Why High School Sucked and How Young Friends Saved My Life

Shortly after graduating from high school I read an article stating that the reason adolescents place so much emphasis on social hierarchy is because our educational institutions deny them power over the rest of their lives, leaving them grasping for control over something. I didn’t yet have a clear sense of the truth in relating those two patterns, but I was captivated by the truth of each individual statement: being cool (valued) is what life was all about; high school was a prison.

After middle school I left the public school system. Tired of being publicly shamed for whatever differences were apparent about me, I spent my freshman year of high school at a magnet school in the city with other alienated kids. In my sophomore year I freely returned to the public school system because, having become quite popular at the magnet school, I believed I would no longer be shamed. My understanding was that whatever inward problem had made me the target of public ridicule earlier on had now changed. People wouldn’t make fun of me when they saw how cool I was now.

It only took a few weeks for me to realize that I was on the bottom of the stack again. I became confused. Had I somehow lost the value I had gained at my other school? When cool kids would crack a joke in class, everyone (including the teacher) would laugh, affirmation pouring over them like a warm bath. I still remember the awkward silence, the teacher’s disapproving glare, and the tangible distancing of the kids sitting nearest to me after I would make a similar joke as if that inner panic and humiliation were still living inside of me. I stopped cracking jokes.

Before I realized that my coolness (value) is rooted in my inward relationship with myself and not assigned by outer standards and comparisons, I was deeply affected by what people thought of me—or seemed to think of me. That no one would sit with me in the cafeteria at lunch left my relationship with myself in turmoil. My internal dialogue did not contain supportive messages for this struggle: “What is wrong with you that no one wants to talk to you?” Or, “What is wrong with you that you are so worried about it?” Or simply, “What is wrong with you?” I spent more time wondering why people didn’t like me than I spent relaxed, enjoying each passing moment. I developed performance anxiety around my peers (“Did I say that right?” “Have I just revealed my inner worthlessness?” “Has this interaction caused my value to shift in other people’s eyes?”). My self-awareness and hyperanalysis of my own behavior became an obsession.

The prison-like aspects of my school were taken for granted. Of course we were ranked, compared to our peers, and given certain privileges according to our ranking. Of course the timing of events throughout the day wasn’t based on or considerate of our needs and comfort levels. Of course we couldn’t go to the bathroom without permission. Of course we were obligated to pledge allegiance to the flag each morning. Of course we were threatened and intimidated into behaving in a macro-manageable way. Of course! How else would the institution function? If we had more freedom, we would only abuse it. I saw other students laughed at and shamed by students and teachers alike for questioning the fairness of school policies and the “right” of students to be considered in the decision making process.

My understanding of the belief system that fueled the behavior of that institution and the passive acceptance of its power and oppressive rules is that its framework consisted of the belief that adolescents are less than human. It seemed to be saying, “You’re not capable of determining even your own basic needs, so they have been determined for you.”

During my senior year of high school, I recorded an album that I released and sold to friends from school, Young Friends, and, later, to campers at Shiloh Quaker Camp. One of the songs on the album was entitled “Standard Education.” The chorus goes:

Kids/don’t gain their freedom until after grade twelve/
year by year/hopes and dreams escaping up to the shelves/
it’s not just that we’ve lost faith in Santa’s elves/
we’ve also stopped believing completely in ourselves.

Artistically, I look back at that time laughingly, but I am impressed with how articulately I expressed the truth of our condition.

I hid my Quakerism until late in my junior year. I was not interested in providing one more difference for my peers to pick on, and I certainly couldn’t explain it to them. It seems clear that if I hid my Quakerism, with all of the Quaker communities I belonged to, a young person who is less active in the Religious Society of Friends must be even more hesitant than I to make his or her “quirk” public. A child of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I spent five summers going to Quaker camps. I was very active in my meeting, First-day school, retreats, and special events. I even grew up in an intentional community that sprouted out of my local meeting. All but one of the families in the community were Quaker, and there were seven of us children who grew up together. We were all great friends, laughing, joking, and playing outside until late at night. But when riding the school bus, it was as if we didn’t know each other.

Rarely would we sit together, and almost never would we acknowledge one another passing in the hall or sitting in the cafeteria. As the youngest of the five boys, this behavior was passed down to me without my understanding it. I didn’t question it, nor did I question the message that I received from it: that there is some kind of shame in admitting to others our Quakerism and our relationship to one another in community.

