rock Point School for Girls in 1928, this building has housed its classrooms, offices, dormitory, kitchen, dining room, library and chapel. (Though the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont owns the school and grounds, Rock Point isn’t run as a religious school and accepts students of many faiths, or none at all.)

Rouleau, 66, is a stocky, thick-bearded fellow with receding salt-and-pepper hair and a face that always seems about to break into a mischievous grin — sort of a cross between Aristotle and Santa Claus.

He was born in Holyoke, Mass., and moved to South Hadley at the age of 8. His mother died when he was 12, a loss that was especially devastating to his father. After a couple of years, “the house kind of fell apart,” Rouleau recalls, so he and his sister moved in with their grandmother while their father went on the road as an itinerant trucker and day laborer. It wasn’t until high school that Rouleau moved back in with his father, in Pittsford, Vt.

As a child, Rouleau didn’t have many books in the house except for an old set of encyclopedias, which he read from start to finish. “I wanted to learn stuff,” he recalls, “just not on other people’s terms.”

In the 1960s, Rouleau was admitted to UVM, which began what he characterizes as a long and rocky relationship with the institution. To this day he still remembers his first experience on campus. He was in Ira Allen Chapel listening to a dean tell the new students, “Look to your left. Look to your right. When you graduate, those people aren’t going to be here.”

“Rather than instill in me a desire to succeed,” he says, “it just infuriated me that the university would knowingly have a culture in which this was going to be true, that two-thirds of the people they were admitting wouldn’t succeed.”

Like many students of that era, Rouleau joined the peace movement and did his best to avoid going to Vietnam. It was at UVM that he met his wife, Alice. The couple married in 1967, joined Volunteers in Service to America and moved to Del Rio, Texas, for their training. Following the riots of that same year, they were sent to Detroit. Their job? Knock on doors of housing projects and ask the residents how they’d been “inconvenienced” by the riots. “It was a tremendous lesson in forbearance,” Rouleau recalls with a chuckle.

Rouleau and his wife returned to Burlington. In 1970, while finishing his degree, this time in geology, Rouleau landed a twice-a-week gig teaching music at Rock Point. He got the job, he admits, through “good, honest nepotism”: His uncle, who served on the board of trustees, heard the school needed a music teacher and figured it’d be a good job for his “ne’er-do-well” nephew.

It was, in a sense, a suitable match. Rock Point School for Girls, which was founded in 1928 by Doris Wright, had long been a place for impoverished, orphaned and troubled girls from New England who had nowhere else to go. (The school went coed in 1972.)

It was around this time that Rock Point tried to shift its mission from that of an orphanage-type school to a prep school. Having received an insufficient number of applications from well-to-do families, however, the school landed a contract from the “A Better Chance” Program that involved serving mostly Native American girls from Indian reservations and African American girls from New York and New Jersey.

Soon John and Alice were working as dorm parents, living with some “very tough” students from the inner cities and helping them adjust to life in Vermont. In 1972, when the school’s science teacher quit on short notice, Rouleau got the job. Ironically, this former geology student who didn’t especially like talking about rocks would spend the next four decades on Rock Point, one of Vermont’s most unique geological formations.

In part because of Rouleau’s experience as a dorm parent, he fell into the role of school disciplinarian. How did that jive with his antiauthority, peacenik persona?

“I think there’s nothing inconsistent about discipline if you’re saying, ‘These are the rules, and you should be competent enough to follow those rules. If you decide to break them, go right ahead,’” Rouleau explains. “We’re all free to break whatever rules we like. Just be prepared to take the consequences.”

Rouleau became headmaster in 1993 and set out to put more emphasis on expanding the school’s curriculum and raising its academic standards. One critical element: He expected dorm parents to treat their work as integral to students’ education, and not just to be “babysitters” until the “real stuff” happened in the classroom. As he often told them, “You are the real stuff. In fact, for some kids, you’re a lot realer than geometry or U.S. history.”

For Rouleau, that approach persists to this day. He describes Rock Point as “an intentional community of adults who choose to work together, who are other-oriented. They’re smart, funny, energetic and self-motivated. They’re the ideal people to work here. And what they’re doing is providing an opportunity for kids who’ve been knocked around by life to figure out that they can be successful.”

Much of Rock Point’s success can be attributed to its small, intimate setting. Classes always have fewer than 14 students; last spring’s graduating class numbered just seven.

“We try to aim the ball at the kid’s bat,” Rouleau says. “We don’t want him to strike out, but we’re not gonna let him walk, either.”

How does Rouleau measure success? He knows he’s achieved it when he hears about a former student becoming a “good citizen” — say, someone from a disadvantaged household who is the first member of his or her family to attend college. Or when he hears of a former student landing a good job or maintaining a stable, long-term relationship.

Rouleau recounts a day when he was at his house on campus and saw a young man come striding across the yard. Although he didn’t recognize the young man at first, once he spoke, Rouleau immediately remembered him as a particularly challenging student.

“John,” the former student said, “I couldn’t figure out why you were always on my case when I was a student here. Now I have a son of my own, and I’m a good father because of what you did here.”

“So many kids are growing up without an audience, without someone who’s actively paying attention to them,” Rouleau adds. “The undefended and neglected kids of this world need a place to come where you look them in the eye and say, ‘I know who you are. I know you’re going to be OK, and I’m going to help you get there.’”

What will be Rouleau’s lasting legacy at Rock Point? Isaiah Keepin, 35, the school’s assistant academic dean, suggests that Rouleau should be credited for creating a fertile environment for learning through his hiring decisions.

“John has made this place a magnet for interesting people,” Keepin says. “That keeps me here.”

Lonnie Edson, Rock Point’s administrative assistant, who’s been at the school since 1975, agrees.

“The kids are challenging and smart and funny and just awesome to be around,” she says. “I can’t think of another place I’d rather be.”

For his part, Rouleau is justifiably proud of his 40 years at Rock Point, but he also knows the place will survive without him. A headmaster is to a school what a hood ornament is to a car, he suggests. If the ornament is missing, you can get a new one. It’s visible but not indispensable, like the engine.

“I know you have to have a headmaster. You have to have someone to challenge people, to bring in new ideas, who has a toilet seat in his closet,” Rouleau says. “I think I provided those things, and I brought some intellectual capital. Reading those encyclopedias turned out to be a good thing, after all.”

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