One Class Made all the Difference

One Class Made All the Difference

By Shannon Osorio



I attended the Saint Paul Open School for just one year, 1972 – the first year that it opened. I was a member of the first graduating class of twenty five students. The events of those short nine months had such a profound effect on my life that even today, some forty-six years later, I cannot tease apart any aspect who I am now from the events of my senior year of high school.

I started the year with an immense feeling of relief, release. I had felt so very constrained, so forced into the schedule, the specific courses, the extracurricular activities at Washington High. When I was told that I could choose which courses to take, that none were required but here were some suggestions, I admit that I mostly ignored them. I may have attended a few classes along the way, but I only managed to stick with one: Spanish.

At Washington, I had studied German, but at the Open School I heard that if I took the Spanish class, I could go to Mexico in March. Are you kidding? I was all in! I took Diane Damer’s class and she led the group that went to Mexico. Karen Steffan, a fellow student, quickly became a ‘teaching assistant’ and she taught many of the classes I attended. A few of us going to Mexico formed a study group (the beginners) and worked on our own. If I remember the numbers right, fifteen students and three chaperones took the Greyhound bus to the border, crossed and hopped on a Mexican bus to Mexico City.

We left cold gray snow and gray skies. Seventy-two hours later we arrived to Technicolor in Mexico City! Birds of Paradise blooming under palms down the center median. The orange juice vendor on the corner who sold us the sweetest, brightest citrusy glass of juice I had ever tasted. The warm, gentle breezes, tile floors and glass doors in the hotel – everything was new, exotic. I truly felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, but in my case, like I had finally woken up.

I found that less than six month of classes didn’t give me much speaking power when I moved in with my Mexican family and attended classes with my Mexican sister in Puebla. OUCH. But this is where I decided I would learn enough Spanish to communicate comfortably. I would be a part of those conversations that just flew by me.

It took me a couple years to build the base and many years to build fluency. Along the way, I studied Food Engineering at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Puebla, which morphed into Food Science and Spanish at the University of Minnesota. I met and married the love of my life, a ‘poblano’ (a person from Puebla) and lived with his family in Puebla for a couple years.

We returned to Minnesota and I worked as a Food Technologist with Pillsbury R&D for ten years. When my husband had an opportunity to build a plant for Green Giant in Irapuato, Mexico, we jumped at the opportunity and lived with our two young children in Iraputo, Guanajuato for four years.

Our return to the US took us to Rockford, IL. Our children were growing. Husband coached their soccer teams, which led to taking a team to Irapuato for a tournament, which led to my teaching Spanish. I started teaching Kindergartners for just a half an hour, a couple times a week, but soon I was teaching K-8, a couple days a week.

When I taught high school Spanish it became a full-time job. I thought I would do this just as long as my children were in school, but then we moved to Ohio and I got my Master’s in Spanish. I started teaching at the University of Akron. I found my happy place, where I have been the last fifteen years. I am a Senior Lecturer and soon to retire from the Department of Modern Languages, in most ways a dream job.

And here’s the thing. I tell a short version of this story every semester to my students. It is all about the motivation. It is the only thing that takes you someplace new, the thing that allows you to feed a passion, that leads to mastery of a skill set and more.

None, and I do mean NONE of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone to the Open School for that one chaotic year. I was given the freedom to choose what interested me and I found the one class/experience that would inspire and motivate me. The opportunity to choose what I loved and pretty much ignore the rest has led to the long series of events and experiences which in turn makes me who I am today.