Gwen: A butterfly flaps its wings and creates hurricanes

Gwen [1] was Dumbledore [2]. She was a teacher at and founder and leader of Open Alternative School [1] (OAS), where I attended grade school and middle school. We wanted to do what she asked because we trusted her and disappointing her was the worst! She had an ageless quality about her. Her hair had been white, since forever. She almost always wore purple or light blue and drove a periwinkle blue VW van, that we called the “Gwenie-mobile”.

Gwen rarely got mad, but when she did she was terrifying. Shorter than my average 5’5″ (165 cm), she could produce a silent moral rage that expanded to fill an entire room. My parents theorized that the Board of Education let OAS exist, because it was afraid of Gwen.

Me and Gwen talking about OAS (2009)
Gwen and I are talking about OAS on the local public access channel (2009)

Gwen died on December 21st, 2014, at sunrise. For me, Gwen was a mentor and a friend. I remember driving back from the annual camping trip [3] in the Gwennie-mobile, listening to the entire Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. On our way to San Marcos pass: we were laughing at something and I felt wildly happy about it.

Gwen encouraged me to take a science elective at the junior high next to OAS [4]. She helped me find resources for my high school science fair project that went to the California State Science Fair. When I had trouble in college, she helped me remember that I have inherent worth. I am sad she’s gone. I feel incredibly lucky to have known her.

Gwen was passionate about the environment. I remember her telling us about ripping the invader ice plant from the hillside below her house in Rattlesnake Canyon. She is the reason why, if you come to Santa Barbara, I can’t let you leave unless I’m sure you know what chaparral is. She is also why I know the names of many of the wild flowers in the Santa Barbara area. Gwen loved wild flowers.

Before the annual class camping trip, anyone in Gwen’s class [5] got a “leave no trace” talk . The concept behind “leave no trace” is that you want to leave the environment the way you found it. Gwen would add that this is not actually possible and that even our footprints effect the microorganisms in the earth and the ecosystems that surround them. Even our smallest actions affect changes in the environment around us.

This notion stuck with me.  Later I learned about “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, commonly known as the “butterfly effect.” MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz proposed the concept,  to explain the results of computer weather simulations. The main idea is that small scale events can significantly alter the outcome of subsequent events. To illustrate, this Lorenz suggested that the flapping wings of a butterfly might be the factor that shifts initial conditions just enough to cause a hurricane or tornado. It was a revolutionary idea in many fields of science, because it demonstrated faults in overly simplistic models and it was one of the main concepts of chaos theory.

If, as Dumbledore said, we are our choices [6], I think if we leave anything of ourselves behind it is the changes our choices make. As the “butterfly effect” demonstrates, even the smallest changes can affect future events. Implicit in the “butterfly effect” is the idea that we can’t know the all of outcomes of our actions, but like our footprints in the campground, they continue to have effects after we have left.

I was back home, but sick, when Gwen died. We knew she was critically ill, and I wanted to see her. However, speaking of small changes in conditions, I did not want to introduce my illness to Gwen, on the off chance that I would be that change and her life would end sooner or less peacefully than it would otherwise. I also didn’t want to miss the chance to tell her how much she meant to me. So the night before she died, I asked my dad if he would drive up to her house with a letter.

While I was typing my letter, I logged on to Facebook and asked if any of my friends had anything they wanted to say. Within an hour I had a small packet of letters and photos from her former students. You could see in the ease with which we articulated our emotions and our gratitude: ours was not a normal education [7].

People I've known forever in Santa Barbara: I'm in the left hand corner, in the red dress. The girl in the matching blue dress, the blonde girl right behind me, the girl on the other side who looks a lot like her (they're twins) and the girl behind her will turn up later.
OAS friends, including a classicist, elite cyclist and first generation student tutor, immigrant rights protesters, environmental activist, mother, who is training her sons to be fluent in sign, and me.

Our ability to articulate emotions is just one of the things that makes OAS alumni stand out. OAS has an innovative learning system that emphasizes personal and emotional growth. I know so many OAS alums who have adapted their passions in unique and often revolutionary ways.

We are a specific kind of creative. OAS taught us that instead of asking “how am I doing compared to that guy over there?” we should ask “how can I better understand what that guy over there is doing and can I help?” Not that I always do this, mind.

According to Gwen she was “one of a group” that founded OAS, but she “did do the leadership role,” by which she meant she lead various fights to keep OAS going and mediated the running of OAS for 40 years. Still, at OAS, we interact as equals, which is why Gwen was a “head teacher” and not a “principal.”

I suspect Gwen would be proud of how I try things, not always knowing if I will succeed, and how I try to understand and listen to people.  Above all I believe she’d be proud of how I have trouble just walking by litter… If I’m running late or my arms are full, I mentally apologize to Gwen. Often, especially in Italy, it’s scattered all over the place and it’s overwhelming, but I imagine a bird choking on it. I can’t just walk by. So I pick up one, just one piece.

Perhaps, if more of our heroes were “one of a group,” we might be less inclined to decide that our actions don’t matter and more inclined to remember our inherent worth.


I talked about my OAS friends, while writing about moving on from different places. This was mostly written for them and other members of the OAS community.  However, I think Gwen was a pretty cool person and others might enjoy hearing about her too. For a full biography see the obituary written by fellow OAS teacher Liz. An OAS parent also wrote a memorial pice. OAS is a unique place and you can read more about why on their website and Facebook

1. Gwen Phillips (see also), Gwennie as her students used to call her, founded Open Alternative School (OAS), where I spent kindergarten and 1st grade and 3rd through 8th grades. For international friends: this school is not representative of schools in the US. It is rare, but there are other similar schools, here and there.

2. When my OAS friends and I read Harry Potter, we all agreed that Gwen was Dumbledore, Dumbledore, a Dumbledore relative, or a real life version of the mythic archetype Dumbledore represents. We weren’t exactly clear on the details. At various times I believed TWO of these and I was just barely old enough for that to be embarrassing, when the US version of the books came out. 

 3. Every OAS class, after 3rd grade (during my time, now I think it’s every class), goes on a camping trip. 

4. OAS shares a campus with a junior high school. When I attended OAS, all 8th grade students could take one or two classes at the junior high. Given the self directed nature of the OAS classes, it was possible to plan work around the junior high class times. 

5. We always use our teacher’s first name at OAS. For international friends: this is not the norm in the US.

6. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” From Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets, by JK Rowling.

7. OAS spends about a half hour everyday teaching students how to articulate and communicate their emotions in a productive way

Further Reading/ Watching

Here are videos from an interview I did with Gwen, a few years ago. Youtube took them down, because I technically don’t have a license for them, but they aired on the public access channel on a show that (according to the internet) is not airing anymore. I used a sample version of a program to adapt the DVD, which is why they all have “evaluation copy” written across them. Sometime I’ll take the original DVD and talk to public access TV, and get permission to post an embedded video and come up with something better. However, if you’re an OAS student and you’d really just like to hear Gwen’s voice, I tracked down links, which don’t appear on my Youtube account anymore (read: if you’re in Germany click with caution).

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

OAS is a one of a kind organization. However, I googled the three education philosophers Liz mentioned in Gwen’s obituary (Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, and John Holt) and fond some resources for teachers looking to emulate an OAS philosophy and parents, who might like an OAS-like education, but don’t live in Santa Barbara:

Herbert Kohl Official Website and Contact Information

AS Neill on the Summerhill Website

Wikipedia List of Democratic Schools

International Democratic Education Network

Education Revolution: Alternative Education Resource Organization

How Children Fail, by John Holt (Amazon)

For aspiring educators in the SB area Antioch University has a partnership with OAS.


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