Brand New

September 1987 represented a turning point in both my spiritual journey as a Friend and my professional life as a teacher. It was then I realized, after 11 years as an educator, that I could not continue to teach as I had always taught.

I had been given a copy of the Quaker classic Testament of Devotion by scholar and educator Thomas Kelly. By this time I had been a convinced Friend for four years. I had been convinced of the truth that Christ had indeed come to teach his people himself. I had been convinced that the sacred could be witnessed and responded to in every one of God’s creations. I had been convinced that the essence of leadership is service and that it was our service to the least within society that was the measuring stick of the extent to which we serve God. I was convinced but not yet converted.

Sure, some of my life’s habits had changed. I was attending meeting weekly. I had joined a number of committees. I was attentive to my prayer/meditation life, rising practically every day at 5:00 a.m. for devotions. I was more diligent about “doing good.” I had learned a little Quakerese, so that at least when speaking outside of my classroom, I was not so confrontational in my style. I could sit in silence easily for at least an hour without ministers, music, or the movements that I associated with praise and worship as a child. There certainly had been changes in my life. My classroom, however, remained the same as it had always been. It did not reflect that of which I claimed to be convinced.

As I read Kelly’s essay, “Holy Obedience,” I was struck by his quote of Meister Eckhart, “There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half.” Kelly then issues us an invitation:

I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean—for you and for me—commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him. . . . When such a commitment comes in a human life, God breaks through, miracles are wrought, world-renewing divine forces are released, history changes.

I knew Thomas Kelly was speaking about me. I was a “first half” Friend. I also knew that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me and that the biggest barrier to obedience was my reluctance to turn my classroom over to the Divine.

Growing up a fundamentalist Christian, I was familiar enough with Scripture to know something of God’s résumé. Sure He/She had created heaven and Earth, had done the burning bush thing, raised a few dead, saved some folks from a fiery furnace, and various and sundry other unnatural events. That, however, did not mean God could be turned loose in my particular classroom without making a complete mess.

You see, I had built a reputation for being a successful, inner-city public school teacher. I taught in the heart of North Philadelphia, a neighborhood that in spite of its tremendous resources, both human and institutional, was being ravaged by crime, drugs, violence, inadequate housing, limited educational and employment opportunities, and all the other conditions that seem to go hand in hand with the continuation of oppression and exploitation of the poor in general and people of African descent in particular. I taught in a system that devoured “weak” teachers and spit them out. I taught in an “I don’t know how you do it” school: a school with always “too many and never enough”—too many students, too many problems, too many excuses; not enough funding, not enough books, not enough supplies, not enough adults in a sea of young people. Nevertheless, I had managed to carve out a place for myself and establish a classroom that, according to others, really worked.

I was tough and fearless. Standing only 4’11” and maybe 110 pounds, I could make the rowdiest thug back up. In a school where classroom management was an issue, I had intimidated my students into submission. When I was teaching you could hear a pin drop. I had mastered the insult, the quick comeback, and the comic putdown in such a way that I maintained enough order to be able to teach mathematics. I was queen of my class, and my students respected me as such. When I was not perched on my throne, I was dazzling them from the stage. My system seemed to work well because once I established order, I could then delight my students with dynamic presentation, high energy and enthusiasm, a knowledge of my discipline, and a hip “with it” style.

I was a success. Once my children surrendered their will to mine and accepted me as the sole authority in the room, they came to love me and enjoy my class. Other teachers would come and observe my teaching techniques. If outsiders came to visit our school, my classroom was sure to be one of the stops that the administration would make. How could I let God mess this up! So, the Spirit’s invitation to embark on the second half of the journey caused me great turmoil. I found myself troubled and distressed as I wrestled with the Spirit about what holy obedience would require of me.

Initially, when I considered the discrepancy between how I ran my class and the beliefs I espoused, I experienced a great wave of guilt. How could I say I believed in the Testimony of Equality and construct a classroom where my students were my subjects, where it was my way or the highway? How could I profess the Peace Testimony and use verbal violence and intimidation to manage students? How could I acknowledge the power of the Inner Teacher to guide and then set myself up as the sole authority of knowledge and wisdom in my class? How could I espouse a belief in interdependence of community and create the illusion that I didn’t need my students? How could I articulate the belief that Spirit could use anyone with any gift to accomplish Her work, and only affirm students whose talents related to my discipline? I was ashamed of these discrepancies, and my shame soon gave way to anger.

One First Day during meeting for worship, I had been reminded of the Scripture in Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”

Instantly, I received this as conviction with regard to my classroom. But then I decided the Spirit had beat me up enough. “Just wait one minute!” I thought. What I had built was a hybrid of the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza. It worked, and there was no reason for me not to be proud of my accomplishments. How dare God imply that my efforts were in vain? Furthermore, let’s get real; I was teaching children that Quaker schools refused to admit. Surely testimonies such as equality, peace, harmony, simplicity, and community could not work for just any child in just any school. In fact, if Quaker education could really work for people who were not privileged, academically talented, behaviorally adjusted, or the selected children of Quaker parentage, we would long ago have flung open our doors and said whosoever will, let them come. We don’t do that. Every one knows those painful stories of children who have been asked to leave Friends schools, who didn’t quite fit. So how was I supposed to attempt to be in Quaker community with children that challenge the ministries of Friends far more spiritually evolved and seasoned than I? It just wasn’t fair.

