Open School Taught Me To Believe In My Future

Open School Taught Me To Believe In My Future


Kelly McCullough

I began my career as a Saint Paul Open School student in the third trimester of first grade in 1974 and I graduated from Open in 1985. The Open School is foundational to who I am and what I have done with my life. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal in the last few years as part of the process of writing my two most recent novels.

I write fantasy and science fiction, and Magic, Madness, and Mischief and its sequel Spirits, Spells, and Snark are middle grade novels filled with wild magic and fantastic creatures and many twists and turns that aren’t part of the real world. All of the characters and situations in the books are fictitious and creations of my imagination rather than reconstructions from memory. At the same time, the books are deeply informed by my time at Open School and a lot of the more mundane sorts of interpersonal “magic” and the development of the central character are built around my childhood and the way Open School shaped me. I can’t imagine the person I would be without that.

As I said in the afterward “I owe so very much to the school, its teachers, founders, and my fellow students. Thank you all. The me that I am today wouldn’t be possible without you.”

It started right from the beginning when I first walked into the school building. With its lofts and wide open spaces and classes taking place in all sorts of non-classroom environments I knew instantly that this school was going to feel much more natural for me than my last. I had spent kindergarten and the first trimester of first grade in a similar environment in Fargo ND, and my middle trimester at Saint Stanislaus had been something of a nightmare for me. Even though I was starting my third school in one school year, it felt like coming home. Which is not to say that I wasn’t nervous. I was, very, but hopeful too, and even more so when I was paired up with an older student who showed me around. His name was Clayton Nimitz and he kept an eye out for me from then through his graduation. It meant a lot and I was deeply saddened when I learned of his death in recent years.

Open School was the perfect environment for me to thrive and grow. I have always had authority issues–of the sort that got me disinvited from Sunday school after one session when I was four, back during my mother’s brief attempt to give me a grounding in typical American culture. At Open School, people didn’t expect me to bow to authority because “I said so”. Teachers and administrators were always willing to explain to me why they wanted me to do something. That didn’t necessarily make me happy to oblige, but it disarmed my reflexive pushback and gave me a chance to become something that might well have been extinguished in a more traditional setting. I trusted my teachers in a way that I had not trusted the teachers at St. Stan’s and that was huge, because I had trust issues to go along with my authority issues.

Part of the reason my family moved to Saint Paul was because my mother, who had ongoing mental health issues, was having a psychotic break, one of several over my childhood, and one of the foundational reasons I have issues with both trust and authority. I had to learn very young that it’s not always a good idea to do whatever an authority figure tells you, because they might be psychotic.

So, I settled in very well at Open School and the next few years passed comparatively smoothly. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but that wasn’t critical from age 7-11ish. Elevenish is when I had one of those massive life-changing events that doesn’t seem very big at the time, but in retrospect changes everything. I was skipping a class with my friend Tim Wick when we slipped into the gym and ran straight into the class he was skipping, Roving Theater with Vaughn Koenig, which moved from space to space around the building. Tim was very smooth and claimed we’d just been looking for them and could I join the class for the day. I’m sure Vaughn was on to him, but she just welcomed us in and went on with class.

To this day I don’t remember what class I was skipping because I never went back. I fell instantly and utterly in love with theater and storytelling during the course of that session and Vaughn became one of the most important mentors in my life. I will pull this next bit from my eulogy for Vaughn because I don’t think I can say it better.

“In that class Vaughn taught me how to overcome what had up until then been a fairly shy nature. She instilled confidence in a boy who didn’t have a whole lot. And, most importantly, she taught me to value my own creativity as something I could share with others. For the next eleven years I was totally focused on the goal of making a life in theater.”

Ultimately, after earning a B.A. in theater, I ended up changing gears and becoming an author instead of an actor, but the love of comedy, drama and storytelling that she fostered in me is a huge part of why I have gone on to become an author with some success in the field of science fiction and fantasy. As I write this, my 14th novel is soon to be released, and I owe so very much of what made me the storyteller and artist that I am to Open School and the environment it fosters.

My teachers encouraged my interests and told me that I could accomplish anything I wanted to. I believed them and that has made all the difference.