The average student at OHS most likely plans to leave the island as soon as possible following graduation; most students also would probably agree that they have no immediate plans to return. Yet despite this trend, alumni regularly return to the island, even to become a teacher at OHS. Many of us may already know that new Spanish teacher Rebecca Parish is an OHS alumna, regardless of whether one is taking Spanish this year. However, none of us know exactly how and why Parish, who began as a student just like any other at OHS today, has circled back to her place of origin.
A seasoned Orcas student, Parish attended Orcas Island School District from the age of six. She described her high school self as rather “chatty,” and focused more on “social happenings than school happenings.” Just like many OHS students, she did not expect to return to the island, and while she enjoyed Spanish as a student, she did not expect to eventually teach it, especially in the same classroom in which she first learned it. Similarly, she remarks that only now does she realize she appreciated the smallness of the school: “I think if you would have asked me in high school if I liked that, I probably would have said no,” said Parish, “But looking back on it, I do.”
Parish studied Spanish and Latin American Studies at a small working college in North Carolina–where she also worked in plumbing to earn towards her tuition–but she believes what made her fluent in the language was her time spent living in Costa Rica, where she both studied at a university and lived in a small island community of 500 residents, where she worked in sea turtle conservation. “That was a really beneficial experience in lots of ways,” she said. “Mostly just in learning how other people live, and how it’s different from how I grew up, and that even though it was so different, it was just as normal.” Parish also worked as a crew leader for Northwest Youth Corps, prompting her to start teaching.
A number of factors influenced Parish to return to her roots. She had already been considering returning at some point due to the realization that the other communities in which she had been living – including the diverse community of White Center near Seattle, where she also taught – were similar to the Orcas community in that they were also tightly-knit. Upon finding out over the summer that the position was open, Parish felt that now was the right time to return. “Going to these other places, and wanting to be a part of the community, I was thinking that I’m from a community, and I can just go back to where I’m actually from, and be a part of that again.”
Comparing the present-day OHS to her memories of the school as a student, Parish believes that the school still holds the same vibes and sense of connectedness. In terms of her own personal change, she remarks that the lack of racial diversity at OHS led her to grow up “with the perception that racism didn’t exist here,” and she feels that her experiences and her passion for social justice have changed that perception for the better. “Leaving, and learning a lot more about my role in it made me reflect on how a lot of those things do exist here,” said Parish. “I guess [social justice] is one thing I feel like I’m bringing back here as a perspective.” Her way of teaching is more interactive and spontaneous than her own high school Spanish class, with emphasis on culture and ability to verbally speak the language.
So far she finds that “weirdly, it doesn’t feel that weird” returning to teach in her old classroom. She does not believe she has yet reverted to her old self as she expected to. Regarding the environment of Orcas Island, she enjoys the convenient proximity to nature as well as the view through the window; socially, it has been rewarding to see familiar faces, be part of the
community, get to know the students, and share her knowledge and experiences. “The plan is to stay for an indefinite amount of time, and keep growing here.”