Dear Portland Public Schools Board of Education,
My name is Sanjay ——-, and I’m currently living in Chicago, IL where I work as a high school teacher at a school for students living with autism. I never thought I’d end up here; in fact, neither did my parents. I was always on the track to be a doctor or researcher, until I went to Outdoor School.
When I was in the 6th grade my family moved to a neighborhood in East Portland called Rockwood. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, or if you ever will, but it’s a rough place. I’ve heard it’s much rougher there now. I was the only Indian kid in my whole grade, and for that I was made fun of relentlessly. Life was hell. Literally two weeks after I arrived, our teacher told us we’d be going to something called Outdoor School. I put it out of my mind, thinking it would be torture without the safety of home.
A man came to our class. His name was Snake and he brought a projector, and a real snake into the class! All the girls screamed but I had a snake at home and I felt like he was the only person who knew why they were cool or interesting. He showed us slides of the bathrooms, the cabins, the river, and the dog at Sandy River Outdoor School. I felt a little more comfortable.
Once we got to Outdoor School it was like a veil had been lifted. I could take deep breaths, people stuck up for me, the bullies who tormented me were in the minority, and everyone else was so positive and kind. My Student Leader, Trapper John was the coolest guy in the whole world. He was from the city, and it was like he was best friends with everyone. I remember thinking that I wished so badly to feel that comfortable somewhere. And at Outdoor School, I finally did.
Four years later I went back to be a Student Leader. My first week I was maybe 14 years old, and left alone with a cabin of 6th graders. I had kids from all over Portland, rich and poor, and those with disabilities and behavior issues.
But one week, I had Aaron. Aaron experienced life through the lens of autism. He would rock back and forth, scream in the night, and wouldn’t ever make eye contact. And you know what? Every single boy in my cabin was kind with him. They were patient and waited for him. They never laughed, even though he peed his pants a lot. They included him as much as they could in games. At one point a few of the boys decided they would sit out campfire with Aaron, because they knew it was too loud for him.
That is what made my choice to specialize in autism. I wanted to show other people that you can still have relationships with those with autism. You can still be kind and friendly, and you can still make them feel part of something. We’ll never know how they are perceiving a situation, but we do know how we treat them. And I learned that at Outdoor School.
Please listen to me when I say this: Portland will never be the same if you cut Outdoor School. Students will be unkind and never see a different point of view. And kids like me will go on living in misery because no one at school has time for them. Please give this precious gift to children. It’s not that much money in the broad scheme of things.