A Non-Quaker's Quaker Perspective

It is ironic that most of us who benefit from a Quaker education are not Quaker. As a middle school student at Friends Select School in the early 1970s I don’t know that I fully appreciated, for example, the value of meeting for worship. But shortly after I left for Central High School, the benefit of sitting in silence for a period of time once a week became evident. In a teenage world pulsing with sound, images, and feelings, I longed for those contemplative silences wherein I might just be. I have been told on several occasions that mine is a common experience.

I think we non-Quakers flock to Quaker schools because the testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends happily and powerfully augment the tenets of other belief systems. As a Jew, I find Quaker precepts compelling, familiar, and uplifting. In fact, the values of Friends seem to me to complement those of other religions.

As an elementary school teacher and now an administrator at Friends Select School, I have come to appreciate the way Quakerism informs, but perhaps most importantly, adds the gravitas of making life choices to ordinary, everyday decisions.

On one occasion I was preparing for a joint Lower School/Middle School assembly. I was moved by the Quaker Testimony on Nonviolence and by the Quaker passion for thoughtful, open discussion of thorny political and moral issues. I chose to introduce a theater troupe about to present, "The Gold in the Ground: An Iraqi Folktale" in the following manner:

America, our country, is at war in a far away country—Iraq.

Those who support this war believe America has rescued the people who live in Iraq from a terrible dictator. A dictator is a person who becomes president by having the biggest army and threatening to hurt or kill anyone who doesn’t agree with his being president. Those who support the war imagine that right now we are helping Iraq to become a democracy, like us, where people vote for their president.

Those who oppose the war think war solves very few, if any, problems. That war is a kind of violence that creates more violence. After all, if someone you love is hurt or killed in a war you may well want to attack back. Those who oppose the war think there are other, better, approaches.

Whether you support or oppose the war, what you may not know is that Iraq is an ancient country, much older than America. People there have been inventing and telling stories (as people here) practically since time began for people.

Difficult as it may be to address oneself to 5-year-olds and 13-year-olds simultaneously, it seemed to me the result in a Quaker school might well be a discussion of how to get along with our friends in the kindergarten and a consideration of the human face of war in the eighth grade.

As a young teacher on the first day of school, first in line and waiting outside a meetinghouse in Germantown, I felt uncertain. At this moment, a weighty Quaker by the name of Eric Johnson turned to me and said, "Behold, I set before thee an open door." Is it any wonder we non-Quakers enter in droves?

Michael Zimmerman

Michael Zimmerman is the director of Friends Select School's lower school in Philadelphia, Pa.