A conversation with Rose Atwell, Living Wisdom School teacher (and alum).
Q: What was it like to be part of the first class of the original Living Wisdom School High School, back in 1997?
R: One of the beautiful things about the school was the Service Adventures. Our school motto was “service, adventure, and self-discovery.” Once a week we would serve at a women’s shelter, or at a home that took care of the elderly, or in a school for kids with special needs. Reaching out and serving was a highlight of the week for us – it made our lives so much more meaningful as young people.
For me, the strength of the program was that it allowed you to have adventure and exploration as very young people, along with really strong academics side by side.
Our first year, we traveled across Mexico in a bus, and it was a huge adventure. I remember how we temporarily got stranded in the desert 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 bit of it.
Our second year, we went to Italy and India. We worked in a refugee camp in Italy for refugees from Kosovo. They were people who had lost their families in the war and managed to escape by sea across the Adriatic. It took us into another world as very young high school kids, and in my honest opinion it was completely amazing. We were fifteen, we were working with refugees, and it was a mind-blowing experience. The nuns put us put us to work ironing and cooking all day, and it was wonderful, and I’m so glad I had that experience.
When it came to the academics, it was 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 be addressed right away.
Even if we were travelling, it didn’t interfere with our academics. I remember taking an algebra final 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.
After I graduated, I ended up at UC Santa Cruz and had a great education. So there wasn’t a conflict between the adventure aspect and what we were learning. The experience showed me that you can have adventure and self-discovery, as well as a very individualized education with tons of personal attention.
Each of us could go at our own pace. Also, we had wonderful specialty teachers. That was a beautiful thing about the school. There were people from the surrounding community who had gone deep in their subject, and they were always ready to offer us their wisdom and experience.
We were part of a large community of really smart adults, and 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 such a young age was hugely important for us, because it helped us develop compassion and a deep sense of wanting to be useful in the world, and the confidence that we could help.
We have so much here in Silicon Valley, with one of the best living standards on the planet. To be able to see other realities and understand the bigger picture is invaluable — to be able to travel and experience other cultures, and experience the happiness that comes with serving.
Q: You were accepted by UCSC, which isn’t easy. How did that come about?
R: In my junior year of high school, Nitai took the school to Italy for six months, and that was awesome! (laughs)
Then I went to Santa Rosa Junior College, because I had adult friends in the Santa Rosa area that I could stay with. After a year of junior college, I got into Dominican University in San Rafael. I thought Dominican would be a great place, because it was a small school with a beautiful campus that I thought would be compatible with my spiritual life. Also, they had a condensed four-year program for teachers. However, the school wasn’t at all what I expected. It had a much narrower belief system than I was used to, so I left and returned to Santa Rosa JC. It’s one of the top junior colleges in the country, and I think I got a better education there than anywhere else. The school is well-endowed, thanks to the legacy of Luther Burbank, who lived in Santa Rosa. I felt it had a special blessing, a Burbank blessing, and I had a fantastic experience there.
After two years I applied to a number of UC schools and chose Santa Cruz.
Q: Who wouldn’t? (laughs)
R: 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 lifetime. I was able to go to school where all of the things I loved and that were most dear to me, and most growthful for me, were combined in one place where my personality, my heart, and my soul were deeply nourished.
Q: Where did you live in Italy?
R: In Assisi, in 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. I manage a group kitchen and teach cooking workshops in the Ananda community in Mountain View. It’s something I love, and I first discovered it working in a large retreat kitchen in Italy.
I’m also a singer, and we had an amazing experience in Italy. We toured all over the country with a choir, singing in cathedrals to large crowds. At one point, all of the other sopranos got sick. The director had heard me sing the solos from the oratorio that we were performing, and about an hour before the performance, the other choir members were saying, “Rose can sing that solo!” So I sang my first solo in a big Italian church filled with people, and there was a huge blessing in it.
My schooling during the Service Adventures was absolutely wonderful. I took tests in buses and taxis going from place to place. (laughs) But the focus of the school included many things that were profoundly meaningful and growthful for me.
It was such a different educational experience, and I absolutely loved it. I remember traveling all over Italy and 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 to a big, formal institution like UCSC?
R: Actually, going from high school to junior college was an adjustment — not academically, but because I was very interested in yoga, and I wanted to deepen my spiritual life. But the timing was strange. My spiritual life was so important to me, and it was very deep, but then I had a session with a Vedic astrologer who told me, “You’re going to be out in the world for a bit.” I remember protesting, “Oh, no!” But he said, “No, you’ll be fine. This is important. You have to balance your interests and get some experience this way.”
But it was hard, because I’d been totally immersed in a spiritually uplifting environment, and here I was out in the world where I couldn’t really relate to anyone my age. And then at Dominican University I finally said, “No way.” So I had to come back and gradually adjust to what I needed to do.
Entering UC Santa Cruz was another adjustment. It was challenging. I knew it was something I had to do, but it felt like I had my feet in two boats, and for a while it was very hard to hold a deep yoga practice in that environment, and I was very conflicted.
Q: What were you studying?
R: I had originally planned to study liberal arts and literature, and then 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 UCSC, the theater department had a clique of students who all wanted to get ahead, and I wasn’t attracted to 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, where there were people in their sixties acting with you because they loved theater, and then you had first-year college students, and a few people who were very serious about theater as a career. But we were part of a family, and I enjoyed that. I didn’t care about getting accepted by Juilliard, because theater for me was about self-expansion and fun.
Q: What are you doing now?
R: I’m a teacher. I teach music, theater, and PE at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, and I cook and teach cooking and yoga and meditation. They’re all things I love to do.
Q: Do you feel your life has come full circle?
R: In a way. I’m eager to build on what I’ve learned and assimilate new ways of sharing and learning, and to keep growing. I could probably go deeper in the arts, but I would love to incorporate nature and sustainability into my teaching, and explore how we can care for our planet and learn to grow our own food. That feels very important to me. I feel attracted to the Ananda Valley Farm, but it’s hard to get out there as often as I’d like, with my schedule.
All in all, I would highly recommend the high school. So here’s my shout-out: “I recommend Living Wisdom High School!”
Rose is a woman of many talents. She directs the music and theater program for Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto. She is an accomplished actor, herself, and a gifted soprano soloist. She teaches yoga to adults and children. And she is a terrific chef.