what’s in “an education”? / on finding a fitting place at Orinda Academy, and re-thinking the wonders of Holy Cross

“if we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” ~ Margaret Mead



above / Royal: at Cafe Fanny, 3 days old; walking the runway in a “Royal Collection” dress; “finding a fitting place” Orinda Academy…

My 14 year old daughter reminded me last month, as she began her new(est) school at the end of its semester at Orinda Academy, that it was her 8th school. We started her “career” as a student at Emeryville Child Development Center which was nurturing, sweet (and close to Pixar where my husband works). She then went to Park Day, a private school in Oakland where she spent 2 years, but had a difficult time keeping up with her cohort. We didn’t want to also have to hire an educational specialist to help her with decoding and phonemic awareness (why did first grade have to be so hard!?) ~  so we moved her to Kaiser Elementary public school for 2nd grade where the structure and repetition was what she needed to learn to read. And, her teachers were perfectly aligned with where she was academically. She liked her friends, socializing, and fitting in. Royal became confident ~ she sang, she danced, she played instruments, and did okay in schoolwork. Middle school in Oakland, as many parents know and have experienced, is a wildcard. Most of our friends sent their kids to private schools because this is the time when “it matters.” We had done the opposite. We started in private which didn’t work out ~ and surprisingly public school was a success. There were things in place for learning differently that didn’t cost extra ~ testing and resources were readily available (and free) and all seemed good. Royal’s friends all went to Montera, but she got into Claremont where there was a change in administration and a handful of new concerns (for her/us) around fitting in as a bi-racial teen, and not having her social circle nearby. She was there 3 difficult days and luckily found a space for her at Montera, where they had the same principal who was with her at Kaiser. She seemed to be getting by ~ had made new friends, had her old friends and all was well…until it wasn’t. Fitting in in middle school is different than elementary school ~ and especially in a place like Oakland where her “brown skin” was neither white/caucasian, nor black/African-American. She didn’t blend in as much as she tried (and she did try ~ through language, hair-dos, style and tastes) and within months the bullying began until the chase, the fight, the humiliation ~ which then went on-line on social media, and a disaster ensued. We stayed and tried, and after more drama, and another last day of school fights (yes, an actual fist-fight that was recorded and then went viral) my hopes in a public education was replaced with anger in how the system had failed (us). That summer, very late in the game that education seems to be ~ we found Beacon Day School. It was a wonderful, loving, supportive community and Royal found her voice again ~ through dance, gardening, singing, theater ~ and the art of public speaking. In fact, she began her graduation speech (pictured above, middle) with the reflective words of Bob Marley ~

 “Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don’t complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don’t bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!”

7th grade and 8th grade were spent learning and doing and developing relationships and us as a family figuring out what next. We had planned a move to Austin Texas (why not, I’m an anthropologist and used to moving around), but then a job at Apple University (and Lloyd’s job at Pixar) made us stay local. But we (had once again) missed all the private high school application deadlines. Oakland High Schools were out of the question. Royal was still haunted now and again by images posted, words uttered, feelings hurt.  So, we searched for a home ~ a fitting place to move to… and 120 houses later, we found our place in Orinda ~ an oasis in the woods, minutes from BART. Royal would begin Miramonte, the local public school. as a freshman in high school (there was no room left in the neighboring Campolindo, which had the reputation of being a little more forgiving academically). I figured her resilience and capacity for change was great, and even though I recall the murmurs of its tightly woven cliques that develop from pre-school and new girls fitting in would be hard, I didn’t think it would be impossible. But this was only one of a handful of difficulties. By the end of October and countless meetings with teachers, counselors, IEP administration, and psychologists, Royal’s enthusiasm for the new ~ a new identity, a new life, a new style ~ was overtaken by depression, anxiety and literally not getting up in the morning. The 3-4 hours of homework at night overwhelmed her (and our family), the fear of speaking up to say she didn’t understand what was going on, depleted all sense of self, and eating lunch alone day after day totally diminished any sense of belonging. It became too much. By the end of October we met with a local psychiatrist who deals with anxiety and stress of Lamorinda High School students and she looked at me and said  “your daughter isn’t clinically depressed. it’s situational. you need to change the situation.” So we did. The search took 2 weeks of re-thinking Maybeck in Berkeley, where we had re-applied earlier that year, but had wanted to give Miramonte a chance. The last thing we wanted to do was make life even harder with commutes to Cupertino, Emeryville, and then Berkeley. And we weren’t sure about the fit…

