Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Friendly Discussion

I veer away from my primary witness here on Hisapniola to give some reflections on my Quaker education since my alma mater just made news in the NY Times.. here

I attended Friends Seminary for 14 years, from junior kindergarden through graduation in 1964, which is now a very, very long time ago. Since then Friends has doubled its student population,and built what is essentially a new school. When I went back there years ago to speak to the student body about my stint as a prisoner of conscience in Vieques, I was dismayed by the fact that there were no longer hymns or Bible readings in Assembly but heartened by the sea of multi colored faces before me.

My folks chose Friends because it was near by our Greenwich Village home, and because, as my father said, the students were not allowed to call their teachers by their first names and it did not have a sliding scale of tuition. My mother had us enrolled at birth and exceedingly proud that we had been accepted.. seeing it as a reflection perhaps of her artistry // but that is another therapy session.

Since there is now an ongoing discussion of Friends schools and class, I thought I would jump in with my personal experiences.

Let me first state that I regret that there are Quaker children who are not admitted to Quaker schools. I do not know the details. Perhaps some are not academically qualified since these schools do have very high standards. I would wish and hope that all children of Meeting members be given all financial support to attend these schools. However, I do know of more than one family who have joined a Meeting specifically for the purpose of gaining admission and scholarship assistance for their children, who attend Meetings only so long as their children are there, and fade away after the children have graduated. So we have a lot of issues here.

In this discussion on Friends there seems to be a confusion of terms between "elitist" and "expensive". Yes, FS was and is expensive. But my experience was that it was not elitist. Certainly we were all priviledged children. Most of our families were affluent or at least solidly middle class. Many of the parents were famous. As far as I can remember, none of us was treated any differently because of the wealth or status of our parents.

Friends did indeed differ from other schools which were perhaps the same cost. We were not Brearly or Spence or Nightingale Bamford. We did not take expensive field trips to Europe or even Washington, DC (although Brooklyn Friends at least seems to do so now). We packed lunches and went to the Natural History Museum. (We were in NYC, after all!) We did not have proms or fancy dress anything.

But there was much more subtle stuff going on... We did not compete. Well, ok, we did compete in basketball but not in the classroom. We did not know our class ranking. When we were given our rankings in junior year, since that stat was needed for college admissions then, we were all quite shocked to learn where who was where. (ok, I was shocked to learn that I was just in the middle, bordering on the bottom!)

Another fact was that a large portion of the student body at that time was Jewish. This was at a time when Jews were not allowed in many of the "social" clubs, nor accepted at many of the private schools. We did have to take out the words "Jesus Christ, savior" from some hymns but we still had the Christmas pagent. Maybe they do not have it now. I would not be surprised.

I object to the characterization of Friends Seminary as a "preppy haven." I know kids who went to those schools. While their academic preparation was comparable, they had no education on privilige, social justice, the meaning of the word "sincere" (without wax, we got it every year)

What I learned there was a great deal more than all the academic stuff.. first I learned to think. I was miles ahead of many classmates at Middlebury because I had been treated with great respect for 14 years. I had been treated as someone who has the Light of God within, and therefore was as capable as any teacher of coming up with sound and sensible thoughts.

I also learned compassion on a global level as we had UNICEF posters up in the classrooms from second grade on up. Yaws, Beri Beri, Kwashikor.. those were not just words but pictures. And those were not just kids who had less than me but real pictures of real poverty.

I was taught to volunteer. It was expected that we would start volunteering at 14, as soon as we were old enough under NY regulaions. I volunteered at a hospital, at a public school, and then with Civil rights groups.

I was taught the difference between a raffle and an auction. I have never gambled.

I was taught kindness and compassion.

I was taught pacifism by the subtle technique of being shown actual war movies once a month, it seemed.. preceded by the swords into plowshares reading. I became a draft counselor during the Vietnam war.

I was taught to think for myself.

I became a convinced Friend twenty years after leaving Friends. Convinced that I was, indeed, a Quaker.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had my parents not chosen Friends. I would be a completely different person. I would have made my debut. I would have, perhaps, become active in the Society of Mayflower Descendants (shudder), oh.. well,. perhaps I would have married a Yalie and lived happily ever after... but I would not be the person that I am now.

And note that prison witness in Vieques? Certainly i would never have done that!

So perhaps rather than tearing it all up.. all those great Quaker schools.. just because it does indeed cost money to run a private school, we need to focus on how to provide more tuition assistance to those Quaker children who wish to attend?

We Quakers are a small sect, growing smaller by the week.

But we have put out some things of value in the world.

And the children of the wealthy need more of what Friends has to offer than any other children.

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