When I first began teaching at a Friends school seven years ago, what I knew of Quakers derived mostly from a game I had played as a child. "Quaker meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun. If you show your teeth or tongue, you will have to pay a forfeit." This game challenged exuberant children to maintain dour expressions and silence, but inevitably degenerated into stifled giggles and outright laughter. Indeed, that was the point: you were supposed to laugh. Those silly Quakers, we thought. Who doesn’t like to laugh and have fun?
Recalling that game, it was with some trepidation that I attended my first real meeting for worship as a new teacher at Germantown Friends School in 1996. But instead of the grim seriousness I was expecting, what I heard was an outpouring of genuine reflection on a variety of topics, some personal, some political, some spiritual. I have since attended hundreds of meetings, and while I’m not a Quaker and don’t think of myself as a particularly religious person, I am continually amazed by what happens in Quaker meeting at our school. Teenagers of diverse age, race, gender, and religion regularly speak of public events and their private lives with candor and emotion. Meeting seems to offer them a safe forum for expressing feelings, concerns, values, and aspirations.
This sort of sharing, so alien to my own public school upbringing, has long sparked my curiosity about the role of meeting in our school community. Like most newcomers, during my first few years I remained a fascinated but mostly passive participant in meeting. Then came the events of September 11, 2001, which touched off one of the most engaging and worshipful years I have seen in our meeting. Feeling that I was witnessing something extraordinary, I began listening to and watching our meeting more closely, speaking to students about their experiences there, and keeping a journal about my own. I became interested in what our students—most of whom are not Quakers—thought and felt about meeting, and whether they shared my sense of awe at what was expressed during that school year. It’s perhaps my background in archaeology that led me to "dig" into meeting in this way. Trying to get a rational grasp on something mysterious and mystical may strike some as futile, others as irreverent. Nevertheless, this personal exploration has offered me insight into the dynamics of our meeting, its role in shaping the lives of adolescents, and its relation to our school’s mission and curriculum.
Our meeting takes place once per week, and involves about 350 students (grades 9-12) and 40 faculty. With so many people in one place, it’s no surprise that meeting can be very social. This is one of the few times during the week when the entire upper school convenes, and before we settle into silence the room is a humming mass of activity, a gregarious and vibrant place. Cacophony reigns as students jockey for the best seats on the facing bench, and faculty members chat about e-mail or committee meetings.
Waiting for silence to descend, I noticed several things that influence where students sit. Following school custom, most sit with their grade in one of the four quadrants of the meetinghouse. A few sometimes break away to sit with a boy- or girlfriend. Gender and race also affect seating patterns, as girls tend to sit next to girls, boys next to boys, whites with whites, and blacks with blacks. Race emerged as particularly salient on one occasion when I noticed a Chinese American boy, conspicuously seated five or six spaces away from his classmates. As I pondered whether this was significant, he suddenly stood and delivered a message, calling attention to that separation and interpreting it as symbolic of his sense of estrangement from his peers. It hadn’t occurred to me that seating patterns in meeting could hold such latent meaning, but students seem very conscious of it. One girl I spoke to said, "You can always tell when someone’s sitting someplace unusual. You can spot new romances forming, or see who’s mad at who."
A great deal of sound and activity occurs within the stillness of our meeting. The quiet is punctuated by sneezes and coughs, the creaking of benches, and the growl of hungry stomachs. I often noticed girls stroking one another’s hair, or boys carrying on mouthed conversations over short distance. In any given meeting a number of students appear to sleep, while a few couples sit holding hands. The variety of postures and poses is endless.
Watching this for a year has convinced me that meeting, in part, is a social event for many students. But I don’t think this is bad. Our students seem to feel as comfortable in the meetinghouse as elsewhere on campus; it’s a familiar place to which they are willing to bring all their normal teenage energy and angst. Some use the weekly gathering as a chance to rest or connect with friends, while others express (or wrestle with) their sense of self-identity based on where they sit and with whom. A Quaker student I spoke to identified student ownership of the meeting as one of its main strengths, and others agreed. The students’ sense of ease in the space, and their freedom to make of meeting what they want, probably contribute to their willingness to participate openly and honestly in speaking.
One of the most fascinating aspects of meeting at our school is the variety and depth of the weekly messages, even though few students—around 10 percent —are Quaker. Despite their fidgeting and socializing, many students take meeting seriously and gain significantly from it.