But what is a fitting place, the right fit ~ to fit in? And, what is it to “think different,” “learn different” and truly feel a part of  an education system that values just that? We checked out one-on-one mastery oriented schools ~ Tilden and Halstrom Academy were great ideas but Royal wanted a community, a family ~ like Beacon…. so, I chose Orinda Academy after hearing about it through a friend whose nephew goes there ~ whose life had been changed by it. I visited, and then Royal and I visited ~ and it was quick, intuitive, seemed right. I felt even with the coming changes (the founder/director Ron Graydon ~ who also co-founded the Marin School ~ retiring this summer), that its Deans of Academics Roger Wise and Mollie Mowat ~ would take the school into the future. And, there were the circle of parents who could help to see that through. There was a true commitment to valuing the differences in the ways we think and learn, how we think and learn. We as parents all had the same experiences of our children not fitting into the “normal” public school education of rote learning and memorization ~ and basically, after teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor at UC Berkeley where I got my ph.d. ~ I didn’t believe in such an out-dated philosophy learning anyways. Students arrived as freshman at CAL burnt out, exhausted and many passionless to learn because they had been depleted in high school being taught mostly things they weren’t interested in, had absolutely no immediate application to their life and living. And it made me think ~ I had gotten to where I was in life not by acing my SATs, or doing hours of homework in high school ~ my enthusiasm when I arrived at College of Holy Cross was due to my love of the richness and possibility of life ~ and my curiosity to how people become who they are. What are their journeys, their paths ~ and what are my own passions, interests? And now, what are my daughter Royal’s and my son August’s (a 6th grader at Orinda Intermediate) road into the future, the things that will fulfill them, those things that quicken the heart ?

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” – Maya Angelou



above / Beacon Day School : 8th grade trip to Catalina Island, Beacon Art&Culture class I taught, History teacher Sean Nowicki walking the students through Oakland Art Museum; bottom images ~ Salon dinner #98, hosted by the 8th grade class at Highlands Country Club

Royal’s experience at Beacon Day School was such a huge academic contrast to Montera ~ but we didn’t realize that until she was tested to get into St. Paul’s for 7th grade (and where she would have had to repeat 6th grade). We chose Beacon for its intimacy, educational philosophy, and because they were able to work with someone who learns different, at her own pace “catching her up” to where she is supposed to be. She was a 7th grader who needed explanation, inspiration, clear direction, as well as high expectations of her work that shows her strengths, builds confidence and motivates her to want to learn through being curious and interested in a subject, seeing its relevance to one’s life. If these are your values as parents, as they were ours ~ how has the education system, even in a very well supported one in Lamorinda (which does amazingly well for most people in the community ~ and has a wonderfully supportive staff), allow for certain children to fall through the cracks? And when they do fall through the cracks ~ self-esteem plummeting, confidence deteriorated ~ where can they go? We were grateful for Miramonte because the teachers and counselors tried so hard to figure out where and even if there was a place for Royal ~ we all worked hard at trying to find a fitting place for her there ~ but the struggle, the tutors, the days off from work spent helping Royal catch up on homework, the endless nights of arguing about the purpose of it all ~ just didn’t make sense in the lifestyle that we wanted to have as we moved from the hustle and chaos of West Oakland, to the beautiful country-like setting of Orinda. And, this kept ringing in my head ~ “Why do I have to spend high school trying to get into college?”


“education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~ william butler yeats



above / left, being “hooded” at Zellerbach, UC Berkeley, Anthropology department, June 2001, with my mom. Revisiting College of the Holy Cross 5 years ago, presenting my clothing collection ~ it was here where I started in economics (wanting to be an investment banker) and added art history for a double major, with a minor in philosophy east/west. after lives in the art world, academia as an anthropologist, I became a fashion designer, salonniere, filmmaker/installation artist, and most recently ended up on the faculty of Apple University. I still believe that it was my stories around competitive roller-skating, dancing and being a football cheerleader ~ and my curiosity about possibility ~ that the Jesuits and admissions staff had a hunch I was a good fit for their liberal arts education.