When I attended my first Young Friends conference early in my sophomore year of high school I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: these conferences were planned by people my age; the business meetings were clerked by people my age; the food planning, decision making, cleaning, finances, and newsletter were all done by people my age. These people who normally couldn’t be trusted with a decision about going to the bathroom were in charge of an entire Quaker meeting and gathering of 80 or more people for five weekends a year. My first reaction was to be incredulous. I had internalized the idea that someone my age was not capable of the types of responsibilities that these kids were taking credit for. Surely there was some adult behind the scenes making all of the real decisions. Surely they didn’t trust teenagers to responsibly care for their own community. Surely the Friendly Adult Presences (FAPs) were there to control us, and not only for the stated reason of legality and hospital trips. Surely we would spend the whole weekend seeing what we could get away with before we got in trouble, right?

But when the lights went off at night, I was surprised to find the Young Friends following the guidelines that I had assumed were just for show. The Young Friends’ minutes on drug use, leaving the gathering, cigarette smoking, and sexual activity were not only formally read at the beginning of each business meeting but were referenced in personal conversations as topics to be taken seriously. These were not abstract and limiting rules provided by an outside source but real and personal commitments derived from within the community, held deeply and carefully. It was then that I first began to seriously consider issues of accountability—how to maintain my own and also encourage it in others.

There were those of us whose sensitivity to authority, power, and hierarchy took longer to wear off and whose need to rebel continued despite the lack of any clear oppressor to rebel against. But for the first time since we could remember, most of us just relaxed. We could be young and it was okay. We slowly stopped making decisions based on whether or not we would get in trouble and instead based them on what was good or bad for our community. We had been given something to care for, and we did. We cared.

When I related my conference experiences to my peers in high school, I emphasized the aspects that I thought they could relate to (“you mean that guys and girls sleep in the same room and you get to do whatever you want?!”) with a little exaggeration. I didn’t think that I could explain the personal sensation of being freed by the affirmation of my full humanity and my ability to care responsibly for my community (and myself) because my high school friends had never experienced anything like it. Looking back, I see this as one of the deepest tragedies of this story. When I see my old high school friends now, seven years later, they are working corporate jobs that they hate because they still haven’t experienced anything like it; they still haven’t had their ability to care for their own lives affirmed. Their Truth (their discomfort in their jobs) isn’t valuable to them. When they receive cultural messages instructing them to base their self-worth on their jobs and material possessions, they don’t question; questioning has only gotten them laughed at. I am convinced that the experience of the Quaker business process (whose nature is to accommodate the questioning individual) has the power to snap someone out of it. It certainly did that for me.

My own process of coming to understand that I was capable of caring and responsibility was slow. It took three years before I fully trusted that the adults at conferences were there to love and support us, not to control us. I had to see it all for myself before I could fully believe it. In my senior year of high school I was the assistant clerk, so I saw and participated in all the behind-the-scenes business. It was sometimes my responsibility to hold meetings with members of the community who hadn’t respected the guidelines on drugs, sex, or leaving the gathering. Then I would meet with the Executive Committee and sometimes we were called to ask Friends to leave the conference. So we really were in charge. We were doing the difficult work. There really wasn’t some adult somewhere pulling the strings. I can’t describe how powerful and deep the reverberations of that realization have been in my life. If I could be a capable and full human being when my culture and its institutions were sending me the opposite message, what other cultural beliefs had I internalized that did not serve me or my community well?

Teenagers are a group of people so oppressed and powerless that they sometimes make decisions that hurt themselves just so that they can be the ones making their decisions, just so that they can have some power over some aspect of their own lives. Is rebelliousness inherent to the age group as is so often heard, or is their rebellion a reaction? Would teenagers rebel if their Truth was affirmed and accepted by the larger society and its institutions?

The answer to this question, in my experience with Young Friends, is no. With no one to rebel against, we turned our energy inward and began healing our brokenness. We engaged in good business process (as only Young Friends can: lying all over each other in a giant cuddle puddle). We wrote good minutes. We made balanced decisions regarding our needs and the needs of the host meeting. We organized workshops based on what interested and engaged us. We played and played and played. And we finally—fully—relaxed. And because the FAPs had proven themselves willing to let us have our community, we listened to them. When Tom Fox, Michelle Levasseur, Tom Horne, or Peggy O’Neill spoke out in a meeting (which happened somewhat rarely), we could trust that they were speaking from a place of caring, trust, and love, and not out of a need to control us.

