Alumni Spotlight:
by Jan Caldwell Thorpe ’60

submitted by Marion Ruth Weil ’60 Alumni Liaison

The day in 1956 my stepmother drove me from Santa Barbara, where I grew up, to the Ojai Valley to interview at a boarding school called Happy Valley School, I remember sitting quietly in the car, unable to imagine what this meant for my future. I wasn’t told much, other than “We think this school will suit you better.” My well-behaved brother was already attending the Cate School in Carpinteria and I knew Happy Valley would not be like his school.

I was a “tomboy,” and pretty good at sports. I was described by adults as “dreamy and artistic” because I got good grades in English and art—not so good in math and science, which meant in my family my academic future was dubious.

For the past four years, I had grown quietly rebellious after my mother’s untimely death and my father’s subsequent marriage to my atheist stepmother, who intimidated me with her medical degree, photographic memory, large vocabulary, and certainty that math and science were the only two subjects worth studying.

“My imagination soared with the idea that here, learning was communal.”

In 1956, Bob and Ann Aitken were co-directors of the school. Ann Aitken met us at the entry of the main building on the school property, then located in the lower Ojai Valley, near Meiners Oaks, that housed all the classrooms, school offices, and library, satellites to a large internal space with a semicircle of built-in stadium benches overlooking the main floor. My first impression of that main room was that it was like walking into a Greek theater. Ann explained that all the indoor activities happened in that space—morning assembly, folk dancing, school plays, concerts, lectures, and graduation. I could hear the buzz of the classrooms off of that main room. My imagination soared with the idea that here, learning was communal. At my current school, morning assembly was a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in front of a stern headmaster. Here at Happy Valley School, morning assembly was a time of silence, then a piece of music chosen by a student, followed by a reading from a text chosen and read by a student.

Ann Aitken radiated warmth, empathy, and calmness, which I was not used to. The adults I knew at the time expected children and teenagers to reflect well on them. I knew I had not achieved that status with my current teachers and parents, who had decided that I would do better living away from home. In all fairness, I must have seemed like a resentful, awkward teenager who showed little gratitude for all the money and attention that was being showered on me. But here at the portal of this unusual little school was a very different kind of adult: Ann Aitken welcomed me with a smile that communicated interest and respect without needing to know about my achievements, or lack thereof.

Ann showed us around the main building, where students and teachers went about the daily business of learning, and I was struck with the atmosphere, which was very different from the regimen of my current school. I was used to teachers peering down over their glasses with a pondering gaze I did not fully understand, except that it was not entirely good.

After taking in the main building, Ann led us outside, where we saw a group of young boys running around in a field throwing clumps of grass at each other, having a raucous time. My stepmother asked Ann what that was about. She answered as if it were the most normal thing in the world: “Oh, those are our younger boys. We let them take breaks during the day to diffuse their energy so when they’re back inside they concentrate better.”

After my introduction to the school, Ann sent us to meet Rosalind Rajagopal, the school’s co-founder, at her home in Ojai. Rosalind was very different from Ann Aitken. Her gaze was penetrating, as if she could see through me, to the adult I would become. Fortunately for me, I knew right away that for some unfathomable reason she liked me. As I write this I have tears of gratitude. After meeting Rosalind, we visited Beatrice Wood’s studio and interestingly, my stepmother bought a bowl from Beato, which I inherited in 1991. Just this year, I was able to return that bowl to the Beatrice Wood Cultural Center to be part of their permanent collection of Beato’s work.

“Because we view ourselves through the eyes of others, being seen by my teachers and fellow students as smart, creative, and talented changed how I viewed myself.”

My next three years at the school transformed my life. Because we view ourselves through the eyes of others, being seen by my teachers and fellow students as smart, creative, and talented changed how I viewed myself. I evolved from being seen as destined for trouble to being destined to succeed. I loved being part of the Ukrainian folk dance group. When we traveled to folk dance festivals, Happy Valley always won first place. I was in plays, with lead roles. I wrote poetry that got published in the yearbook. Because the school had a philosophy of not publishing our grades so that the focus was on learning for its own sake, I flourished academically, felt secure, and managed to get into an eastern college.

After graduating from Vassar College in 1964, I raised a family with Larry Thorpe, to whom I have been married for 52 years. Our sons live near us, and my oldest son and daughter-in-law are law partners with Larry, while my youngest is a paralegal working for the firm. For ten years while the boys were growing up, I taught myself silk-screen printing and produced a body of limited edition serigraphs. After that, I returned to school and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology and later a PhD. I have had a private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco for twenty-seven years. I currently am writing a series of three novels—psychological thrillers that I hope to publish this year.

But here’s the most important part: I stayed in touch with Rosalind for many years after I graduated. In 1977, she asked me to give the commencement address at the school. I said, “Rosalind, I can’t do that. I don’t have anything to say.” She responded, “Oh don’t worry dear, you’ll think of something.” And of course I did. I typed that speech on cards that I have kept in a drawer to remind me—when I think I can’t, I remember that I can. Here is a piece of that speech that I gave so many years ago when I shared a memory from my time at the school:

I remember a drama class one time when we were asked to be a tree. To be a tree growing. To be a tall tree. It now seems to me we were always doing that sort of thing in one way or another. Whether it was math (my worst subject), science, history, literature, languages, folk-dancing, dramatics, art, ceramics—all of it—we were being encouraged to discover for ourselves.

My interests over the years in being a parent, art, ceramics, literature, all religions, different cultures, organic food, the environment, creative writing, archetypal psychology, education, and how we learn—all of these have origins in those three years at Happy Valley School. It was there I saw through the eyes of those amazing teachers and friends who I would become later in life. My thriving at the school also paved the way for my two cousins, Virginia and John Hardham, to attend as well.

Over the past eight years, I have had a chance to visit Besant Hill School of the Happy Valley more often. The campus has moved to the upper Ojai Valley, when in my day that campus housed the older boys dorm, an assortment of temporary buildings, and a few horses. What is there today was still a far-off vision. Now the Zalk Theater, the classrooms, the new dorms, the faculty homes, the sculpture garden commemorating past faculty who have left us, the Olympic-size pool, the Beatrice Wood Cultural Center, the gardens, and the grounds are amazing. The school has grown into its original vision for a rich environment where students still embody the experience of self-discovery, retaining what we much earlier students had in that little schoolhouse with its main room—long gone now—in the lower valley.

I have recently joined the Happy Valley Foundation Board of Trustees, and I feel like, along with Beato’s bowl, I have come full-circle.