Open School almost didn’t arrive in time to save my life

Open School almost didn’t arrive in time to save my life 

By Ted Pirsig




I was pretty far down a path of getting high, shoplifting, and not giving a damn. Beneath it was a deep anger at my family, adults in general, and the whole setup: work hard in school, be a productive member of society, blah blah blah. Please. Vietnam War, anyone? Nixon? It was clear to me that society was deeply corrupt and hypocritical; in my stoner fantasies the hippie revolution would soon take over and save us all.


The anger was not obvious on the surface, it showed up in enormous risk taking. Lots of drugs, breaking into cars, blowing things up, sneaking out with guns, climbing bridges and radio towers. I hung out with kids of a similar ilk, roaming streets like the little hoodlums we were.


At 13 when I entered Open School I loved it, with its yellow submarine on the sign, beanbag chairs, lofts to climb in, carpeted floors, cool teachers and cool fellow students from all over the cities. And with no rules and very little oversight it was easy for a kid like me to just hang out in the smoking room and play gin rummy all day. Sure, I loved the school — but at that point more for its laxness than anything else.


Midway through my first year there I was busted shoplifting with an ounce of weed in my pocket. I left school and the next six months were an adventure of psych ward, near-fatal overdose, jails, and street living where survival meant selling acid to strangers, dodging the police, sleeping in stairwells, and not getting robbed. By the end of that six months I was tired of it all and ready to change.


A condition my father set: if I wanted to come home from lockup, I had to agree to meditate for 40 minutes every morning. As a family, we would all get up at 5, go for a walk, then sit together. I said sure, seemed easy enough (little did I know!). And to my surprise, my parents thought I should return to Open School, despite how I’d taken advantage of all the freedom.


These two poles: Open School (nurturing creativity) and Zen (intense discipline) framed my high school years, with the Zen practice evolving into week-long retreats and Open School being a place where I could re-engage my brain after many years of turn-off.


A core concept at Open School was to find what interests you and follow it — to let that central interest be your inspiration and motivation. If along the way some ancillary requirements come up, let that inspiration and motivation give you the momentum to tackle them too. This approach worked well with me.


Art was the first thing to really grab me. I found that with my new-found Zen patience I could draw a charcoal portrait that was indistinguishable from a photograph. It was a hugely needed ego boost to suddenly become known for something other than my troubled past.


But after two years I dropped art and took up photography. Why all that work, when you can just take a picture? However, the photos I took were boring, even to me. I struggled with the imperative to be creative, on the one hand, and the Zen discipline of (as I interpreted it) suppressing one’s ego, which meant sitting motionless on a cushion for days at a time.


The Open School was a perfect place to let me try and reconcile these internal sorts of questions. I took classes in Human Behavior, Human Sexuality, the literature of Kurt Vonnegut and The Teachings of Don Juan.


Another question I struggled with was how would I make a living after graduation? One fantasy had me living in the woods somewhere and making art. Instead I “got real” and learned auto repair. At that time in St. Paul there was the Automotive Learning Center, normally limited to one session per student per year but, being an Open Schooler, I had no such limit and spent half-days there my entire senior year, learning the fine art of semitrailer repair.


After graduating in 1976, it took mere months at my first job to discover that I hated semitrailer repair. It didn’t help that I had to cut my long hair and work with alcoholic rednecks. Turns out I’m not so good at fitting in – not after Open School!


Within a year I moved to Seattle, a self-imposed experiment in survival: a place where I knew nobody and could create a new life of my choosing, not bound by family and friend’s expectations. (Mainly what followed was karate, punk-rock clubs and a big motorcycle.) It struck me as exactly the sort of thing that Open School encouraged: Design a life experiment, enact it, chronicle the results. I started journaling like mad.


But of course, I needed to work too. And I did: a fast-food restaurant for two days; a Shell gas station for two weeks; eventually I found a shortcut to excellent wages, a 4-week course in welder certification. Within a year, I was making four times my previous pay. What astonished me most was how much I loved it: running hot beads of liquid metal all day was the closest thing to meditation a paying job could be. If your attention wanders the beauty of the weld immediately suffers – like having a real-time 3-D meditation feedback machine!


However, that thrill only lasted so long. I’d proven I could make a decent living, but so what? What about inner growth and spiritual work? When I left Minnesota, I’d left Zen behind too – it was so interwoven with my family, I’d needed to give it a break and see it more objectively. So, after four years I returned to study at Minnesota Zen Center, and lucked into meeting Natalie Goldberg too. Classes with her transformed my journaling from self-conscious and tortured to exciting and fun.


How do these tie to Open School, you may ask? Mainly in the sense that at Open School I’d first learned to ask the questions: what do I really want and how am I going to get there? And was told: Anything is possible if you just put your mind to it!


This sense of “can do” has been there ever since. I took up neon because it seemed the perfect merger of art and commerce, and made a living with it for 15 years. I created a newsletter for neon folks because in that pre-internet era there was need for community. I lived overseas twice because only by living in a place can you really get a sense of how it ticks, as opposed to being a tourist. I took my frustrations with studying Japanese and made sure my son would have none, plunking him into public school in Tokyo for two years. (He’s 28 now and stone-cold fluent in Japanese, Chinese too.) At 48 I decided to build a large off-grid house and spent many years doing so – learning each step of the way from books and YouTube. (Check it out! VRBO #852516.)   At 53 I became a certified yoga teacher.


Being eternally grateful to Open School, I’ve paid it forward as well: ten years as a Hawaii charter school business manager and three years with the state charter school authorizer. (Who’d a thunk it? A car-punk welder guy with no college degree!)

Now at 60 I still have my nose to the wind for the next big thing… standup comedy? Stay tuned!


Ted Pirsig