Standing and speaking before 400 people is no simple matter for a teenager. Nervousness and self-consciousness often get in the way, to the point where standing can be an act of willpower and courage. A number of students remarked on this phenomenon. One said: "I feel really nervous before speaking. My heart starts pounding, and I’ll keep telling myself, ‘OK, I’ll get up in ten seconds . . . OK, another ten seconds’—and then I’m suddenly up and have to start talking."
Other students I spoke to described feeling a certain something that compelled them to speak, even if they hadn’t intended to. I’ve read that early Friends likewise spoke of being possessed by an irresistible vitality and energy, a fervor that often made them tremble—hence the name "Quaker" derisively applied to them. I asked students how they respond to the tension between urgency and nervousness when speaking in meeting. A sophomore boy summed up his feelings this way:
[Student]: I just feel confident speaking, since I’ve been going to meeting since I was little. I know the feeling that tells me that I should say something, and I respond to it.
[Author]: Some people don’t recognize that feeling?
[Student]: Maybe they do, but some are too shy to get up in meeting.
[Author]: So, would you say being shy is a determining factor in who speaks?
[Student]: Definitely. Also, being open to the idea of speaking in the first place. Some people come in to meeting thinking that they’ll never speak, no matter what. They never let themselves be moved. Part of it is that you have to be open to the possibility of being moved.
Although speaking in meeting can be daunting for some, many do speak, and for a variety of reasons. I’ve often wondered if non-Quakers feel that they are worshiping when they speak in meeting. Students I spoke to didn’t explicitly recognize speaking as a religious act, but they consistently described it in spiritual terms, e.g., "being moved," "voicing something internal," or "searching for a bigger truth, larger than me."
In journaling about my experiences, I came to recognize a number of factors influencing the ministry in our meeting. First, age. Faculty members and upperclassmen spoke frequently, although they are a relatively small part of the population. Their disproportionately strong voice is not surprising, since experience makes teachers and seniors natural speakers in such a setting. In a sense they are the elders of the meeting.
Second, gender. Boys spoke much more frequently than girls, even though our upper school has a slight female majority. As a school we should probably pay attention to this underrepresentation. Is there something about meeting that is impeding girls’ participation?
Third, race. While students of different races generally spoke in frequency proportional to their population in the meeting, the African American voice was exceptionally strong and frequent. This phenomenon was acknowledged by many students I spoke to. Several African American students explained it with the comment that meeting was one of the few public forums on campus where minorities felt empowered to speak openly, and where their opinions and feelings were valued.
And fourth, Quakers. Many of the faculty and student messages were delivered by Friends. Particularly in the fall semester, as their words repeatedly stressed the need for a nonviolent response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they were an important source of guidance and wisdom for our community.
This year in the life of our meeting was characterized by an extraordinary richness of messages, ranging from the mundane to the profound. From the midst of this variety I noticed three persistent themes that recurred throughout the year: current events, community relationships, and adolescent identity.
Many students shape their messages around current events and use meeting as a chance to interpret them. Some events are internal to the school (our decision to abolish end-of-year awards), others external (sports or music events). I was surprised by how often television serves as a catalyst for messages. In one meeting, for example, a junior boy described watching a rerun of The A-Team, starring Mr. T. The episode involved Quakers and their attempt to build a new meetinghouse in the face of opposition from organized crime. As the A-Team took up the Quakers’ cause, our student became interested to see how a program normally rife with violence would handle the Quaker belief in nonviolence. The conflict was indeed settled through force, but the show had at least tried to seek a "middle ground" (his words) on the issue of violence and peace. The young man used the program as a platform for viewing a more pressing current event, the situation in Afghanistan. He suggested that the U.S. should seek some middle ground between all-out war on and acquiescence to terrorism.
Health and illness are also common themes in meeting. As a relative newcomer, I continue to be surprised by the open dialogue about issues such as eating disorders and death. In response to the death of a friend’s parent, for example, one junior girl reflected on the loss of her grandfather when she was young, and shuddered at the finality of death. In mentioning the recent death of his sixth-grade teacher, a freshman boy expressed his sense of shock and vulnerability. Messages such as these are heartfelt, courageous, and reverential. I believe that by expressing and listening to such feelings, students are learning how to manage grief and confusion, and growing into compassionate adults.
