St. Stephen’s School in Rome (‘72)

In moments, I would be… Solo. No parents. No siblings. Glancing around the spartan departure area, I manufactured a yawn with that well-practiced cool look teenagers wear to mask all the excitement inside, feeling triumphant, liberated, adventurous and joyful. Fidgeting as the minutes slothed by, I could hardly wait to board the plane. I’d had to wait three years afterI’d decided I wanted to go to school in Rome. Now, it was time. Hugging my parents and exchanging farewells at the Tripoli International airport, I mumbled cheap promises to write home. I was going to live away from my parents and family. St. Stephen’s School in Rome, Italy, a high school for locals, expats, day students and boarders, would be my new “home.” I was fifteen years old, and so full of self-assurance that I didn’t realize my assumptions woul­­d soon lead to challenges and surprises.

Life isn’t neatly packaged, although we like to frame it so.

What I didn’t know was the school sent a few students to meet me at Fiumicino Airport. Two boys and a couple of girls called my name out in raucous unison. Waving their arms and skipping along the smooth airport lobby, they led me to the waiting shuttle. Their tumultuous chatter excited me.  Boisterous and fun, this surprise company felt heady to me and took me aback. I covered by feigning relaxation while my mind attempted to process all the joking and serious information they were sharing with me as a newcomer to Rome.

As soon as we passed through the school gate and parked, we poured out. They showed me around the school grounds, complete with central courtyard, gardens and terrace overlook. The building had a friendly, yet ordered look to it. It is a short walk to the Circus Maximus, along the Viale Aventino, a major boulevard lined with a mix of retail, office and residential buildings. The cross street, Via Aventina, marks the corner of our school terrace atop a petrol station – a rare sight in the center of Rome.

Starting at St. Stephen’s was exciting, surprising and confusing, with a lurking sadness. Sadness whose source I couldn’t pinpoint, My blond grasshopper of a roommate vented about hating Rome, though she too was as new as I. She missed L.A. Everything was great in L.A. Life in L.A was fantastic. On and on she went about L.A. For. Days. And I consoled her with each nightly tantrum. Finally, one night, I told her I’d had enough of hearing about L.A. To my surprise, she stopped sobbing and admitted that actually, she hated LA. We laughed until we were both crying. From that point on, we were friends and got along fine.

Besides the academics, which I truly enjoyed, including continued French studies and beginning Italian, there were other things I loved about St. Stephen’s School. The school building had originally served as a monastery. A beautiful square courtyard occupied the center, with classical statuary, benches, palm trees and ferns, all surrounded by a round arch arcaded walkway. A lovely fountain with tiered basins trickles audibly, the sound echoing as it rises. The ground floor houses administrative offices, a snack bar with all the Italian coffee offerings such as espresso, or cappuccino, fresh squeezed spremuta of orange juice, if one had the funds. It still is a great school, as I found visiting it just recently. The hub is the central, serene courtyard. Within the surrounding colonnade, bustling students gathered before classes. In the basement cafeteria area, there was a game area with pinball machines and a jukebox. One of the popular tunes I recall at that time, was the bubbly, quasi-techno instrumental “Popcorn.” I played foozball often enough to get pretty good at it.

Occasionally, I accompanied a few daredevils to slip out in the wee hours on cool, rainy nights. Our mission? To survey, select and (ahem)“curate”movie posters whose glue was softened so that they peeled off readily. It was a ritual that older students taught younger ones. Peel. Rinse in the fountain. Roll with care. The roll tucked under one arm, I crept back into my room and laid them out flat to air dry. Displayed proudly in my newly cinematic dorm room.

Adventure. It attracted me strongly. Adventure sometimes will get you into trouble, and other times, save your life. Despite my outstanding academic record, just two weeks into the following school year, I was summarily expelled.

 

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