A 33-minute drive outside of Manhattan is a little town called Saddle River, N.J. It’s an idyllic enclave where high-powered executive types go to raise their families. It’s where Jennifer (Jeni) Eskridge spent most of her formative years.
Although Jeni was born in Riverside, Dad’s career relocated the family a few times before they put down more permanent roots. They were in Michigan for a few years, and then General Motors offered to pay for Dad’s MBA. He was accepted into Harvard Business School, and the family moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he graduated with highest distinction and was named a Baker Scholar.
Many kids would complain about being uprooted so many times, but Eskridge is grateful for the experience. “We moved through so many states, cultures and communities,” she says. “I learned to adapt. I also learned to appreciate that the world was not the same everywhere.”
Mom was a 1960s housewife who doted on Dad, looked good on his arm, and kept the home fires burning. When Eskridge expressed an interest in singing, Mom made sure she studied with the finest Juilliard vocal coaches money could buy.
“I thought I was going to go on Broadway,” Eskridge says with a wistful sigh. “I had opportunities to do that … but something set me back, and I left the performing arts.”
That something was a brutal attack during the summer of her sophomore year at Miami University in Ohio. It left her emotionally broken and suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She went home, put her Broadway dreams away, and took jobs working retail, in a place where she felt safe.
At 25, she married, and had a son the following year. She and her husband had a deal. You know the one: She works and raises the kids while he gets his degree, and then he’d do the same for her.
They moved to Riverside, where he enrolled at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), with her parents generously footing the bill. He was a few months from finishing when Eskridge started preparing for her turn. She made an appointment with the dean of humanities at UCR.
“I walked into his office, and I said, ‘Hi, this is my story. I really believe I can add something to this university.’ Can you imagine the audacity?” she says with a laugh.
Within six months, she was enrolled in UCR and working on her degree. And, as it often goes, her husband bailed on their deal. The now-single mother completed her degree in three years, all while raising two children, working full time and volunteering at a rape-crisis center.
She moved her family to Palos Verdes and took a job as the assistant public information officer for the Los Angeles Municipal Court. “I produced the in-house Amicus Curiae, their newsletter,” Eskridge says. “I also wrote speeches for judges and created pamphlets.”
In the late 1990s, she met her next ex-husband. After two years, it was over, and she once again sought the comfort of home, renting a house close to her parents in Rancho Mirage. She became involved in community theater almost immediately, but what she really needed was a job.
“Literally within the first four months, it goes from community theater, to being offered a role at the high school, and then the high school principal coming to me after a production of Scrooge and saying, ‘We’re looking for a drama teacher,’” Eskridge says.
She spent much of the next 19 years—including stints at Coachella Valley and Desert Mirage high schools—helping the youth in our valley grow to know themselves and their strengths through the creativity of performance.
Eskridge has so many accolades that you’d be reading all day if I listed them. Instead, I will tell you how I learned about her: I recently interviewed Liliana Rodriguez, the artistic director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, for another publication. On my submitted list of questions, I asked if she’d ever had a teacher who influenced her in a positive way, or someone she’d like to shout out.
“I saw this question, and I definitely want to respond. Jeni Eskridge was just the best,” Rodriguez replied. “An excellent educator, but also a really good friend to all of us. When we graduated, her family gave scholarships to a few of us students.”
Eskridge plays that last bit down. “I wasn’t going to mention that,” she says, modestly.
Around 2014, Eskridge’s father was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.
“His brain basically turned on him at the end,” she says. He petitioned Washington state for death with dignity, and on June 5, 2015, his entire family surrounded him, with her mom holding him until he let out his last breath.
Recently retired, Eskridge is now in the low-residency MFA program at UCR, studying creative writing and performing arts with an emphasis on stage plays.
“The plan is to write about my mother,” Eskridge says. “We clashed for many years. She had old-fashioned beliefs, and I wanted her to be what I wanted for all women, you know?”
Mom was more Phyllis Schlafly to Eskridge’s Gloria Steinem.
“She was always the supporting role in my father’s life, and he was the superstar,” Eskridge says. “In the end, though, she’s the most dynamic, supportive woman that I could have ever had in my life.”
I look forward to hearing her stories. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with nine words of wisdom that Eskridge learned at the tender age of 5—nine words she embraces; nine words she has imparted to all her students; nine words we all need to heed to help us achieve our bliss: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”