The events of September 11 and their aftermath dominated the dialogue in meeting during school year 2001-2002. In the weeks immediately following the tragedy, reactions in meeting were varied and passionate. Many students expressed feelings of helplessness and bewilderment at the scale of the attacks. Some voiced their hostility toward Osama bin Laden, even hoping he’d be assassinated. Others argued that U.S. foreign policy was ultimately to blame. And several remarked that the situation was causing strife in their family, as each interpreted the events differently.
Over the next few months, these poignant responses evolved into a lengthy dialogue about the Quaker Peace Testimony. A number of students expressed a deep sense of frustration stemming from feelings of ambivalence about war and peace. One junior girl may have spoken for many when she said that her anger at the 9/11 attackers was undermining her belief in the peace ideal. While such personal turmoil could not be resolved in meeting, I was impressed by the seriousness with which the majority of students engaged with the issue of pacifism. While not Quakers, many students nevertheless seemed to accept that nonviolence was a viable course of action, or one that at least merited serious consideration.
Many messages in meeting focus on community, i.e., on relationships with friends and family. In one instance, for example, a junior girl described having been too sick to act in the school play the preceding weekend, but she was overjoyed when the cast called her after the closing performance to share their celebration. In another meeting, a senior girl described bonding with her mother by looking through an old photo album together. And near the end of the year, a senior boy reflected on how difficult it had been for him to make it through high school, and how proud he was to be graduating with his classmates. These kinds of messages both grow from and reinforce communal ties. When students speak with honesty and humility about their interconnectedness with others, they help build and maintain a strong community.
Personal reflection becomes even more striking when students speak about adolescence, literally the process of becoming an adult. A great number of messages focus on teenage identity formation. I recall, for example, a particularly interesting and connected meeting:
A senior girl used an upcoming choir concert as a catalyst to describe her dawning awareness of her passion for music, and her hope that it would always be part of her life.
A young faculty member described the frustration and satisfaction she gained from a new hobby, singing, which was rapidly becoming an important part of her adult identity.
A junior boy described using a microscope to look at his own body cells, e.g., from his mouth and blood. He expressed satisfaction to realize that he simply loves science, and that this is an important part of who he is.
A senior boy described speaking with a friend’s mother, and her explanation of the differences between her and her husband. She was like a fox (active, daring, and visible), while he was a mole (sedentary, cautious, and withdrawn). The student thought it sounded exciting to be a fox, but had to admit that he was probably a mole.
A senior minority student had been struggling to select a piece of music to perform at an upcoming ethnic arts event. He felt drawn to a number of what he called "angry pieces," but having played similar works before, he didn’t want to become defined by his anger. He stated that he was trying to grow beyond the feelings of alienation and anger caused by his racial identity.
These kinds of messages impress and move me, and get to the heart of what meeting is all about at our school. It seems clear to me that students are engaged in a process of growth, change, and self-discovery in meeting. They are thinking about who they are, and who they will become as they prepare to leave high school. Throughout the year, older students often spoke about the rites of passage of high school (registering to vote, receiving a draft card, applying to college), and younger students listened intently. Meeting thus is a nurturing space where students feel safe exposing their anxieties and sharing their hopes. As the assembled congregation offers support and fellowship, students feel free to be and to become themselves.
Meeting and the School’s Mission
The more meetings I attend, the deeper grows my appreciation for how meeting supports the school’s mission and curriculum. Meeting for worship embodies our commitment to honoring differences, as many populations and viewpoints find voice there. Meeting plays an active role in the social growth of adolescents, particularly as younger students listen to the reflections of upperclassmen. Meeting provides a forum where Quaker values, especially peace and equality, are emphasized regularly. Meeting fosters the trust and interdependence that undergird a healthy community. And meeting helps us to nurture mind, body, and spirit by encouraging students to explore and share their inner selves.
I also believe that the experiences aired and the attitudes shaped in our meeting for worship translate into the academic realm. Our classrooms are characterized by openness to diverse opinions, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in the individual, and a general expectation that teaching and learning will involve genuine dialogue and exploration.
Our school philosophy affirms that meeting is central to the life of the school, and I see now that it’s true. The closeness developed in meeting for worship permeates our entire school community, and helps create a rich environment for living and learning.