Ch. 25: Rose Atwell: LWS and LWHS Alumna, Teacher, Actor, Chef

A conversation with a Living Wisdom TK-8 School teacher and alum.

Q: What was it like to be part of the first graduating class of the original Living Wisdom School High School in 2001?

Rose: One of the beautiful things I especially remember from my years at LWS and LWHS is the Service Adventures.

Our school motto was “Service, Adventure, Self-Discovery.” Once a week, we would serve at a women’s shelter or a home that took care of the elderly, or a school for kids with special needs. Reaching out and serving was a highlight of the week for us, because it made our lives so much more meaningful, and it gave us a sense that we could play a helpful role in the wider community, even as young people.

For me, the particular strength of the program was that it allowed us to have adventures and explorations as very young students, along with a very strong academic program, side by side.

Our first year, we traveled across Mexico in a bus, and it was a huge adventure. I remember how we got stranded in the desert temporarily when a flash flood blocked the road, and how we got stranded in the mountains in the snow. It was a super adventure, and I remember totally loving every moment of it. These were high school trips, but I have equally fond memories going back all the way through the earlier grades at LWS.

When it came to academics, my experiences were equally fantastic, because you had so much one-on-one attention that you really couldn’t slip behind. You were working so closely with your teachers every day, and whatever needed to be addressed would always be dealt with right away.

Even when we were travelling, it didn’t interfere with academics. I remember taking a final exam in algebra on the flight home from Italy. So it really didn’t matter where we were, because we could have these amazing adventures and get really good grades and go to college, and even if it didn’t look a certain way, with a box around it like a traditional high school, it was wonderful.

Rose is an enthusiastic gourmet vegetarian cook.
Here, she leads a weekend workshop.

After graduation I ended up at UC Santa Cruz, where I had a great university experience and received a wonderful education, so there wasn’t a conflict between the way we were learning at LWS and the way I approached my studies at a top-flight university.

The teachers at LWS challenged each of us to go at our own best pace with the curriculum, and we had wonderful specialty teachers. That was a beautiful thing about the school, that people from the surrounding community who had gone deep in their fields were ready to share their wisdom and experience with us.

At LWHS we were part of a large community of really smart adults We had a plethora of highly educated, well-rounded specialty teachers who were enthusiastic about giving us deep information on a variety of subjects outside of what we were learning from our core teachers.

Traveling at a young age was a tremendously important experience for us, because it helped us develop compassion and a strong sense of wanting to be useful in the world, and the confidence that we could truly help.

Here in Silicon Valley, we have one of the best living standards on the planet, and to learn to see other realities and understand the bigger picture was invaluable — to be able to travel and experience other cultures, and share in the happiness that comes from serving.

Q: You were accepted by UCSC which has high admissions standards — how did that come about?

Rose: The story began in my junior year, when our teacher and school principal, Nitai Deranja, took the whole school to Italy for six months. Of course, it was awesome! (laughs)  Then I enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, because I had adult friends in the area that I could live with.

After a year of junior college, I was accepted at Dominican University in San Rafael. I thought that Dominican might be a great place, because it was a small school with a beautiful campus, and I felt it might be compatible with my spiritual life; also, they had a condensed four-year program for teachers. But the school wasn’t what I expected. It had a much narrower belief system than I was used to, so I left and returned to Santa Rosa JC, which is one of the top junior colleges in the country, and I believe I got a better education there than anywhere else. The school is well-endowed, thanks to the legacy of Luther Burbank, the great botanist who lived in Santa Rosa in first half of the 1900s, and I felt that it had a special blessing, a Burbank blessing, and I had a fantastic experience there. Then, after two years, I applied to a number of UC schools, and I chose Santa Cruz.

Q: Who wouldn’t?

Rose: (laughs) Yes, it’s beautiful. But, honestly, Italy was the most amazing experience of all. The six months I studied there were one of the most incredible blessings of my life. I was able to go to a school where all the things I loved and that were most dear to me, and most filled with growth for me, were combined in a single place where my personality, my heart, and my soul were deeply nourished.

Q: Where did you live in Italy?

Rose: In Assisi, at the Ananda Europa community. I did some work trade hours, serving in the kitchen and learning lots of practical skills. I’m a part-time cook now, and for several years I managed a group kitchen and taught cooking workshops, because it’s something I love and that I discovered working in the large retreat kitchen in Italy.

I’m also a singer, and we had an amazing experience in Italy, touring all over Italy with a choir and singing to large crowds in huge cathedrals. At one point, all of the other sopranos got sick. The director had heard me sing solos from the oratorio that we were performing, so about an hour before the performance the other choir members were saying, “Rose can sing that solo!” So I sang my first solo at a big Italian church that was filled with people, and there was a huge blessing in it.

My schooling with LWHS, and most particularly during the Service Adventures was absolutely wonderful. I took tests in buses and taxis as we traveled from place to place (laughs), but the focus of the school included many aspects that were profoundly meaningful and growth-filled for me.

It was such a different educational experience, and I absolutely loved it. I fondly remember traveling all over Italy while we were learning at the same time. I took three hours of Italian every morning, and I ended up learning Italian very functionally. I totally loved the Italian culture, which is very beautiful to me.

Q: Was it a major adjustment to go from a small private high school and a rural junior college to a major, formal university like UCSC?

Rose: Actually, the transition from high school to junior college was the major adjustment — not academically, but because I was very interested in yoga, and I wanted to deepen my spiritual life. My spiritual life was very important to me, and it was very deep, but then I had a session with a Vedic astrologer who said, “You’re going to be out in the world for a time.” I remember protesting, “Oh, no!” But he said, “You’ll be fine. This is important. You have to balance your interests and get some experience in this way.”

It was hard, because I’d been totally immersed in a spiritually uplifting environment, and now, here I was, out in the world where I couldn’t relate to anyone my age. Then, at Dominican University, I finally decided, “No way!” and I came back and adjusted to what was best for me to do.

Entering UCSC was another big adjustment. It was a challenge. I knew that it was something I had to do, but it felt like I had my feet planted in two boats, and for a while it was very hard to hold a deep yoga practice in that environment, so I was very conflicted.

Q: What were you studying?

Rose: I had originally planned to study liberal arts and literature and get into teaching, but I ended up taking so many theater classes at the junior college and loving them so much that I ended up majoring in theater. Theater is a form of community, when it’s done properly, and I loved that aspect.

I enjoyed my junior college theater program more than anything else. At Santa Cruz, there was a clique of students in the theater department who wanted to get ahead, and I wasn’t attracted by that. I was taking theater to get a teaching credential and because I loved it.

The junior college drama department was very different. It was built around community theater, so there were people in their sixties acting alongside us, just because they loved theater. Then you had the first-year college students, and a few people who were deeply serious about theater as a career, but we were all part of a family, and I enjoyed that aspect very much. I wasn’t concerned about getting accepted by Juilliard, as some of the others were, because theater for me was about self-expansion and fun.

Q: What are you doing now?

Rose: I’m a teacher. I teach music, theater, and PE at the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, and I teach cooking and yoga and meditation to adults. These are all things I love to do.

Q: Do you feel that your life has come full circle?

Rose: In a way. I’m eager to build on what I’ve learned, and to assimilate new ways of sharing and learning, and to keep growing. I could probably go deeper in the arts, but I would also love to incorporate nature and sustainability more in my teaching, and explore how we can care for our planet and learn to grow our own food. That feels very important to me.

All in all, I would give Living Wisdom my highest personal recommendation to parents and who are looking for a great school where their kids will absolutely grow, academically and personally. So here’s my personal shout-out: “I recommend Living Wisdom School!”

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