Visiting Mexico with Open School Changed my Life

Visiting Mexico with Open School changed my life

By Cynthia Montgomery Mauleón

Formerly known as “Pesty”


I graduated from Open School in 1976. I had first heard of the newfangled Open School from my friend Molly Lanpher. It sounded amazing. I attended the Rock Musical, which provided a glimpse of traditional vs. alternative education, and was enthralled. I visited Open School several times and wanted nothing more. I was delighted when my parents said “yes” and thrilled when I got in.

Molly (left) and Cynthia (right)


There was so much about Open that I loved, starting with the principal, Wayne Jennings. He smiled, he was approachable, he cared. The building itself was wonderful, designed with wide open spaces and comfortable nooks and crannies. There was plenty of light.


We called our teachers by their first names, which helped build confidence and trust, and allowed us to see them as whole people, not just our teachers. I felt safer with them than I had with my traditional teachers. Our advisors helped nudge us along our educational journey, whatever that meant for each of us, gave support and guidance.


Classes were many and varied. In addition to the traditional three r’s and other academics, Open School offerings included: Clog Making, Lapidary, Other Cultures Cooking, Middle Eastern Studies, Boundary Waters Canoe Trip, and so much more. Senior citizens were engaged in the school, each offering a class in their area of expertise. Signing up for classes was challenging—there were so many options to choose from, it was hard to decide which ones to take.

I was a student who had done well in traditional school; I hadn’t been struggling. But Open School offered me so much more than the traditional schools: deeper relationships with staff, the ability to take classes with students from other grades, a wider variety of school experiences, permission to create my own learning path. There was room at Open School to foster creativity as well as academics.

While Open School did not assign traditional grades, our teachers wrote summaries of every class, which provided a much more detailed view of our participation, grasp of the subject matter, behavior, etc. At the end of the year, each student and advisor wrote a year summary, and Open graduates were required to write a high school summary and turn in an extensive graduation packet to prove competency in the areas of: Cultural Awareness, Consumer Awareness, and others.

Cynthia in 2021 (photo courtesy of the author)

By far the class that most changed my life was the exchange trip to Mexico. Taking Spanish was a prerequisite, as was studying about Mexican culture. We raised money for the trip by making piñatas to sell at our Mexican dinner—enchiladas, beans, and rice. We traveled by bus to Puebla, Mexico for forty-eight hours, and stayed with host families for a month. We attended a very traditional, somewhat military school, studying Spanish and Mexican music. We visited the tourist market, the Aztec pyramids, the Governor’s Mansion, the University of the Americas. We ate cactus soup and tortas de jamón. We forged deep friendships. After the trip, we each wrote papers about a related topic; as I recall, mine was about the Aztecs.


Three months later, our Mexican brothers and sisters made the trip to Minnesota. They saw our sites, experienced our school, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, were visited by the Vulcans at Como Park (remember them?). Deep gratitude goes to Jan Fiola, our Spanish teacher, only 26 at the time, who shepherded us across the border into an alternate universe.


Mexico called out to me, and I attended the University of the Americas in Cholula; I later married there, had children, worked at a bank and a textile factory, taught English at the University. I lived there for 13 years.


Upon my return to the US, I embarked on a 25+ year career as a Spanish medical interpreter.  I am now a writer. Both the Spanish and the writing I learned at Open School.


Open School was not the favored educational choice for all, but it did wonders for me and has a deep place in my heart.


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