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It's not particularly easy for Laura Hermance to describe her job at Rowland Hall. While her official title is Lower School administrative assistant, that doesn't give much indication of how varied and unpredictable a day's work might be. Her reception-style desk faces the McCarthey Campus lobby and most days acts as a hub of information for teachers, students, parents, and school visitors. One minute she might be helping Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus prepare for a faculty meeting, and the next she might be digging through a pile of used uniform pants to find a replacement pair for a student who got a little too muddy during recess.
The ever-changing nature of her position is one of the aspects she loves most, though. "I love that I get to interact with so many types of people throughout the day," Laura said. And she seemingly thrives on borderline chaos, too. "I expect to be interrupted," she explained, "and I have learned that I operate better when I have to switch gears often." This ability to juggle demands on her attention is both a natural talent and a skill she's developed over the 11 years she's worked at Rowland Hall. She credits the customer-service training she received in a previous job at Nordstrom with teaching her how to remain calm and composed. "It's such an important skill to be able to relate to people and keep them calm, keep them happy, even when if you can't actually help them," Laura said. In fact, she sees customer service as so essential to what she does every day, and to many professions, that she believes it's a course that should be offered in schools.
Making a chaotic job look easy isn't enough for Laura, though: she continually seeks ways to stretch herself as an adult. She lives close enough to work to commute on foot every day, but when she does get behind the wheel of a car, it's frequently her 1967 MGBGT, which is a right-hand drive. "It's good exercise for my brain," Laura said, explaining that collecting and repairing classic cars and motorcycles is a family hobby. In fact, she and her partner Mike together own four cars, six motorcycles, two hot-air balloon baskets, several bicycles, and a skateboard. "We have all our transportation modes covered," she joked.
When Laura wants to venture a little farther away, she usually does so with her sister Alison and their parents. She named India and the Galapagos Islands as favorite places she's been, though one of her most memorable trips was to Borneo. Two years ago, some friends were working to help save the orangutan population on the island, so she and Alison planned a visit. They spent time among members of the Dayak tribe, whom Laura learned were former headhunters. In an experience she'll never forget, some of their hosts brought preserved heads out and displayed them on platters during teatime. "And apparently in order to appease the spirits of the heads," Laura said, "you have to give them a little offering. So they gave them a little bowl of popcorn."
Laura feeding an alpaca in Peru, summer 2015
Whether her journeys are focused on seeing wildlife or immersing herself in a new culture, Laura regards traveling as part adventure and part affirmation. "Traveling makes me feel resourceful and capable," she said. "Going to new places stretches you to figure out what you're capable of, what you can tolerate, and what you like." It also reminds her how lucky she is: if it's a wonderful trip, she feels fortunate to be there, and when it's not so wonderful, she feels fortunate that she gets to return home to Salt Lake City.
Laura grew up locally, and she and her sister graduated from Rowland Hall in 1990 and 1992, respectively. While she wanders around the globe on a regular basis, she's only wandered off from Rowland Hall once since she started working at the school. In 2006, after five years as an administrative assistant, Laura decided she wanted to try her hand at classroom teaching. She enrolled at the University of Utah to earn her master of arts in teaching, and in just over a year was at the helm of a second-grade classroom at Backman Elementary School. She enjoyed interacting with the students and using her undergraduate Spanish major during conferences with Spanish-speaking parents. However, the administrative structure at Backman Elementary—and subsequently at Guadalupe Charter School—didn't offer her the support she needed as a new teacher. When Javier Piñedo, Rowland Hall's chess teacher and one of Laura's close friends, told her that her old job at the Lower School was open, Laura jumped at the opportunity to return.
"I have loved being back," Laura said. "I have a much better appreciation for everything the teachers are dealing with, and what a difficult job it is." She loves that she can still support students and faculty every day, but without the pressure of classroom management. The observational moments her desk affords are often highly entertaining, too. She recounted a conversation she overheard a few years ago between two SummerWorks campers: "One young boy said to his friend, 'What do you do when life gives you lemons?' His friend replied, 'I don't know—make lemonade?' And the first boy said, 'No! You squeeze the lemon in life's eye!'"
The unexpected things children say make Laura smile, of course, but it's the familiarity of Rowland Hall that has kept her coming back. "The overall feeling I have walking into the buildings hasn't changed in almost 30 years," Laura said. "I still have the great sense of community that I did when I first arrived as a seventh grader." There's very little Laura would even consider changing about Rowland Hall—though she would like the larger community to know more about the availability of financial aid and the inclusive nature of the school that welcomes and celebrates diverse students, families, and ideas—and she's hard-pressed to come up with an idea for improvement.
"Maybe a treadmill at my desk?" she suggested. Seems like she's ready to take her juggling act to the next level.