Nineteen years ago I was a high school senior in New England trying to decide where to go to college. Having attended one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious prep schools for the last four years of my life, I felt a high level of peer pressure around choosing my next educational institution. The expectations focused on trying to get into “the best school,” and the best schools were either very small and selective or an Ivy League school. That spring, I was faced with a perplexing adolescent dilemma: choosing between the big name prestigious university that I had been longing to attend or the small midwestern Quaker liberal arts college that I hadn’t even visited before I sent in my application. Up until that point, the Religious Society of Friends had been a constant footnote in my life—never a chapter title. My father is Quaker and still belongs to his home meeting, Wilmington (Ohio) Meeting. While I was growing up, my understanding of Quakerism was limited to our occasional attendance at one small and one large New England unprogrammed meeting. When I arrived on the campus of Earlham College for a visitors weekend, I had already visited about 20 campuses, but this college was different.
There were four things I noticed during that first visit that made Earlham different from other schools. The first thing was that, for the first time, I felt recognized. Students, faculty, admissions officers seemed genuinely interested in me, not just in selling their school. The second thing I remember noticing was use of the phrase “intentional community”; this was a new concept to me, and it intrigued me. Earlham is focused on building community, and that was clear from the team-building activity they led us through as part of the weekend. Third, I realized that Earlham is a school that values an engaged learning environment. Classes are small—there is no hiding in the back of the lecture hall; and teachers and students address each other by first name. Finally, during one of the lunches for prospective students, an a cappella group at the school performed, and one of the songs they sang was the hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing?” In that moment, I saw that spirituality is an accepted and integral part of the everyday life of the school. As an 18-year-old, I was impressed by these first impressions I had of Friends education. Recognizing that there was something special about Friends education led me to choose Earlham, and that choice allowed me to connect more deeply with the Religious Society of Friends. My dad’s religion became my own through the opportunity to explore my faith at a Quaker school.
When I arrived on campus as a freshman, my initial impressions about Quaker education were still true, and yet I felt disillusioned. I believed in the intentional community I had heard about and in the living of the Friends testimonies, yet the school seemed to fall short in my eyes. How could we possibly be living the testimony of equality with only nine African American students in our freshman class? Where was the integrity in calling ourselves a dry campus and yet there were parties with alcohol every weekend? Or what about the rumors that conservative Quaker board members were opposed to the Rainbow Tribe (the lesbian and gay club on campus)?
That first year was a real challenge for me. I wanted to transfer; I felt like Friends education had let me down. What I thought I knew of Friends and their beliefs was challenged by the diversity of Friends I met on campus, and by the ways in which this Friends community did not live up to beliefs I had heard about. One of my Quaker professors told me something that year that I have never forgotten: while we may not always perfectly live the testimonies, as Friends schools we hold them up as ideals and goals that we are constantly striving to live into; and the fact that we have them and strive to live them out makes our community different from others that lack such ideals. Another mentor told me that I had a choice as a Quaker: I could be disappointed and leave or I could be a part of helping us to live more fully into our Friends mission. I chose to stay, to try to be a part of the intentional community, and to live out the testimonies as best I could. That decision to stay began my commitment to Friends education and my leading to let my own life speak as I learn and work in Friends schools.
I had always planned and prepared to be a public school teacher, but when I reached my senior year at Earlham, I realized I wanted to teach somewhere where I could bring my whole self to the school, a self that included the spiritual. I wanted to teach at a Friends school because I wanted weekly meeting for worship to be a part of my work week, and also because of a desire to be in an environment that welcomes and invites conversation about all faiths. When I was at Earlham, it was common for the students to discuss their religious beliefs or upbringings during everyday moments like sitting at the lunch table. This openness was a change from my high school experience, a time during which I would walk to the school’s Protestant church service alone and never talk about my religious belief with others, including those I had sat next to in Sunday’s service. I assumed this difference was due to Earlham being a Friends school and my high school being nondenominational. This hypothesis has been proven in both Friends schools I have taught at since graduating from Earlham: Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. At Moses Brown, where I currently teach, I witness tenth and eleventh graders choosing to write their capstone English projects on religious topics like “Holy Presence: Why do people go to Catholic churches and what makes them quintessential?” and “What does being an Atheist mean today?” As a religion, the Religious Society of Friends values the individual leading, believes in continuing revelation, and respects that of God in all people. These beliefs naturally build a safe and welcoming community for people of all religions at Friends schools.
