On Wednesday October 16th a group of 50+ current and former students, parents, teachers, board members and even grandparents gathered to make the unanimous decision to close Upattinas School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
The mood was surprisingly upbeat. The board had already recommended that the community formally agree to close the school; the decision was not unexpected. The last few years had included several failed attempts to increase enrollment, including diversifying advertisements, and a search for a potential new location. For those of us who had been involved in the struggle to keep the school alive for the past few years, there was a comfort in certainty, even if it wasn’t the future we’d hoped for. Still, I felt sad about the closing of a school which was instrumental in influencing some of the ideals that helped shape the person I am today.
I began going to Upattinas after a torturous 9th grade year at Friends Select, a Quaker prep school in center city Philadelphia. Memories from that year include:
- Receiving detention for skipping Spanish class to participate in a protest against the impending Iraq war, and sitting afterward in an assembly where an administrator preached, fighting for what you believe in is important, but school must come first.
- A teacher using Quakerism (my religion, not his) as a reason why we shouldn’t use swear words.
- Watching the school struggle to accommodate one of my close friends who was grieving after his father had passed away, putting him first on academic, then behavioral probation and eventually asking him to leave the school.
My grades, self esteem, and relationship with my parents all suffered. Because my grades were poor, my mom wouldn’t let me go outside until my homework was finished. I felt that the homework was busywork, irrelevant and stupid, and I couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I felt imprisoned in my room, playing my hundredth game of solitaire, becoming increasingly stressed about the impending due dates, and resolute that it simply wasn’t worth giving a fuck.
I elected to be “sick” rather than attending school so often that there was talk of holding me back a year due to the quantity of class time I’d missed. What started out as me choosing to be ill became me actually feeling sick to my stomach. I would lie in bed all day under the covers and debate whether it was better to go back to school the next day or to be sick for the rest of the week.
The final straw was chemistry class. I felt completely unable to connect with the teacher and uninspired by the topic. As I fell further behind, it became clear that I was in danger of failing the course. I would have been happy to accept a “fail”, but the school informed me that I would need to retake it if I didn’t earn a passing grade. This was baffling to me. I had already wasted a year in a class where I was learning nothing, and I’d be damned if I had to waste a second. If I crammed hard enough for the final exam, I would never have to take chemistry again. In the end I spent two hours with an outside tutor and aced the final. I finished the year feeling stifled, uninspired, pissed off, and stuck.
After this horrific year Upattinas seemed magical–in every way the antithesis of Friends Select. Classes and homework were optional; there were no tests or grades. They encouraged independent study, and valued students who were willing to pursue their passions and ideals. At about 100 students from Kindergarden through 12th grade, Upattinas was a tight-knit community of individuals in the rawest sense of the word.
At Select, I felt like I had been pushed into a box, whereas Upattinas allowed me to be free. I was part of a community of both students and teachers, who were enthusiastic about helping me to realize my passions and goals. Where the staff and teachers at Select felt rigid and callous, Upattinas ran meetings by consensus, allowing everyones voices to be heard.
Upattinas introduced me to the idea of self-directed learning. I was moved by Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, and my fellow students were proof that young people could and should be supported in making real decisions about their educational pursuits.
When I think about Upattinas closing, there is a sense of losing a childhood home. I remember listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication while playing volleyball on a gorgeous fall day near the beginning of my first semester, with everyone outside, k-12th grade. At Upattinas, the perfect fall day trumped whatever chemistry lesson was scheduled. There was something profoundly satisfying about that logic.
I remember my first icebreaker trip–a three night stay at a state park with the entire school. During the second day several bears descended on the campground, invading the dumpsters and raiding the cabins for food. We all ended up sleeping in one of the larger buildings on the last night for safety, ice thoroughly broken.
Donald, our basketball coach, resident outdoorsman, and edible bugs teacher, accounted for more than his fair share of the magic that was Upattinas. He could regularly be heard shouting cheese and rice (rather than Jesus Christ) or cooking bugs (there are two kinds of people in the world, those that know they eat bugs, and those that don’t know they eat bugs) and road kill with the help of students. Every spring he would bribe us with ice cream to pick dandelions so that he could make dandelion wine (Let me know if your parents want any and I’ll be sure to save them a bottle!). He might sound eccentric, but he was also genuinely extremely knowledgable in the fields of outdoor education, first aid, survivalism, and by far the best basketball coach I’ve ever had.
Upattinas could often feel like a summer camp, with mostly out-of-class learning (epitomized by a giant Trebuchet that a group of particularly ingenious students built from scratch), however, I also have fond memories of logic classes with Anna, math with Alden, and literature with Sandy. In theatre class, we put on Little Shop of Horrors several months after a potential drama teacher elected not to teach us, claiming that we didn’t have enough motivation to put on a musical.
Upattinas gave me three years of great memories. More than that, it gave me the ability to pursue my own educational path, which meant concentrating on activism, and thinking about the world of education. Almost everything I’ve done since high school has been influenced by my time at Upattinas. I’m so thankful to have been a part of the Upattinas community, and am grateful to those who worked tirelessly to create and run the school for over 40 years.