The Meeting School after 50 Years

What if we could have the kind of schools that prepared youngsters for the kind of world we should have, instead of the world we do have?" That was the question posed, in 1955, by George Bliss to a group of Friends who would soon become the first teachers at The Meeting School. When the early classes met in an old farmhouse in Rindge, New Hampshire, in 1957, those first teachers could scarcely have foreseen what their dream would look like 50 years later.

Since those early days, The Meeting School has expanded existing buildings and added new ones, increased the size of the working farm that has always been central to the school’s life, responded to the students’ needs for more recreation and arts spaces, and met the challenges of the computer age. It has graduated more than 500 students from all over the country.

At the heart of the school are the principles of responsibility, nonviolence, simplicity, and integrity so essential to Friends practice. Unique to The Meeting School experience is the family living unit where students live in faculty homes, sharing the day-to-day rhythms of cooking and housework. The founders of the school set a model for finding a balance between the life of the mind, the dignity of physical labor, and the joy of the soul, all of which the students have tried to emulate.

As the school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—inviting alumni, former teachers, and the wider fellowship of Friends to join them—several former students were surveyed to find out how their experiences at the school had shaped their lives. The questions included in the survey were as broad as "How has your time at TMS influenced who you are today?" and as specific as "What do you remember about the food?" The responses were, of course, unique, but presented a striking unity across generations and geography.

All the respondents cited the themes of community and cooperation. Amy Hathaway (’83) writes, "I learned the importance of interdependence and how deeply one’s decisions or actions can affect the whole, for better or worse. In times of conflict we had to learn forgiveness, honesty, and respect." Chris Bennett (’81) adds, "I learned to keep an open mind and to establish relationships both with other teenagers and with my house parents. We cooked for each other; we were in charge of each other."

Tom Weidlinger (’69) experienced the school from both the student and faculty perspectives, returning as an intern and houseparent in 1975. He credits the school with giving him his "first experience of community and sense of family." A big part of that awakening to community for all was the meeting for business each week, where the decisions that affected each person in the community were made.

Meeting for business in the manner of Friends—where input is made prayerfully, and where collective discernment leads to unity, not majority rule—is central to the life of The Meeting School. For students not raised in Quaker families, that approach to running a school can seem outlandish. Tom Morris (’02) writes of the gathering silence as "the longest ten minutes of my life." He adds, "I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Who’s in charge right now?’" For many students and faculty, learning the rhythm of meeting for business takes months or years. But for most, the lessons of listening to others and of airing differences mindfully last a lifetime. Jim Clark (’63) used the format in his professional life and in his family: "We adopted meeting for business for raising our kids. Anything we expected of our daughters was deserving of a logical explanation . . . and of a family meeting to arrive at a decision. Instead of standard discipline, we arrived at a decision about consequences as a family. In my humble opinion, this method could not be better." Even when the discussions were painful and emotions ran high, alumni remembered the true value of the deliberation. "We didn’t always succeed in solving problems," writes Amy Hathaway, "but it was the process that taught us so much."

Memories of farm and kitchen ranked high on the alumni’s lists. "The school influenced my career as a doctor," writes Chris Bennet. "Initially I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do, but I was considering becoming a vet. Milking cows all year long, sometimes because no one else wanted to, convinced me that I wanted to pursue either veterinary or human medicine." He adds, "Being outdoors was a great centering influence for me, reminding me of where I fit in the world." It’s not all reverie, however; Paul Jaeger (’59) remembers "rising at four in the morning and trudging through two feet of snow to milk the cows."

Tom Morris writes of "relishing the idea of being part of a process, that is, if you don’t grow and prepare the food, then you don’t eat." "I saw the connections from the beginning," he says, "from ordering the seed to planting the gardens, to planning the meals." Amy Hathaway remembers the downside of the equation: "I hated pruning trees, and killing chickens wasn’t much fun either." Turning compost, cutting and bringing in wood, and driving tractors and horse teams at chore time—all are part of a typical academic day at The Meeting School. Many alumni have applied the lessons learned to their own families, and they are still involved in rural and urban gardening and cooperative farm ventures. Jim Clark speaks for many when he writes, "Farming is how, if I could, I’d prefer to spend my life."

"A large part of developing tolerance," writes Chris Bennet, "was when we were cooking for each other." The Meeting School setting was, for many students, the first time they’d been "on their own" in the kitchen. "We were all pretty accepting," Bennet continues. "If I was on baking crew, and we baked ten loaves of tough, heavy ‘doorstop bread’ that was what the household ate for the week." Amy Hathaway remembers the steep learning curve in her own tolerance: "The first time I tasted whole-wheat spaghetti was memorable, but I eventually found a few things to like." Paul Jaeger remembers "all the fresh cream and milk, and knowing you had picked the fruit that was in the pies." Jim Clark quips, "I learned I could eat just about anything the kitchen crew produced and still survive!"

Surviving conflict was also a big part of the memories of the respondents. Since The Meeting School has "minutes" instead of rules governing student behavior, and since those minutes are agreed upon by the whole community, minute-breaking is taken very seriously. Tom Morris speaks of the moment when he found out his actions affected others as an "epiphany": "When a faculty member found I had not been truthful with her and called me on it, I recognized that she really cared for me. The system of being confronted by a fellow student or faculty member when you break a minute is so effective." Jim Clark recalled after a drinking incident, "It was as though we had lost our way, but the school had given us the tools to find our way back, including having the guts to go right to George (Bliss)’s office and tell him the truth."

"I suffered the usual struggles of adolescence," writes Amy Hathaway, "but being at The Meeting School forced a certain mindfulness about my actions. Was I the model student many faculty members thought me to be? Absolutely not—but anytime I chose to participate in clandestine activities there was a heightened awareness of the possible hurt it could cause." She sums up the feelings of all the respondents when she cites "forgiveness and honesty" as being the most important lessons she learned.

Other memories shared by the survey respondents included music, particularly the lively rounds composed and taught by Joel Hayden, one of The Meeting School’s founders. Singing is a part of the daily morning meeting at the school, and many former students and faculty have vivid remembrances of popular folksongs and impromptu performances. Sports, both organized and spontaneous, were also mentioned. Jim Clark remembers an all-school game of Capture The Flag that lasted for an entire weekend!

Tom Weidlinger’s image of The Meeting School as a "gold standard" for the experiences he sought in adult life rings true for the other former students in the survey. "I remember a whole onionskin of things, so many layers," writes Chris Bennet. "I established relationships in a way I’d never thought possible."

Weidlinger also cites the "intellectual rigor" of his classes and the lasting gifts of the books he was required to read. Amy Hathaway credits the school with her daily journaling practice and the habit of "quiet attention to the soul" she learned.

The founders would indeed see many changes at The Meeting School 50 years later, but their vision lives on in the young men and women who are students today.

Mary DesRosiers

Mary DesRosiers, a member of Monadnock Meeting in Jaffrey, N.H., is a journalist, musician, and dance caller. She has taught at Scattergood School as well as The Meeting School.