Parents and visitors alike often ask: What becomes of Opal School students after they graduate? Opal School students come from throughout the region served by Portland Public Schools, and as a result they’ve gone on to attend just about every public and private middle school and high school in the area. The first group of graduates are now out of their teens, pursuing a range of passions. While the paths of Opal School graduates are unsurprisingly varied, we consistently hear that these are people who are known in their communities as individuals who are self-aware, interested in others’ perspectives, and engaged in making a difference. We wonder: How do they view the role Opal School played in their lives? How do they conceptualize the jewel in their pockets?
At the 2015 Opal School Summer Symposium, a few dozen alumni gathered to reconnect and consider these questions. After an hour talking with each other and Judy Graves, Steve Davee, and Mary Gage Davis, they became the featured speakers of the final session of the program, taking the stage and sharing their thoughts with the large room of Symposium attendees. After they shared their insights, Opal teacher Joey Crume said, “I always struggle with how to describe what I do ...because it’s so complicated and it’s so messy and there are so many layers to this work… Listening to you, I can finally explain what I do.”
A few excerpts:
I recently got a scholarship and I wrote about Opal. I talked about how Opal influenced me as a student and as a Biology major. We had this project where we were talking about the feelings of flowers and I thought, flowers don’t have feelings – that’s ridiculous. Opal made me think outside the box… I always bring that with me in classrooms… I feel I have an advantage from other kids because they don’t have the experience that I had at Opal… Opal taught us to be creative and to be ourselves and to infuse that into our education.
Interests that I have definitely correlate to what I took away from Opal – interests in how humans interact with each other and how they connect... At Opal, I never felt like I was going to school to work or do math – I always felt like I was going to play with my friends. And somehow, through that experience, I learned so much. Everything I am, it all stemmed from lessons I learned at Opal, just by being with these people and hanging out and growing to love each other.
One thing that I took away from Opal… is that you have to accept people… You have to learn to accept people for what’s inside… you can’t just jump to conclusions, you have to go through it with them and understand and learn with them and grow with them like we did at Opal.
Opal is such a huge part of my life - I am who I am because of this school. Learning to build community within diversity. Learning to respect and have compassion for all beings [across] differences and backgrounds. Learning to speak up if you have something to say because what you have to say is important and just because you’re a little kid doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be people who really care about what you have to say.
What we take away from Opal is intertwined into our lives. For me, it’s a basis of moral integrity: how to lead your life in a way that makes an impact on others and in the world. How to make friends and how to listen to people and how to treat people with respect is something I learned at Opal and has affected how I live and how I want my life to go in the future.
I learned how valuable a community where you trust other people is – how you can say what you feel. How your teachers listened to you and heard what you had to say. How the things that we did naturally as kids impacted the curriculum.
I’m going to major in Environmental Science at Oregon State University and I think one of the main reasons why I chose that is because of my experience at Opal. [Through] going out into the world and experiencing the environment and the world around us, I think I took away a lot and it affected my personal beliefs about how we should treat our world, our planet, and the people around us with care.
One of the biggest things I took away from my experience at Opal is the power of empathy and how important it is for every single child to be nurtured with that from preschool through fifth grade all the way through adulthood. It’s one of the most important things to know as a human being - to know how to care for one another and have compassion. Another thing is individuality: I feel like every single child at Opal is cared for and taught that being who they are is special and important.
We explored questions that had to do with every kind of person and that had to do with being part of the world. That felt really big and that still feels really big and I still am asking these questions because they are things that do not have answers but instead have positive action and discovery and wonder and that was huge for me. I wasn’t always super comfortable at Opal or happy but it’s become a long-term relationship for me where I see now where it’s come into my life in such an amazing way and I get more grateful every day for such an amazing experience and I realize what a blessing it has been. I see how much of a difference it has made.
These were the voices of some of those who were able to gather in Portland on a June day with a moment's notice and then stand in front of a large group of strangers and speak from the heart extemporaneously. If you were quoted above and want to add to what is here, or if you are an alumnus or a parent whose voice isn't present, I hope you'll add your thoughts to the comments section.
Readers, what do you notice? What do you wonder about?