It was a Tuesday in September, my last period of the day, and there was an opossum sitting in my classroom. After leaning in to get a better view, I looked down to my sketchbook, making sure to get the contour lines just right before I began shading. Charcoal rubbed against my fingers, coating them in a layer of black dust. Students around me laughed and made remarks about their sketches.
“My drawing looks a lot more like a large rat than an opossum,” commented the kid to my left. I leaned back and grinned, admiring his work.
“Still better than mine, which looks like a dinosaur” said a voice from the other end of the room. He turned his drawing outwards, displaying it to the class.
As I relate these stories of daily classroom activities to my friends from other schools, I receive incredulous looks, which I’ve grown accustomed to seeing as I talk about my school. What was I to expect? I’ve decided to ditch the traditional schooling system for an innovative, peculiar, and somewhat chaotic approach to education, the Science and Math Institute, or SAMI, located in Tacoma, Washington. When I inform people that my campus isn’t a school building and that it’s actually of a cluster of portable “buildings” inside a 702 acre public park, I get a lot of questions. Where’s your lunchroom? We don’t have one. What about lockers? Nope. Hallways? Yeah, we’re missing those too. What some might not realize is everything that my high school does have. We’re located inside Point Defiance Park, the second largest public park in the entire nation. Point Defiance contains a zoo and aquarium located within its borders, along with miles of vast old-growth forest, a system of interlocking trails to hike, a history museum, and a picturesque beach. These features make for a pretty unique high school campus.
We do things differently at SAMI. My days at school are spent looking through goggles and microscopes, loupes and camera lenses. Calculus class is located inside an aquarium, and Spanish, in the Rose Garden. And occasionally, I end up with an opossum in my Animal Life Drawing class (thankfully, it takes place at the zoo). I speak in units and measurements, in the Latin names of binomial nomenclature, and the Greek letters of Physics and Calculus. My hands carry calipers and inclinometers, along with GPS units and pH tests. Classes take place throughout the harsh wind and rainfall, I wear beat-up hiking boots, and a little-less than rainproof jacket, while writing in smeared, blotchy letters, on an also “less-than-rainproof” paper. I come home from school soaking wet, covered in mud, and endlessly happy.
Falling in love with SAMI was instant and effortless. After only the first few days of school, I was already convinced: if there was a “right way” to do education, this was it. School is captivating, challenging, and fascinating, all the things that education should be, but too often isn’t. With ample resources, I am allowed to learn recklessly, making mistakes as I progress. Asking questions as often as another person might breathe, I am vividly engrossed in what I am taught, and I soak up information like a sponge.
Despite all of the important lessons that my classes have taught me, the most important lessons that I’ve learned at SAMI are the unintended ones. When I began SAMI, I entered with the idea that school was necessary. Education was a singular step in my lifelong journey, something that I simply had to get through before I could continue on. My experiences have taught me that education is much more. Education is no longer a box that I can check off my list, it has become a consistent aspect of my life, something I’ll never be able to finish. Education is everywhere, in forest clearings, and sandy beaches. And sometimes, education is an opossum in your art class.