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Teacher John and the Future of Quakerism at FA

Many view him as the upholder of Quakerism at our school or simply know him as the “man who plays the guitar.” Have you guessed who it is already? Considering his name is in the title, most likely. Regardless of whether you have discussed the key principles of Quakerism with him or not, heard his meaningful revelations during MFW, or have simply seen him strum his guitar rhythmically, he is recognized throughout all divisions of the school. He is Mr. Scardina, or, more appropriately, Teacher John. 

As a young student, I vaguely remember seeing Teacher John around school, and, to be honest, I was quite puzzled as to what his “role” was. In fact, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t quite label him as a math teacher, P.E. teacher, coach, or anything of that sort. After all, how does one categorize a benevolent-guitar-playing-peace-man? All jokes aside, I knew I wanted to find out more.

Fast forward a few years and I am happy to say that the aforementioned frustrated feeling has dissipated. However, I still remained (somewhat) puzzled as to what his true “role”  is, and, equally important, where he believes the future of Quakerism at FA lies. After a recent visit to my GSS International Relations class, in which he asked us what we thought his “role” was here, I felt everything was coming full circle. A few weeks after that class, I asked Teacher John if he would be interested in discussing his personal beliefs and FA’s future. Unsurprisingly, with much enthusiasm, he agreed.

Gail: How are you today?

Teacher John: *Laughs* I’m good, I’m good. I got to be in three middle school classes, one first grade class, one meeting about a possible trip down to Jubilee Farm, so it’s good.”

Gail: Did you always identify as a Quaker? If not, how did you come to the conclusion that you were?

Teacher John: Great question. I was raised a Catholic, and even though my parents weren’t devout, I became pretty devout. My boy scout troop was sponsored by my church, so I was very involved with the troop and with the church. I actually thought about becoming a priest when I was a middle-school/high-school kid. I got my religious award, became an altar boy, the whole nine yards. I then went to college and realized that I couldn’t quite deal with the rigidity of the Catholic church. They supported the war in Vietnam, they didn’t allow women to be priests, they were not for reproductive health rights, and they were pretty dogmatic about “my way or the highway.” So, although I was practicing no particular religion, I think I was pretty spiritual for a long time.  Forty years ago I got a job in a Quaker school, went into Meeting for Worship with the students, and I knew. I just thought, “Where have these people been all my life? This is what I need.”

Gail: How did you find out about FA?

Teacher John: It’s a crazy story! Do you know the Bradleys?

Gail: Ellie Bradley (former student) and her family? Yes!

Teacher John: In 2000, the head of [a Quaker school in Pennsylvania] was leaving, and we interviewed some candidates for that school and one of them was Matt Bradley. So Matt comes to the interview and he’s married to Melinda… But when I met Melinda she was a junior in highschool at West Town. That’s how long I’ve known Melinda.

Gail: Oh, wow.

Teacher John: So we hired Matt… I knew that Matt came from this place called “Friends Academy.” So then I decided I would move to New York, and I resisted moving to New York City for a long, long time. So I moved to New York, and through Steve Fortuna (fomer parent/current board member) I found out that Friends Academy was looking for a “Quaker-in-Residence,” which I didn’t quite understand what that was all about. But, I checked it out, and Matt Bradley spoke with Mary-Alice Kolodner, and I just said “what the heck, you know, I’ll give it a whirl.” I drove up to the school, I saw the American flag outside, and I almost didn’t come in. To be truthful.

Gail: *Laughs*

Teacher John: … but I said, “Okay, you’re here now, go through with this, whatever.” And it’s been really sort of intriguing, having this job. It’s been different from any job I’ve ever had before.

Gail: How would you describe your role here at FA?

Teacher John: Well, you know in the beginning it was pretty unclear. The role was created to answer a request by parents who wanted to have more clarity about what being a Quaker school was all about. In the beginning, I was really just sorting out “how does this place work, what does it mean, what does it do, what does it mean to be Quaker here?”… I’m kind of a resource person for everybody throughout all three divisions. I’m in the Early Childhood every week, I’m all the way through high school. [I do] a lot of work with parents, a lot of work with faculty, now more and more work with administration who want to lead this school more clearly into “Quaker-land,” if you will. So, Gail, everyday I’m here is different.

Gail: That’s kind of fun though… It must be enjoyable.

Teacher John: Oh yeah, it’s fun.

Gail: How do you see Quakerism integrated at FA? How and where does it need to be integrated more?

Teacher John: So clearly we have all of the structural pieces in place. We have Meeting for Worship in every division, I think TASQUE, WATCH, Student Faculty Board, and Diversity, have morphed over the last few years by not calling people “President,” working by consensus. I think we have a lot of structures in place to be a Quaker school. I don’t know that every teacher fully embraces what I would call Quaker “pedagogy,” a teaching style where if I walked into a classroom, I would know I was in a Quaker school. So, it’s where I think we need to continue to work, is to be clear that Quakerism is not an “add-on”…it has to be the heart of everything we do, and that’s always going to be an ongoing project and a work in progress. So that’s really where I’m feeling focused right now…getting more teachers on board to really embrace the Quaker piece of it, not just sort of a “Yeah, well, I go to a Quaker school, so I go to meeting once a week and that’s about it.”  Which is kind of how, frankly, how a fair number of people operate around here. You know that.