For the next four months I continued to wrestle. I prayed, asking God to give me a vision of what my class could be. No vision came. I prayed and asked God to help me be less invested in my image and reputation. Yet the thought of someone coming to my class while I experimented with some new instructional strategies or a different response to misbehavior was simply horrifying. I became miserable and depressed.

James Baldwin, in his book The Fire Next Time, quotes from a classic sermon, “The very time I thought I was lost my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” It was time for one of those minor miracles, a little divine intervention in my affairs. In a bizarre turn of events a teacher’s grievance resulted in a personnel audit of my school. The audit determined that we had too many teachers on staff. Two math positions were cut. No one suspected that with seven years of seniority, I would be one of the teachers to lose my position. The principal immediately took steps to keep me and offered to create a different position for me. Although everyone including me was shocked, I saw it as the hand of God moving in my circumstances. If I were not able to start over where I was, perhaps I could start anew in a place where there was no reputation to protect.

I was transferred to a new school. I took a deep breath and invited the Spirit to have dominion in my class. Still without a clue of what that would look like, I ended up transferring to a school and was eventually placed on a team of master teachers who did not identify themselves as Quakers, but had received a vision of a community of teacher/learners that was child-centered, instructionally adaptive, and consistent with my Quaker values and principles.

We gathered together, crammed into an old windowless shop room that we had painted ourselves. We were a team of four teachers, a classroom assistant, and 60 students who had been identified as academically unsuccessful. They were 5th-7th graders, with ages that spanned from 12 to 16. Among that first class we had a couple of teen mothers, a few young men who had already been adjudicated, several children who had been identified as special ed, and a young lady who was already making money as a pornographic model. The school district called these children “students at risk,” so we called ourselves the STAR Team. We told our children that although they had struggled in the past, we had all been brought together because we knew they had gifts about which others did not know, and we were convinced that they could shine. We let them know that we, too, had gifts we wanted to cultivate, and we wanted a chance to shine with them. Thus we embarked on a journey to find salvation in one another.

Blessed to be with two of the most incredible educators I will ever know, Dennis Barnebey and Michele Sims, I found myself a novice among teachers who had high expectations for student performance and conduct but believed that empowering students to take responsibility for their lives and their learning was essential. On the first day, Michele stood before the class and raised her hand. As soon as one student stopped talking and raised her hand, she would say, “I’d like to thank Jamila for her support. I’d like to thank Mailik for getting focused.” Not once did she call the name of a child who was off task. She just kept affirming each child until there was a hush over the room. It took longer than telling a room of children to be quiet, but there was a beauty and simplicity to what she did that was simply astonishing. Not once did she raise her voice. I knew that I was home.

Over the next three years, I watched the Lord build the house. Because there was more than one adult in the room, there was always one of us available to facilitate mediations and to labor with students in distress. We developed interdisciplinary units that utilized a wide range of strategies to appeal to various learning styles and celebrate a range of intelligences. We incorporated music, dance, poetry, and drama in exploring various subject areas. We shared with students our strengths and weaknesses. Whenever we could, we asked our students to listen to their own inner voices so they could cultivate their capacity for self-control and self-determination.

We made servant-leadership a cornerstone of our class activities. Our theme for the year was “Taking My Place to Make a Better World.” Our students participated in night vigils against homelessness, wrote letters and participated in demonstrations against apartheid, and engaged their elders in an intergenerational project in a nursing home before “service learning” became en vogue. We visited the homes of all our students, villaging with their parents to support the children we all loved. We met monthly in churches, providing daycare for our own children and theirs so parents weren’t always meeting us on our turf. We developed a community of children who assessed themselves, one another, and their teachers. Although we had students who struggled, our lives certainly were changed and so were theirs. After three wonderful and exhausting years we lost financial and administrative support for our program. They were the best years of my career, for by God’s grace, having embarked on the “second half” I received a brand new understanding of Quaker education.

My experience with the Star Team helped me realize that Quaker education was not education that happened in a Quaker school, but education that grows out of the principles and practices of those who are driven to bear witness to the sacredness of each child. It is a ministry undertaken by those who have received a vision of the risen Christ in the eyes of their students. It is the worship of those who have experienced a child’s desk as an altar. It is the testimony of those who have witnessed again and again the power of God to touch, teach, and transform lives within the context of an intergenerational learning community. It is the journey of those who have set about to create environments where children are safe, celebrated, and set free to search and find that which affirms their holiness. It is an education that happens anywhere, among any population of students, any time some educator turns over a class to the Holy Spirit in an attempt to live out one’s Quaker faith.

Now, I teach and learn in a different community with high school students. My classroom is quite different from what it was 15 years ago, but not much different from my STAR Team days. Just last week, by the time I arrived in class late, the class had already started. Later during class, as we began to get a little noisy, one of the students raised a hand as a signal to quiet the class. I, of course, stopped my conversation, recognizing the leadership of the student who thought that it was time for all of us to pull back together. I am so tremendously grateful to be still in North Philadelphia, with courageous young men and women who have learned how to affirm one another, be accountable to the community, and are moving into their future with a sense of purpose and a belief that they can make a difference. I have shared my journey with my students and with gratitude offered to them this poem that they inspired.

At the Center where they belong . . . not me
Bringing with them youth’s hot, perfect, pure light
Raw energy, principle, passion, delight.
Bringing with them courage to survive
the chaos
Legacy of our failure to develop true sight.

At the center where they belong . . . not me
My class no longer stage or throne,
But bustling mass of community
Unfettered by the crushing weight of all I
do not know or see
Unbounded by the narrow walls of experience that define my life
At the center my students, not I, but WE
Their power unleashed means finally,
I’m free.