Alter Egos spotlights an EHS student or staff who has a hidden, awesome talent; who has interests that lie off the beaten path; or who has had a life experience that others would benefit from hearing. It interviews Pioneers who are becoming the best version of themselves in order to inspire others to follow suit. In the second installment, I sat down with Emma V. ‘17, comedienne, juggler extraordinaire, and social activist, to talk about her time at Eagle Hill and her plans after graduating.
Where are you from?
I’m from Chicago. I live three blocks from Wrigley Field.
Tell me about your time at Eagle Hill.
I came in as a junior, so last year. I started a juggling club last year, and I’m in GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance].
How’d you get into juggling?
When I was 15 I went to a camp in Minnesota that specializes in arts, music, and circus, with, like, trapezes and everything. I learned how to unicycle and juggle there. I can’t really unicycle as well any more. One of the teachers, Jake, he was Australian, told me that I had good hand-eye coordination. I don’t know how he could tell that: I mean, I can barely walk straight! Ha ha! But he said I should try juggling.
What’s your juggling routine?
Well, I did balls first, then moved up to rings. Dr. McCaffrey started teaching me clubs last year. Now I can do one each, at the same time, a ring, a ball, and a club. It looks weird, but it’s fun.
How often do you practice juggling?
I practice every day when I’m in his room, or before first period starts. He’s got a box full of juggling equipment under his desk. I’ll switch it up. Dr. McCaffrey also taught me how to bounce.
So, if you were at the talent show last year, I did it. You have to throw a ball down a little harder, in a one-two-three pattern. [she gestures with her hands] I’d have to show you. It was hard at first, but I got the hang of it.
Were you nervous about juggling in front of people?
Better than singing, right? Ha ha, no, I was afraid of dropping, but it’s whatever. Even when you drop it, it looks funny so it’s okay. You can just play it off.
What did other kids say when you started juggling?
They were surprised. Like I said, when I do something as simple as walking, I look like a newborn giraffe, but the hands are different than the feet. Everyone was impressed.
Is there a big juggling community?
Not necessarily. We just do it because it looks cool. It’s hard to learn, but once you’ve got the muscle memory, you’ve got it forever.
Would you ever ride your unicycle around Eagle Hill? Or on a college campus? You’d have so many friends!
I would, but it’s in Florida. I’m not as good as I used to be, but I could get it back. Oh my god, I’d be Unicycle Girl! Ha ha!
Are you thinking about going back to the midwest for college?
I don’t know yet. I might take a gap year and travel. There’s a program called Winterline where you travel for nine months across twelve countries and three continents. You go to the Caribbean, save some sea turtles, then go to Cambodia and work in an orphanage, and run a hotel in Hong Kong for a week. Stuff like that. It’s all about finding new skills for yourself, like sewing, or business skills. Driving BMWs on a test track.
Sounds intense! So, tell me about how you got involved in GSA?
I was trying to branch out, you know, keep an open mind. I joined, made some friends in there, and it worked out.
What are the goals of the GSA?
We just bring awareness to people who are unfamiliar with what’s going on in the LGBTQ community. We teach people about rights. Last year we sponsored a theater group to come perform for the school. Some of the skits, for us, were a little stereotyped, but it worked out fine.
We also hosted a dance last December. That was a big success. We had other schools’ GSA clubs come in. We had rainbow colored food.
Is there a national GSA?
Yes. We go to a regional event at a high school for a whole day, and talk to people who are LGBTQ and get to know them, do icebreakers, and hang out.
What are some challenges that queer students face at boarding school?
I saw it more at my other school than here, because it was a Catholic school that wasn’t accepting. Coming from that environment, where some people are okay, but other people look at you like, “What are you?” to here, was great. Obviously, Eagle Hill is way more accepting. Everyone is welcome at our club, nobody cares who goes. There have been open couples here, not now, but, you shouldn’t be afraid to hold your girlfriend’s hand, you know?
What about Eagle Hill makes it more accepting?
Here, people realize that you are who you are. No one cares.
When someone asks you to describe your time at Eagle Hill, what will you say?
I’d say it was a very close-knit community. There’s drama, sure, but, come on, it’s high school. We have good academics, and we’re pretty open-minded people. Nobody hates on other people because of their background or their identities. It’s very much a “golden rule” kind of place.
Who are some people you look up to?
My mom has been a huge influence. Giving me advice on the right thing to do. She’s always right. My brother, too. He’s given me good advice, he’s really understanding because he just went through high school. He’s a freshman at the University of Arizona. As for teachers. . .gotta love McCaffrey, my juggling buddy. Mrs. [Donna] Linnehan, she’s the advisor for GSA, and Mrs. [Stephanie] Whitaker, my advisor.
With Juggling Club, are you teaching others?
Yes. I’m the founder and president. We had a nice turnout, nine people. Dr. McCaffrey and I both teach new students. We start with scarves, not balls--
Scarves? I had no idea!
Yeah, scarves! They come up and go down slower. They train your muscle memory, so that way when you get to balls, you’re used to the motions.
What’s different about teaching juggling versus learning it?
Learning it looks hilarious because you’re just throwing stuff and hoping you catch it. Teaching it is more, just. . .I wouldn’t say that I laugh at the kids who are learning, but it’s pretty funny. They’re just struggling, trying not to hit themselves in the face with a club, ha ha.
I imagine you just have to embrace the ridiculousness of it.
Right, we’re all just going to look silly. You say, “Gotta start somewhere.”
You’re passing on this tradition, too.
Yep. I’m leaving it with Dr. McCaffrey once I leave. We’ve really bonded by teaching together. I think sometimes as kids we forget that teachers have feelings too.
So, imagine this, and we’ll end here. In ten years, Emma Van Pelt, age 27. What are you doing?
I want to work with animals. Um, I want to be an actress. I really don’t know yet! But if I do work with animals, I’d be a zoologist or a veterinarian. Maybe a dog trainer, like Cesar Milan. Something along those lines. I’ll still be juggling, though.
Emma has many talents, some of which she is still discovering, and is developing the grace to handle them all simultaneously. On top of her activism and juggling, she rowed crew for three years and plans to try out for the basketball team. Juggling offers an apt metaphor for her time at EHS: Eagle Hill has supported Emma while she deftly keeps in motion the different aspects of her personality. When life was up in the air, Eagle Hill received Emma with soft hands, gave her a place to discover herself--however briefly--and now we are sending her back out into the world again, secure in the knowledge that she has hands below her that will never let her drop.