Gail: Yes, I do, for sure.

Where do you think the future of Quakerism lies at FA?

Teacher John: Well, if we continue on the path we’re on now, we will get better in our hiring. We need to hire more Quaker faculty, we need to hire more diverse faculty, we need to hire more people that are already familiar with the community. I just had a conference with Marika Knight on Thursday, and I think we’ve been really [sending] a good message by saying Quakerism is alive and well at FA. You know, people say, “well, FA’s not really a Quaker school,” and we say “well, you know, it actually is a Quaker school, we’re working on it.”  I’d love to get rid of titles. I think the titles are just a vestige of people thinking that names translate into respect, whereas respect really comes from quality interaction. What you call me has very little to do with whether or not you respect me. I’d love to see more student ministry in Meeting. I worked really hard to get alternative meetings going, and I think that’s helped.  It’s given people a chance to see that there’s not only one way to approach being spiritual.

Gail: And it’s helped with placing their interests within the Quaker mission.

Teacher John: Yeah, absolutely.

Gail: What do you think we (students, etc.) need to do to promote and maintain Quakerism as our school’s mission?

Teacher John: Okay. So we’ve got to go from this very simplistic, watered-down, “S.P.I.C.E.S.” mentality, although that captured everything, and say (and we’re doing this more and more), what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to really be compassionate? What does it mean to really say, “I disagree with you, but I care about you because you’re part of my community, so I will disagree with you and we will work through this.”  I think wealth gets in the way here, I think status gets in the way here, I think overemphasis on achievement gets in the way here. One of the gifts, you know, are the kids who choose to get involved in TASQUE, for example. To be in one of the TASQUE clerking committees you’re getting another education in addition to your classroom education. What committee are you working in?

Gail: I’m in WATCH.

Teacher John: Same idea. You have a whole other aspect of your education, right? I wish more kids did it. I just wish more kids took advantage of that, got involved with that, said they wanted to– *interrupted by loud yelling from football team* You know, boys are so stereotypical sometimes. They sound like a football team. As a former boy, I can criticize my gender. *continues conversation* So, I just think that more people ought to take advantage in some way, whether it’s suggesting another alternative Meeting for Worship — take a relationship that you have in a classroom with a teacher and decide you’re gonna go with it, like, “the recycling program here sucks, we could be so much better at recycling.” Brian Wang is really getting on board with this (s/o Brian!)… With more students getting behind that, I think that’s what is going to do it. We had an administration before that thought it was nice, you were cute and they patted you on the head, but we didn’t go anywhere! I don’t think that’s true now. I think with significant student input we would move forward. It fascinates me, Gail, that we have students who are “out” here, but faculty don’t feel safe to be “out” here. It’s crazy to me, by the way. Joy Lai is the first person to come out… and that was a big deal, when she stood up and identified herself as queer. Every other school I’ve been in, that would have happened 20 years ago.  I don’t think students realize the power they have in moving this community forward… I think that student involvement can only push us forward. When FDR became president, he said to Congress, “make me do something,” and Congress pushed him to enact what basically became The New Deal. I feel the same way about Quaker schools. I can talk to teachers until I’m blue in the face. I think they would really open to students. You guys don’t revolt enough. So that’s what I think students could do, be more vocal… and not just about the dress code. Yes, dress code is a symptom, but I don’t think [it should be] the cause… We live in an unjust society. If I had a black, male son, I’d be scared every day. Every day. I’d just be scared every day. There’s a lack of justice in this world. When we used to go down to El Salvador, this is from our sister Peggy down there, she used to be our sponsor and our host, and she used to say to the kids, “don’t apologize for your privilege, use it.”  That’s kind of what I want to say to students here, “Don’t apologize for all the wealth and access to power you have, use it for good.”

Gail: So, basically students here should use their power and privilege, and put it to use. Be vocal, be involved… you really feel the power lies within the students.

Teacher John: I really do. I really think that faculty would welcome that.. I mean let’s just say that the students were leading the symposium on DACA. Now, it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen pretty soon, I think. We need more of that kind of activism, because it’s so part of the Quaker/social activist, we call it “waging peace.” Sort of like “waging war,” we’re waging peace. It would be so fitting to do that.

Gail: Well, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate the insight.
Teacher John: That was fun! 

One Comment

  1. Rachel Hall November 26, 2017

    Teacher John is plain-speaking, insightful and inspiring, as always.  I want to teach at the school he envisions, and glad that, as he says, we have an 'administration who want to lead this school more clearly into “Quaker-land"…'  (I also hear the interviewer is pretty wonderful as well).  

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