My first four years teaching in Friends’ Central’s middle school solidified my belief that Friends education is different. In this case, I witnessed the gift Friends education can be for young people. The middle school years can be a time of incredible turmoil and searching. Friends schools cannot avoid this often bumpy period of adolescent development, but they can help students through it. Because of Friends education’s focus on worship and reflection and its respect for each person’s gift and individual search for their Inner Truth, young people are empowered to find and trust themselves. Friends education provides them with vehicles like meeting for worship, advisory group conversations, or values classes to reflect upon and explore their identities and places in the world. Sitting in a centered meeting for worship with 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds is an amazing experience. The only thing more remarkable is when those same 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds take responsibility for the care of the meeting when the worship is less than centered. As often happens in Friends schools, the last meeting of the year can at times become a “popcorn” meeting when students (often the eldest) rise quite frequently to share a parting message. One year, this was happening, and the clock was ticking down. The sense of urgency was almost palpable as students continued to jockey to rise before each other to share their thoughts. Then one seventh grader rose and, instead of sharing a verbal message, asked us to share some silence; he stood there holding the silence for a few minutes. This one act changed the nature of that meeting and allowed us all the opportunity for a gathered ending to our year together.
My leading to serve in Friends schools often reminds me of the story of Jacob wrestling with God. Moments like the one I just described of witnessing the Divine in the midst of my school community feel like seeing God face to face. But more often, I find myself locked in the wrestling part of Jacob’s encounter with God—struggling with myself, God, and with the larger community of Friends. I am back in that same conflict of my freshman year, wondering now if I am fully living the testimonies and often being asked by others if my school community is fulfilling its Quaker mission.
Serving as a Friend in a Friends school is challenging. Quakerism can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by some of the over 80 percent non-Quaker faculty and students. Our authenticity as a Quaker school can be questioned by local meeting members. These challenges have reminded me about another element of our faith: continuing revelation. Lacking formal creed or dogma makes it difficult to describe to the non-Quaker majority of our community just what it is we believe, and this lack also makes it difficult for Friends to articulate their shared understanding of our faith (New England Yearly Meeting’s latest Faith and Practice revision is in its eighth year of process). For Friends schools, searching for the truth together and exploring the belief in continuing revelation means that we are constantly engaging with one another in a conversation about what it means to be a Friends school. We are seeking to articulate the ways in which we currently live our missions as laid out by the original Friends who began our schools.
This search for truth in our identity as Friends schools is particularly pertinent in this century as many of the older Friends schools are reconsidering their relationships with nearby meetings and Friends. When I arrived at Moses Brown School ten years ago, the Friends community there, like at other schools and meetings, was doing just that: considering what it means for the school to be under the care of New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM). Queries were raised: What are the financial and legal implications of the meeting’s relationship? How will the spiritual relationship change if the structure of the relationship changes? I listened to non-Quaker Moses Brown community members and non-Moses Brown Quakers share their concerns about the relationship and about changes to the relationship. It was challenging to be one of very few people who are part of both communities. What I witnessed in these conversations was a need to build trust and understanding between Moses Brown community members and Friends, as well as a deep desire from both parties to uphold the integrity of the original deed and mission of the school. I believe this is our responsibility as Friends to Friends schools in the twenty-first century: to build relationship with Friends schools and support their original Friends mission.
There are many ways Friends can uphold this responsibility, but I would like to mention two. My experience shows me that one of the ways Friends schools most authentically live our testimonies is by having Quakers in our communities who serve as teachers, staff, parents, students, and board members. The number of Quakers in a Friends school is often very small, so these outside community members are crucial. They hold us accountable, offer new ideas, and support us as we try to live our faith. One Quaker parent asked why the fourth graders were taking oaths in their immigration unit, and thus began a new unit on Quakers and the integrity testimony. A Quaker teacher developed a conflict resolution unit for her elementary school students and began sharing the language and model with other teachers. Not everyone will want to or be able to commit to this kind of engagement with Friends schools, but there is another way to show support: by reaching out to school community members and sharing resources that will support the testimonies the school is seeking to live. For example, recently NEYM member Lisa Graustein created a First-day school curriculum on racial justice. When offering a training on the curriculum, she and the NEYM religious education coordinator included Moses Brown community members. Two of us attended, and as a result of our training, we have begun using the material as part of our seventh-grade English curriculum. By building relationship with Friends schools and supporting their mission, individuals are helping to ensure that Friends schools maintain their unique identity.
As Friends, we are not called to hide our Light under a bushel. I believe Friends education is one of our brightest lights for the world right now. What I initially realized about Friends education continues to be true at the Quaker schools I have worked at and those I have come to know in the last 14 years. Friends schools are different. They are special because they seek to bring out the Inner Light in each child; they place great value on cultivating community; excellent education is paramount and its foundation comes from the student-teacher relationship and engaged classroom setting; and finally, spirituality and worship is an integral part of the school life and student development. We are offering young people an educational opportunity that allows for spiritual seeking and introduces them to Friends faith and practice. These are seeds that many choose to continue to water throughout their lifetime, and that they carry with them as they travel the world. I understood this gift as a high school senior, when I first encountered Friends education, and I hope I offer this gift to other young people through my own teaching at Friends schools.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The print version indicated that the author’s father was a member of Wilmington Meeting in Delaware. His membership is actually with the meeting Wilmington, Ohio. The editors regret the error.