Dear Portland Public Schools:
I’m writing to you in the hopes that you’ll find a way to keep Outdoor School going, even in the tiniest incarnation. We will find a way to find the money but we need some time. Completely cutting it would take the wind out of its sails; I know deep in my heart that’s not what you want.
I don’t envy you at all. This has got to weigh on you every day. We all know you aren’t making decisions based on what you like or dislike, or what you think is valuable over invaluable. You have a lot that’s set in place for you and you’re only able to move around so much. Like many people writing to you, I get that.
But there is so much more to this program than just a figure in a budget. I wish more than anything that Outdoor School was never funded by the school districts. I wish they had some kind of reserves they could pool from. It seems like the city should be taking care of Outdoor School. I hope they will now.
I went to middle and high school in east Multnomah County. I was bullied so badly in 7th and 8th grade that I went home every day a complete shell. I was shoved to the floor, tripped, and spat on. I was called “dyke” and “fat lesbian” certainly within earshot of many, many teachers with no reaction from them. Boys would frequently berate me at length, grab at me as I walked down the halls, and bark like a dog when I’d enter the room.
This continued when we all went on to high school. At the same time, my family was busy. My parents had to work long hours and I didn’t see them that often. When I did, they didn’t have time for my problems. I felt pretty invisible.
I had heard about Outdoor School from my neighbor. I moved to the district in the 7th grade, so I didn’t go with my class. My neighbor always said she wanted to be a Student Leader when she was a sophomore, and I kind of just did it to get away from home for a while.
Little did I know that as soon as I got off the bus at Student Leader Workshop, I became someone who was valued, who was needed, and who they were, quite literally, waiting for. The staff had no idea who I was. But they did things no one else had done for me till then— They listened and laughed at my stories and jokes. They remembered my name. They told me that I was interesting, and someone they wanted to have around. We discussed when I would come back for a week of Outdoor School; they said they couldn’t wait to have me back. Other Student Leaders included me in the group like I had always been there. I could find open-minded, wonderful people from all over Portland. The world wasn’t like the suburbs. I could be who I was, and it was like they expected me to be different. Also, I had my first introduction to teaching about science, the environment, and Oregon. I’ve never looked back.
I can honestly say I don’t know what I would have done without this experience. I’m not sure I could have stayed in school, given how terrible it was. I considered dropping out many times. I was just completely swallowed by a giant school. I’m not sure I ever would have felt anything about myself other than the terrible things that were repeated at me all day long at school. I am not saying this as an exaggeration. Outdoor School was the only place I felt comfortable and the only time I was really, really good at something with such consequence and importance.
I spent seven weeks in high school as a Student Leader. In that time I took kids from bad neighborhoods in Portland through the forest and taught them real, hands-on science. I also led (with a partner or two) a cabin group of 10-12 girls. One week, my cabin group included a girl who ended up telling me she was homeless, a girl who was in a wheelchair with Cerebral Palsy, a McMenamin, two farm girls, several girls who got into a fight about race, and a handful of very typical sixth grade girls. This is not that different from most weeks of Outdoor School. And it’s the job of the Student Leader to make these kids see the world through each other’s eyes. Do you realize how empowering that is? Especially when it actually works? Consider that same high school student going off to work in the community. The same one who felt lost, harassed, and invisible everywhere else. That kind of experience is priceless.
I know for a fact that I’m not the only one. Read through all of your letters and you’ll see; this is it. This is the biggest deal. We’re not just fans of a sweet, cute singsongy camp experience. This is as life-saving as any kind of counseling program you could pay for. This is intervention, one-on-one care, and personalized work, for every child.
This is it, this is it, this is it.
Thank you, and good luck to you.
PPS Parent, former Parkrose student.