“education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~ john dewey 


Our arrival and first month of December at Orinda Academy was eye-opening; primarily, because of the contrast ~ of space/environment, of philosophy, of community ~  and of course, we got our daughter back. She was happy again. Royal was performing solo at the Winter Concert after 5 days at school; she was eating with friends at lunch, and taking her work from Miramonte and sculpting it into projects that made sense to her. A paper about The Lord of the Flies became a papier mache sculptural landscape of the island the boys inhabited. Her F in Math became an A ~ and a la Khan Academy, she was mastering the skills it takes to actually understand algebra, step by step, at her own pace. She has been at OA for 2 months, and my question now becomes ~ what exactly is AN EDUCATION?! As my 12 year old son August is bored of the repetition at his Middle School, and I am trying to create little walking-to-the-bus-stop games that invokes his curiosity ~ I recall years ago seeing Vicki Abeles compelling and heart wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere…and, my re-seeing it AFTER moving through the tunnel and spending three months of our new lives trying to adapt to the culture and expectations of Miramonte ~ makes me wonder ~ WHY has our public education not innovated in the same way our tech companies have and what would it look like if it did? Why is P-tech in Brooklyn seemingly a one-off and not the educational norm? Where are our models for integrating thinking with doing, conceptualizing with making ~ moving from words to deeds, theory to practice?

“The wise person doesn’t give the right answers, but poses the right questions.”
– Claude Levi-Strauss

Some of the quotes from Race To Nowhere (below are a handful) stood out and rang in my ears every evening before going to bed around 1am or 2am after Royal struggled to complete worksheets and workbook questions, memorizing facts and dates, watching films, for homework and basically taking up our family time… but I think this question from Royal sums it up ~ “why do I have to spend high school trying to get into college?”

These kids are so overscheduled and tired … I’m afraid that our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods”  / “We want the best for them [so] we put pressure on them to be what we want them to be…” / “At what point did it become okay for schools to dictate how we spend our lives after the bell rings?”  [regarding homework] / “We lose boys because they tune out and we lose girls to depression…” / “We need to redefine success for kids … We have to get off this treadmill together. [We have to discuss] what does it take to create a happy, motivated, creative human being?”

It’s this last question that I have been working with Royal over the past few years ~ to figure out her strengths, her passions ~ what she gets up out of bed for… below, a few images of how we have sculpted an education together ~ in lieu of some of the difficulties of memorizing and regurgitating, taking tastes, writing theses, being timed on homework, and truly not understanding the meaning and purpose of learning. Below, one of the great quotes (and my personal mantra) that I think sums up my own education growing up in Leominster, Massachusetts absorbing my grammy and papa and their love of growing and making food, continuing on through college, the art world  in NYC and Venice, academia, and the fashion and food world here in the Bay Area. And to end,

“tell me and i forget. teach me and i remember. involve me and i learn.” ~ benjamin franklin





above / food + gathering (2012,2014,2015, 2018) + photography + music + art installation + She-Can Gala + fashion


“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” ~ ee Cummings

epilogue /… last year before starting at Apple, I spent a lot of time thinking about its history of the company, its founder Steve Jobs, his education, and the Think Different campaign from 1997 which I saw whilst visiting Orinda Academy. It was and is those little steps along the way where the mind connects the dots, puts pieces and experiences together from the past, to form a future that no one could have predicted. In the great diana vreeland’s words ~ “give ‘em what they never knew they wanted” ~ and sometimes this takes not only “thinking different” ~ but also the understanding that some of our children “learn different” ~ to give them space and structure, and the sense of self needed to always inspiring creativity, curiosity and the never ending ability to be able to connect the dots ~ “to stay hungry, stay foolish…”

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ~ rob siltanen


some cool educational and inspirational resources that i have come across, been inspired by and/or partnered with ~

The Edible Schoolyard Project

The Charlie Cart Project 

Walt Disney Family Museum / guided school tours, education outreach, workshops

Pixar in a Box / through Khan Academy (Sal Khan’s TED talk)

k12 Lab Network at the Stanford d.school

Exploratorium / The Teacher Institute

826 Valencia

National Novel Writing Month / Young Writers Program

Visual Thinking Curriculum / MOMA, NYC

IDEO / education 

She-Can / becoming a mentor, becoming a scholar

Apple / Today at Apple ~ Hour of Code, Program Robots, Music Lab

World Wide Women Girl’s Festival /// Camp Reel Stories, Oakland  /// The Intuitive Writing Project, Orinda


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ gandhi 


  • Reply February 11, 2018


    This blog/post on Royal’s struggles and successes with various educational systems and your searcfor what is for her the right place is by far the best that you have written in years.

  • Reply May 3, 2018

    Carole Borja

    That was so well written about Royal’s difficult school life. She’s like a different
    young lady since starting at Orinda Academy. So thankful you found that
    school for her. It’s great seeing a smile on her face and in her voice. When
    we talk now, she tells me all about what she’s doing in school and that she has
    friends. She’ll be “15” tomorrow and will be a day of smiles about how her life has
    changed since getting into Orinda Academy . Enjoy life and school Royal.
    Love you lots, Grandma

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