Open School taught me to be open-minded

“Open School taught me to be more open-minded” 

by Sherryl Livingston


I attended the St. Paul Open School from 1971, when I was 12 years old, until I graduated in 1977. I had always liked school, but when my parents said I had the option to attend the Open School in 7th grade, I was intrigued by the school’s motto “Learning is Joy”, and decided to give the new school a try.  My six years at Open School eventually set me on my career path to be an environmental scientist but more importantly it taught me acceptance and tolerance of other people and new ideas.

I was a shy kid who learned to take risks and try new things because of the opportunities Open School offered. All types of learners were accepted and embraced, which was liberating and empowering for a shy and quiet kid. I learned to become comfortable with diversity, in all its forms, through my classes, teacher’s examples and fellow students. In my American Indian Studies class, we took a field trip to Wounded Knee, SD. I was shocked and distressed to learn its history and to see how the events from long ago impacted the kids in my class who were Native American.  I have never forgotten what I learned from that field trip.

In my 1972 Human Sexuality class, the instructor invited two gay people to come visit with the class. The visitors seemed so nice and down to earth that I decided then and there that homosexuality was a non-issue for me. I liked the people and wanted them to live a happy life without harassment or judgment.

In my senior year of Open School, I took a Freshman English class at the University of Minnesota with a fellow Open Schooler, Mimi Mingo. We wanted to get Freshman English out of the way before we started college. The class was full of women in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. We were by far the youngest in the class and the teacher seemed to enjoy holding up our essays as examples of immature writing. It was very aggravating, so I worked hard to improve my writing to prove the teacher wrong.

At the end of the class, she read one of my essays to the class and said it was an example of excellent writing. Then after class she called me up to her desk to ask if I had plagiarized the essay because the writing sounded too mature for a high schooler. I was thoroughly offended, but I politely, and proudly, told her I went to the St. Paul Open School and that I was drawing from the experiences and teachings from my school. The teacher looked embarrassed and apologized.

I became interested in Earth Day and environmental studies during my years at Open School, but I wasn’t sure what to study to become a pollution fighter. My school advisor, Joan Sorenson, suggested that I talk to people who were working at places that I might aspire to.

I distinctly remember talking to a biologist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who said I should study biology and do internships. In 9th grade I went to the Environmental Studies Learning Center for 3 months. The class included an 8-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. I loved the adventure of the canoe trip.In my senior year, I got an internship at the University of Minnesota Fisheries Dept. through the parent of one of my Open School classmates. I enjoyed being outdoors catching the fish and coming back to the lab to weigh and measure them even though I hated touching the flopping fish. These Open School experiences and internships cemented my desire to study biology at college.

In 1982, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Biology degree. It wasn’t always an easy road for me because I had not taken many traditional science classes while at Open School. The content of most my U of M biology classes was new to me. I struggled but succeeded at it, because I knew I wanted to be a biologist. The Open School had taught me to go after what I want.

After graduating from college, I worked for a field season with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota, which led to a job at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (one of the career options I explored while at Open School). I retired this year after spending 34 satisfying years working for State Government at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Open School allowed me to explore career ideas related to the environment for which I am grateful. But more importantly, the open-minded approach to new ideas and people that I learned from my teachers and friends at Open School has stayed with me.

I still think ”Learning is Joy” and I attribute my curiosity and love of new adventures to my years at Open School.