Who I have become, and the Open School’s influence
Dr. Peter Samuelson
To assess the difference going to Open School has made to me and my life, it is a little like asking a fish to talk about the difference water makes to its life, or asking a deer what a difference living in the woods in and around Itasca State Park has made to its life. It is hard to know – because I have nothing to compare it to. It is the only high school experience I have known and, while I can compare my experience to others who experienced a different high school setting, I can’t say how I would have done in a different setting. How I would have interacted in that environment.
But what I can speak to is who I have become, and the influence Open School had on that becoming. The first thing Open School taught me is that anything is possible. I can scarce forget what I heard from the very first day I attended school – the very first day the school opened – that at Open School there was only one rule – there are no rules. Somehow I understood that to mean, not that we were free to be as stupid and mean as we wanted to be, but that we were free to be as curious and accomplished as we wanted to be. We were free to shape our own destiny and not be told exactly how it should be shaped. For me that meant I made some conventional choices. I had a desire to be a doctor and so, to prepare myself for college pre-med classes, I took a traditional chemistry and calculus course at another High School – but I was free to do this. I also was free to explore my interest in photography and took a trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with teacher Mike Johnson, and to get in a little biology along the way. I was free to take a college course in Environmental Studies at Hamline University as a Senior in High School (and be the top of the class!) Anything was possible, and I could go where my curiosity and desire led me.
The second lesson was, while anything’s possible, you must choose. You need to examine yourself, and find within you, your interests and passions. Again, I had an interest in science, so I pursued it. I had an interest in photography, and explored it. I also tried some things out – like playing “Lennie” in the Steinbeck play “Of Mice and Men” or taking a dance class where our teacher Susan who would tell us to “stamp” our feet in her Chicago style of speech making us laugh. When the school instituted graduation requirements that prepared us well to be citizens of this world, I made choices within those requirements to suit my interests and passions.
I also learned that, while I was free to choose what I wanted to learn and pursue, I should seek help to discover the best choices for me and to seek help to find the resources I needed. There were caring adults who knew me, who were interested in helping me discover myself, to guide my choices and offer resources.
With that I learned that when you make a choice, resources are there to support that choice and to help you learn and grow. Classes from other high schools, college courses, trips to Colorado, fellow students to learn with and from, and teachers to share their expertise and knowledge. I continue to be amazed at the resources that seemingly pour in once you make a commitment to something. This lesson began at Open School.
Perhaps the greatest gift of Open School, and the one that may have shaped me the most, was the possibility to co-create life and learning with like-minded friends and to sojourn with them along the way. This natural collaboration that grew out of “no rules” allowed us the freedom to create our rules together. Not only have I been drawn to collaboration my life long through this experience, it is something I excel at due to the practice afforded me at Open School.
What was the main take-away from my experience in Open School? The lasting lesson is that learning is fun – learning is a joy – learning, life-long learning, is part of our purpose. Learning is best done together. And we did have fun! If there is one experience that dominates my memory of Open School, it is laughter with those I was learning with – both peers and teachers. My memory of Open School is almost wholly joyful.
And then we also learned that not everything is possible – that not all choices are good choices – and that rules, when we are co-creators of them, can bring a certain kind of freedom as well. We learned that our adolescent humor is not always appreciated outside of school, especially when printed in an “unofficial” school newspaper that becomes public. We learned that making choices limits other choices, but we felt that we were in charge of our learning – which is a valuable thing.
I am not sure Open School produced particularly exceptional students, or people, but it did give us the gift that learning is joy, that we are in charge of (and responsible for) our learning, and that such joy can last a lifetime. It has served me well as I am now in my third career, after finishing my PhD in Educational Psychology at 50, following a career in the Lutheran Ministry. My first (and actually still lasting) career was as a carpenter, began in a partnership with Open School friends, and serving me to this day. I’m not sure every student would have thrived as I did in a school with “no rules.” But for me it was joy.