The most miraculous thing of all is that I relaxed. For five weekends out of the year, I was able to release my anxiety about my value and its connection to the social hierarchy and the judgment of my peers. At Young Friends conferences, I based my value on my love for the community and how actively and responsibly that love manifested itself. I was free to make social blunders in front of my peers without spending hours afterwards wondering what was wrong with me. I knew that a different life was possible.

I returned to my home meeting in Richmond, Virginia, and with the approval of the meeting and support from a several key adults, reorganized the Young Friends program to be based on the model of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting program. Previously run by a top-down decision-making model in which Young Friends who showed up on Sunday morning were simply told what activities they would be doing that day, attendance had dwindled to two or three of us each First Day. Those of us who did attend hardly knew each other. It was rare that I would see the other Young Friends more than once or twice a year, and even if we did show up on the same Sunday, it was just as rare that the planned activity would facilitate community building in a way that spoke to us. The most common feelings I remember experiencing in that adult-run Young Friends program were awkwardness and boredom. At the very least, our First-day meetings certainly did not speak to my condition.

So at the beginning of my senior year, Richmond Meeting sponsored a picnic for the Young Friends. After some food and games, the adults split off and the Young Friends met without them to envision the coming year. We brainstormed ideas and shared our visions of what the Young Friends program could be. It didn’t seem to matter what we came up with so much as the fact that it was us coming up with it. The significance of that gesture—the adults leaving—was deep. We could speak to one another in our common language without having to translate. We were free to be engaged. One thing we decided was that we would hold a series of lock-ins: overnight events held in the meetinghouse in which the Young Friends themselves decided the activities. We played wink. (If you want to know what this game is, ask anyone who has gone to Young Friends’ events.) We sang whatever we wanted. We got to know each other in a comfortable environment that we created ourselves. We talked about the year and our vision for the Young Friends program. We planned the activities for each First Day together.

By the end of my senior year of high school there would be 15 Young Friends on any given First Day, and that number was growing. People were telling their friends about this amazing place where young people were trusted to make decisions for themselves (or to not make any decision at all, if that is where the Spirit led us!) That is a rare thing in this culture, so it attracted attention and interest quickly. Young people who had never heard of Quakerism were starting to come to Richmond Meeting on Sunday just to experience an institution that supported them, affirmed their experience, and spoke to their condition.

Friends, teenagers can make decisions for themselves. They can lovingly and responsibly engage in group decision making. Many young people won’t tell you that; they may not know it. Most of them won’t seek out responsibility in their community because they don’t yet know that they are capable of being responsible. Most young people have had the opposite message repeatedly communicated to them by adults in authority. They need to be given the opportunity to explore community process in their own way, without judgment and with love and support. They won’t understand what you’re giving them, and at first they may not trust that you are really letting go.

If I hadn’t been given the opportunity in high school to see that I was a full, capable human, my journey would look drastically different. Without that experience I wouldn’t have made some of the more daring decisions in my life that now have me living a dream. I feel passionate about sharing my story so that perhaps a few more adults in power will have the courage to back off from their young people with love and patiently allow them to be. I feel deeply blessed by and grateful to the Religious Society of Friends. And sometimes I feel worried about what it means to live in a society of people who grew up believing that they weren’t capable of making their own decisions and that they were less than human because of their age. I pray that every person will find an institution that will affirm them by allowing them to experiment with their own humanity, capability, and Truth, but I especially pray for young people. This is the greatest gift that we have the power to give them. It’s in our hands.

Jon Watts

Jon Watts, a member of Richmond (Va.) Meeting, is 24 years old. He attended Shiloh, Catoctin, and Teen Adventure camps in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting camping program. He has been the Kenneth Carol Quaker Studies and Biblical Scholar at Pendle Hill for '06-'07 after graduating from Guilford College and the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. In his year at Pendle Hill, he has recorded an album and participated in forming a Quaker-based record label. For more information, visit http://www.bullandmouthrecords.com.